The earthquake and fire of 1906 wrought destruction on every facet of life in San Francisco, and the performing arts faced a crisis without precedent. Renowned for the number and variety of its cultural events, San Francisco had been described by one theater observer of the time as "the only city in the United States, outside of New York, where a high-salaried player could be assured a long and lucrative run." In the destruction following the April 18, 1906, earthquake, however, the city lost all eight of its downtown theaters.

Culture-conscious San Franciscans gave high priority to the replacement of performing arts buildings as reconstruction of the city got underway. From 1906 through 1911, eight new theaters, representing the latest in design and technology, were built in the downtown area, and the city's great theatrical tradition resumed almost immediately. Of these eight venues, until October 17, 1989, only the American Conservatory Theater remained in full-time operation as a professional theater. It has been cited as "the traditional seat of legitimate drama in San Francisco since 1910," the year of its completion and opening.

The American Conservatory Theater was designed by Bliss and Faville, one of the most prominent architectural firms in San Francisco. Walter D. Bliss and William B. Faville are known for their designs of other San Francisco landmarks, such as the St. Francis Hotel (1904) and the Bank of California (1908). Construction of the theater began in 1909. The building's exterior reflects the late Victorian tradition, blending elements of neoclassicism with evidence of a baroque influence. The facade is primarily of yellow brick and polychrome-glazed terra-cotta. The original metal and glass marquee was replaced by an all-metal reproduction in 1987. The theater has retained most of its original design and character both inside and out. After almost a century, the venue remains faithful to its historical period, an outstanding example of the theater design, philosophy, and architecture of the early years of the 20th century.

The new building opened on January 10, 1910. It was then known as the Columbia Theatre, named after a theater at Powell and Ellis streets that had been destroyed in the earthquake and fire. George Ade's Father and the Boys, starring William H. Crane and his company and produced by Charles Frohman, inaugurated the new stage. The theater presented distinguished companies and stars of international reputation, including Sarah Bernhardt, Nazimova, and Isadora Duncan. Following changes in management between 1924 and 1928, when the building was known briefly as the Wilkes and then the Lurie Theatre, it reopened as the Geary Theater on February 6, 1928, with Pauline Frederick in her starring vehicle The Scarlet Woman. The building was renamed the American Conservatory Theater in 2006, in honor of the company's 40th-anniversary season in San Francisco.

Over the past hundred years, the theater has housed productions featuring many of the legendary figures of 20th-century American drama, including George Arliss, Edward G. Robinson, Frederic March, Ethel and Lionel Barrymore, Ina Claire, Paul Muni, Ethel Waters, Boris Karloff, Paul Robeson, Alfred Lunt, Lynn Fontanne, Cornelia Otis Skinner, Laurence Olivier, Judith Anderson, Maude Adams, Fanny Brice, Mrs. Patrick Campbell, John Drew, Helen Hayes, Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable, Gregory Peck, and Tallulah Bankhead. In 1941, Orson Welles and Dolores del Rio attended the Geary for a premiere of the classic film Citizen Kane. In January 1967, the theater became the permanent home of American Conservatory Theater, which bought the building in 1974. In 1975, the theater was awarded a place on the U.S. Department of the Interior's National Register of Historic Places and was named a landmark of the State of California and the City and County of San Francisco.

At 5:04 p.m. on October 17, 1989, less than two hours before ushers were to open the theater's doors to patrons expecting to see the A.C.T. season opener, George Coates's Right Mind, disaster struck once again. During the Loma Prieta earthquake, the proscenium arch collapsed, ripping a two-thousand-square-foot hole in the ceiling and crushing the front-of-house lighting bridge and the first six rows of orchestra seats beneath tons of fallen plaster. Miraculously, no personal injuries were sustained.

The theater was closed, but with the help of thousands of individuals, corporations, foundations, and government agencies throughout the nation who contributed to the Geary Theater Capital Campaign, A.C.T. raised more than $27.5 million to complete the renovation and seismic stabilization of the building in 1996. In addition to bringing the theater into compliance with all current city building codes, the reconstruction and renovation of the damaged building improved comfort and accessibility for theatergoers and brought state-of-the-art technology to the American Conservatory Theater stage.

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