David Belasco was born in San Francisco, California, on July 25, 1853. His father, Humphrey Abraham Belasco, was a London actor who, with his bride, Reina Martin Belasco, had succumbed to Gold Rush fever. Once in San Francisco, however, the couple settled into shopkeeping after David’s birth. Five years later, news of a gold strike in British Columbia lured them north, where David’s three brothers were born and where Humphrey Belasco maintained a tobacco shop while investing in real estate and digging for gold.
Belasco’s published memories of British Columbia are highly imaginative accounts, containing references to a monastic education as well as to his appearance as “Davido, the Boy Wonder,” with the Rio de Janeiro Circus. More sober accounts place him first at the Colonial School and then at the Anglican Collegiate School in 1862. Two years later, he made his first professional stage appearance, as the Duke of York in Charles Kean’s King Richard III. Belasco’s other theatrical efforts took place in San Francisco, to which his family returned when he was eleven. The Roll of the Drum, a childhood play strongly influenced by the penny dreadfuls, and a gold medal at Lincoln Grammar School for his impassioned rendition of Matthew Gregory Lewis’s poem “The Maniac” were among Belasco’s early achievements.
After graduation from Lincoln, Belasco entered a self-imposed, five-year apprenticeship during which he took a touring company up and down the West Coast, deriving much of the material by copying prompt books and pirating uncopyrighted Continental works. At twenty, he began a fifty-two-year marriage with Cecelia Loverich. His subsequent career in California was furthered by Tom Maguire, an unschooled Tammany barkeeper who opened a series of successful California theaters. As Maguire’s prompter at the Baldwin, a magnificent hotel/theater, Belasco oversaw Salmi Morse’s The Passion Play, which scandalized the citizens of San Francisco. During this period, he staged his Naturalistic version ofÉmile Zola’s L’Assommoir and collaborated with James Herne in such works as Chums, which became known as Hearts of Oak after its New York success under that title. Before Maguire retired in 1882, Belasco...
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