The Bohemian Club

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Belasco had been born in San Francisco on the wrong side of Market Street, and he never became a member of the Bohemian Club (although he might have qualified as an “unconventional genius”). During most of his clubbable years, he was conspicuously immured among the tapestries and candelabra of his jasmine-scented, seven-room office suite above the Belasco Theatre in Manhattan, pouring out a succession of ripe historical melodramas adapted from the works of other playwrights. His influence, however, embodied in Hearts of Oak and The Darling of the Gods and Madame Butterfly, drifted westward like a cultural Colorado beetle, devouring indigenous growth and upsetting nature’s balance. Each year the Grove Plays, succumbing helplessly to Belasco’s blight, grew more majestic and abstract: great, murky tableaux vivantes with titles like Truth, Life, Wings, and The Quest of the Gorgon; characters fitted up with flowing caftans and Druidic beards and improbable names (Dulthea, Mardo, Zathustra, and Arl); armies of yeomen bearing garlands, pikestaffs, palm fronds, sheaves of wheat. In various years the woodland stage disclosed a waterfall of fire, a gigantic statue of the Buddha, a glowing cross that seemed to float among the trees, an enormous, jewel-eyed owl that soared down a hillside on an intricate webbing of wires.

When the club gave a dinner in San Francisco in Belasco’s honor in February, 1909, one of the house cartoonists did a poster that showed the Master Showman kneeling to the symbolic owl of Athena, offering it a copy of The Rose of the Rancho, Belasco’s romantic epic of Hispanic California. The speakers who welcomed the Bishop back from Broadway that night were the composer and author of the first Grove Play—Charles K. Field, a magazine editor, and Joseph D. Redding, a young lawyer for the Southern Pacific Railroad. The kneeling, in effect, was mutual.

In the 1920’s Belasco’s theatrical style fell from grace on Broadway. The movies preempted his theater of illusion, and the critic George Jean Nathan (who called Belasco’s entire output “an astounding procession of show-shop piffle,”) took up the task of scouring the American stage of every trace of the Bishop’s literal coloration.

But at the Bohemian Grove, Belasco’s stagecraft—the massive sets, the fog machines, the multicolored spotlight gels—persisted like the paraphernalia of a secret cult. Rising production costs did not intimidate the Bohemians. Changing fashions came not here. Out of its own ranks, the club could recruit a horde of singing swordsmen and a pit orchestra the size of the New York Philharmonic.

More important, the Grove Plays began to develop a sort of institutional inertia, like the rites of an ancient church. Their evanescence, their exclusivity, their pageantry, their archaic language all gave them the aura of tradition in a young state that has been said to lack tradition. Every summer, the Grove Plays rolled forth in comforting similarity. Immense, heathen allegories, old-fashioned heroism, soul-stirring morality: that was the stuff of Bohemian dramaturgy. No gritty, proletarian tragedies. No theater of the absurd. No dying salesmen. For decades, the most popular Grove Plays were those written by George Sterling, a poet whose lofty verses once were hailed (by Sterling’s friend Ambrose Bierce) as the overture to a classic revival in California, and those by the late Dan Totheroh, a prolific playwright best known for his large-scale outdoor festivals on the slopes above San Francisco Bay.

From time to time, members of the club have suggested that drama of such beauty, the products of so much time and cost, should be offered to a wider audience. Before the Great Depression, the Bohemian orchestra and singers used to present a concert version of the latest High Jinks in a music hall in San Francisco on a Sunday afternoon in August, a few weeks after the main event. One of Joseph Redding’s operas—a Chinese legend called Land of Happiness —made its way to the opera house in Monte Carlo in 1925 under the patronage of its wealthy librettist, Templeton Crocker.

But like the native underbrush, the Grove Plays are difficult to transplant. Outside the forest, they suffer from thirst. Their proper nurture requires starlight, shadows, the scent of evergreens, the lingering flavors of good Scotch and rare roast beef. Their success depends, too, on the associated pleasures of the yearly pilgrimage; the elbow brushing with senators and television performers and ambassadors plenipotentiary; the Lakeside Talks, at which secretaries of state and presidential candidates let sail political balloons without danger of instant deflation; the coveted invitations to drop in at one or another of the customary parties given by the little camps-within-the-camp: the lamb-chop feast, the Sunday morning fizz, the perfect mint julep, the minestrone kettle, the barbershop quartet, the bluegrass banjo band.