The Backstory

Great Star Theater, San Francisco
Great Star Theater interior - San Francisco
Great Star Theater - the Early Years
Great Star Theater - the Early Years


The Great Star Theater opened its doors in 1926 as a thriving Vaudeville house, sporting the greatest acts and rarities of its day. Glittering luminaries such as Mae West and Josephine Baker were regular performers, alongside dance legends like Lunt & Fontaine, and Clayton “Peg Leg” Bates. The Great Star premiered many European novelty acts, including the Swedish-born Barriston Sisters, whose salty rendition of “The Air Down There” closed the theater briefly in ‘31. Digby Bell, King of the Stuttering Harmonica, was the crowd favorite for six years running, until a scandal involving a revolver and a chimpanzee forced him to retire. (Both the chimp and the revolver were fired that evening.)


For more than a decade, The Great Star’s light remained undimmed, a beacon for locals and visitors alike — until the Great Star Tragedy of ‘32. Details remain unclear, and accounts of the incident are inconsistent as to how the devastating fire was started. But it was well known that a nefarious theatrical manager coerced and manipulated the vaudeville talent of THE GREAT STAR for his own dark purposes, mysteriously and tragically leading to a fire that consumed actors and audience alike — of the 600 people present, 599 lives were lost in the most devastating theater fire in our nation’s history.

A lone surviving male is said to have escaped but the horrors he had witnessed had evidently pushed him beyond the brink of reason. Howling and gibbering nonsensical sayings, he was committed for psychiatric care at the fledgling hospital, St. Mary’s.