Maurice Curtis lent Berkeley brief splendor

Daniella Thompson

6 June 2006


The Peralta Park Hotel (BAHA Archives)

In 1881, Irish-born playwright George H. Jessop wrote a minor comedy-drama titled Sam’l of Posen, the Commercial Drummer whose lead character, a shrewd Jewish peddler with a heart of gold, attains bourgeois respectability by means of little wiles interleaved with honesty. The play might have gone nowhere but for a fortuitous pairing with the perfect actor, and both became a roaring success. The actor was Maurice B. Curtis (1849–1920), born Mauritz Bertram Strelinger in Bohemia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

When Mauritz was a child, the Strelingers immigrated to Detroit, where his two younger brothers, Charles and George, were born. Mauritz’s father, Julian, owned a brewery that in 1893 would become Mutual Brewing Company. Mutual’s beer kegs carried the tagline “Pure & without drugs or poison.” Mauritz may have picked up some of his father’s theatricality, for in 1870 he was already an actor. His level-headed brother Charles, on the other hand, entered the hardware business and went on to become president of Charles A. Strelinger Co., tools, supplies, and machinery.

 

Mauritz spent the years between 1870 and 1881 as a bit player, having acquired the stage name M.B. Curtis, which he would use in his personal life as well. The spectacular nationwide success of Sam’l of Posen made an entrepreneur of Curtis. He purchased the rights to the play and toured with it for years, often updating the plot and changing characters to keep it from going stale.

His touring eventually brought Curtis to San Francisco, where he developed a wide circle of acquaintance. It didn’t take long for him to appear in Berkeley, and not in a theatrical production. In 1887, he bought, then sold at a profit, land on the waterfront and on Dwight Way.

Caspar Thomas Hopkins was eager to unload sixty acres in Peralta Park that his California Insurance Company had acquired as collateral for a delinquent loan. Curtis snapped them up. At the same time, he purchased an undivided half interest in the adjoining John Schmidt farm and acquired additional lots from John F. Rooney.

The movers and shakers of Berkeley knew a good thing when they saw it and recruited Curtis to volunteer as President of the nascent Berkeley Electric Light Company. His fame helped raise funds. Mixing philanthropy with a sound marketing sense, Curtis gave Berkeley an elegant firehouse at Sixth Street and Bancroft Way, dedicated on 2 October 1887 as Posen Chemical Station No. 1, named after the evergreen play.

The actor’s promotional flair was also evident in Peralta Park. The subdivision map dated 1 March 1888, shows only three streets within the tract. Curtis and Posen avenues intersect in the north central portion (now part of Albany). At the southwestern end, the short block of Albina Avenue runs from Hopkins Street to Codornices Creek. Albina de Mer was the stage name of Marie Alphonsine Strelinger, Curtis’s Canadian-born wife. A subsequent map, dated 1890, shows the new Fleurange Avenue (now Acton Street) to the west, and a year later Carlotta and Joseph avenues had been cut—all three streets named after actors or characters in Curtis’s productions.


Peralta Park subdivision map filed by M.B. Curtis in 1890 (courtesy of Jerry Sulliger)

Curtis planned an elegant subdivision anchored by a luxurious resort hotel. He organized the Peralta Park Hotel Company and began construction in 1888. In addition to its fantastic turreted exterior, the hotel boasted sixty bedrooms and twenty bathrooms—an unheard-of luxury. By 1889, construction was far along, and Curtis had his own house built at 1505 Hopkins Street (current site of the Immanuel Southern Baptist Church). It was erected by Lord & Boynton, builders, at a cost of $4,500.


The Curtis-Bolton house, 1505 Hopkins Street, in 1892 (Bolton Collection, BAHA archives)

The house, in Stick style with neo-Gothic elements, featured a prominent square tower with a tall, pointed roof. Behind the house was a barn with a water tank and mill on top of it. There was a chicken yard and a conservatory. Palms and umbrella trees alternated on the sidewalk, and four young eucalyptus trees festooned with ivy served as a green front gate. A grove of eucalyptus grew in the rear.

While construction was proceeding, Curtis talked the Claremont, University and Ferries Railway into running a branch horsecar line out Sacramento Street to Hopkins. He also organized a West Berkeley bank. To promote his play at the Bush Street Theatre, Curtis raffled lots in the paper town of Sam’l of Posen, western Tehama County, among the ticket buyers, then charged the winners a $2 recording fee. The town was never built, and delinquent property tax bills for the nearly 10,000 lots mounted for almost half a century before the land was purchased at a discount and sold to a used car dealer who came up with the very same promo idea.

