Renovated Opera House Pumps New Life into Bay View

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Officials and community members from around San Francisco were on hand at Third and Oakdale streets, to celebrate the ribbon cutting of the Bay View Opera House. 

 

The opera house had been closed for four years, as it was closed for remodeling. But on July 20, the new opera house was unveiled to the public in a celebration of a new beginning.

 

“This is a soft opening,” said Mayor Ed Lee. “But this is a restored gem in the community – $5 million was spent on this center, which is a historic place.”

 

Others attending included District 10 Supervisor Malia Cohen, Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, Director of Public Works Mohammed Nuru, and project architect Walter Hood.

 

Built in 1888, the opera house has hosted various community plays, poetry readings, dance ensembles, comedy shows and many artists.

 

The history of the building took a turn in September 1966 when Matthew “Peanut” Johnson was shot in the back by a white police officer on Third Street. His death by the police officer set off calls for justice within the Black community, and police came out in droves.

 

This set off a neighborhood riot, which spread throughout San Francisco and lasted for six days.

 

The National Guard was called by Governor Pat Brown and a curfew was put in place in the Bay View. Police officers shot up the opera house, thinking there was a sniper in the building, only to find that no one was there, except children hiding in the corner.

 

The building would have been left to die, if not for the efforts of Ruth Williams, who helped galvanize support to renovate the building. The theater was named in her honor years later.

 

“My mother stepped in a year later, and she along with four other women, the big five, basically stopped the wreaking ball from demolishing the place,” said Kevin Williams, a community activist, who was at the reopening.

 

“My mother helped raise the money to renovate the place, hired the first Black architect in San Francisco, Harry Overstreet, to redesign it, and she helped put the building back together,” he said.

 

 

“Not only is this a cultural center, but the Opera house was a safe after school space for kids and for seniors to come and congregate, and it will remain that way,” said Supervisor Cohen.

 

“I am pleased that the city and the non-profit organization that are running the opera house are there and improving the building,” said Ed Donaldson, a community activist and former opera house board member

 

The current executive director of the Opera House is Barbara Okel and the Opera House will be fully operational towards the end of August. After the ribbon cutting, former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown stopped by inside to look at the floor and talk about the Opera House and its future.

 

“This new place is fabulous,” said Mayor Brown. “I am pleased to see this grand reopening. There would be no way money would be put into this place, without the city and donors knowing there would be strong programs to match this.”

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