Curtis was riding high when, on the night 10 September 1891, he was caught in a bizarre incident in front of the Mission Street police station and accused of shooting Officer Alexander Grant to death. The news was quickly disseminated far and wide, a testament to the actor’s popularity in the remotest corners of the USA. On 13 September, the Mitchell Daily Republican of South Dakota trumpeted:

SHOT BY AN ACTOR.
“Samuel of Posen” Kills a San Francisco Policeman While Under Arrest.

SAN FRANCISCO. Late in the night the policemen in the Southern police were startled by a pistol shot just outside the door. Running out they found Officer Grant lying dead with a bullet wound in his head. A man was seen running and, being pursued and caught, was found to have Grant’s handcuffs on his wrists. On the pavement near the dead policeman was found a discharged pistol. The man gave his name as Maurice Curtis and denied shooting Grant. Curtis is the M. B. Curtis, well known in theatrical circles as “Samuel of Posen.” He came to this city from his home in Berkeley, and had been drinking all the evening with some friends. Why he was arrested is not known, but it is supposed he had been creating a disturbance. Two men saw Curtis and the officer have a struggle in front of the police station and then saw the flash of a pistol. Curtis was seen at the police station but would not talk. He was under the influence of liquor.

The scandal wreaked havoc with Curtis’s theatrical career and toppled his highly leveraged house of cards. Almost immediately, he sold his house with its contents to John H. Bolton. Bolton’s son Arthur, who as an adolescent slept in the tower room, would eventually own a brown-shingle house, designed in 1900 by William Knowles, at 1700 La Loma Avenue on the Northside. An early member of the Hillside Club, Arthur Bolton would serve on the committee that designed the Hillside Club Street Improvements in the Daley’s Scenic Park tract, paying for the land surveying from his own pocket. He also planted a copse of redwoods on the corner of La Loma and Le Conte avenues.

In 1893, after four trials, two hung juries, and one procedural dismissal, Maurice Curtis was found not guilty. By then he had lost most of his investments, including the Peralta Park Hotel, which was renamed Peralta Hall and became Colonel Homer B. Sprague’s School for Girls and later Dunn’s School for Boys.

 

In 1903, the Christian Brothers purchased the property and started what is now St. Mary’s College High School. A fire ravaged the south tower and the top two floors in 1946, but the main floors continued to be used until 1959, when the building was demolished and replaced with a modern structure.

As for M.B. Curtis, the peripatetic actor continued touring with Sam’l of Posen and making deals. He had barely extricated himself from his murder trial when a second one fell in his lap. This time, the accused was Richard S. Heath, a young barroom politician who worked as a sub-foreman in Curtis’ Fresno vineyard. Heath was indicted for the 1892 assassination of Louis B. McWhirter, a lawyer and editorial writer for the Fresno Evening Expositor who was active in the local Democratic Party. Mr. McWhirter had been shot to death at the rear entrance to his home. The Curtises helped finance Mr. Heath’s defense. Two trials and two hung juries later, this case, too, ended with no conviction.

Perhaps as a result of the Heath trial, Curtis traded his Fresno ranch and vineyard plus $14,000 in cash for the Driskill Hotel in Austin, Texas. The hotel was sold at auction the following year.

In the late 1890s Curtis became a theatrical manager, founded the All Star Afro-American Minstrels, and for several years took companies on tour to New Zealand and Australia. Some of the artists he managed (e.g., the magicians Oscar Eliason, aka Dante the Great, and Howard Thurston) accused him of cheating and absconding with the money. In 1899, Curtis starred in a film about himself. The 1900 census found him and his wife in Berkeley again, but not for long. In 1910 Curtis portrayed his stock character in the movie Samuel of Posen. He ended his days a pauper in Los Angeles, but his death was still newsworty. On 29 December 1920, the Oakland Tribune devoted three columns to the story, with no fewer than three headlines and four lead-in subheads:

“Sam’l o’ Posen” Passes Away in L. A. Hospital

M.B. Curtis Famous for “Drummer” Characterization

His Fortune Spent in Defense of Murder Charge

Actor Who Gained Notoriety After Shooting of Policeman in San Francisco Closes His Eventful Career a Pauper
__________

Residents of Berkeley in Late Eighties Remember Active Promotion Work Done in Development of Home Tract

__________

Well Known in Bay Region for Activities as Capitalist; Land Owner and Builder of Hotel Planned for Actors
__________

Former Associates Tell of Remarkable Personality as Entertainer and Love for His Famous Stage Title

M. B. Curtis, by birth Morris B. Stellinger [sic] once famous actor and one of the most romantic figures of the early California is dead today in the county hospital in Los Angeles. The man who long ago amassed a fortune in the character of the drummer in the play “Sam’l o’ Posen” died a pauper. Among his intimates he was called by this name.

More than a quarter of a century ago Curtis was involved in San Francisco in a criminal case that for a while was a scandal in the court there. Unpleasant stories had been circulated with regard to Curtis, and these came to a head when Policeman Grant of the San Francisco force was sent to effect his arrest. Later Grant was found shot, and Curtis was charged with his murder. It is said that half of Grant’s handcuff was found on Curtis’ wrist. Despite the weight of evidence against him Curtis secured a final dismissal after more than one trial in which open charges of tampering with jurymen were made and in which the prosecuting witnesses are said to have one by one dropped from sight. It was currently reported and admitted later, according to friends of Curtis, that the actor exhausted practically his entire fortune in fighting the charge.

He met constant financial reverses. Later his health began to fail and he was forced to seek aid from the Actors’ Fund. Finally he was compelled to become an inmate of the Los Angeles county infirmary where a picturesque life was ended this morning.

ENTERTAINED LAVISHLY IN HIS EASTBAY HOME

Residents of the college city of the late eighties remember him as a man who entertained lavishly in the home now occupied by St. Joseph’s Academy in Peralta Park, which he erected as an actors’ hotel but which he later occupied for a time when the project failed.

It was in 1888 that Curtis built the towered, spacious building just over the Berkeley line in Albany. His plan was to establish an actors’ hotel to attract stage celebrities from all parts of the world when they arrived in San Francisco to fill engagements. For some reason his plan failed and he and his wife moved into the one portion of the big structure. Later the building was sold to a Fresno capitalist for a vineyard site, but this plan too bore no fruit and in 1904 it was disposed of to an order of Brothers for the establishment of the current St. Joseph’s Academy.

CURTIS HAD MOST VARIED CAREER

Actor, capitalist, landowner, promoter, moving picture director and host, Curtis had a varied career in the years he spent in the bay region.

Councilman George Schmidt of Berkeley was his partner in real estate for two years. With no funds at his disposal, Curtis secured from an insurance company the Peralta Park tract, including hundreds of acres at the northern end of the city, and then attracted capitalists to Berkeley to buy and develop the land. J. F. Ordway, eastern capitalist, for whom the tract and street of that title was named, was one whom he brought to Berkeley.

“I remember Curtis coming to Berkeley,” said Councilman Schmidt today. “He wore a fine big overcoat and an expensive hat and he walked away with the town. In those days one took for granted that a man who could dress like that was a millionaire. He didn’t have a cent of money, yet somehow or other got that Peralta Park tract. He was the greatest promoter I ever saw. He gave the biggest lunches and dinners at his home, and gathered all kinds of wealthy people from San Francisco there. When he finished feeding them they were ready to buy the world.”

BECOMES LAVISH IN ENTERTAINMENT

[“]Curtis was famous as a host. No one ever neglected an invitation to his home. He was one of the most eccentric, but one of the finest men I ever knew. It is no surprise that he died in a county hospital. He got his money easily and he spent it just as easily. Speculation and gambling took his money away from him.”

J.C. McMullen, whose son is a well known Oakland banker, was another business associate of Curtis, while the late Edward R. Nieuhaus [sic], former scchool director of Berkeley, was a close friend.

One of Curtis’ eccentricities was his love for recognition. Posen station on the Southern Pacific line in West Berkeley bears the stage name which he loved, because he paid the railroad company money to have it so designated. Hearing of the impending advent of a baby in South Berkeley, Curtis paid the prospective mother a large sum of money to have the infant bear the name of “Posen.”

By birth Curtis was a Jew. He soon dropped his real name, however, for his stage titles. His wife was a Frenchwoman.

Despite his eccentricities, Curtis gave Berkeley one of the most attractive residential tracts in the city, one which a score of years ago knew some of the handsomest homes in Berkeley.

See an image of the obituary in the Oakland Tribune.

This is the second part in a series of three articles on Peralta Park.

Part 1: Peralta Park Grew in the Shade of Giants

Part 3: An Enchanting Country House Echoes East Coast follies

Jerry Sulliger participated in the research for this article.

A shorter version of this article was published in the Berkeley Daily Planet on 9 June 2006.


  

Copyright © 2006–2017 Daniella Thompson. All rights reserved.