American Theater History Is Written on the Walls of the Curran

Brian Watt listening to the Detour App while touring the Curran Theater (Photo: Jaron Caldwell )

For decades, the Curran Theater in San Francisco has been a place where people have watched shows from Broadway and on their way to Broadway. In its 95 years, the venue has weathered earthquakes and appeared in the classic movie All About Eve.

For the last few years, the Curran’s been undergoing a major renovation. Now that it's done, once a month, the public can take a tour of the place, stand on its stage, sit in the dressing rooms and walk through its underground steam tunnels.

For the theater major and former actor in me, this was a must.

The wall backstage at the Curran
The wall backstage at the Curran (Jaron Caldwell )

The history of American theater is handwritten -- literally -- on the Curran's backstage walls. The cast and crews of The Music Man, Jersey Boys, Fences, Wicked and countless other powerhouse productions have hit their marks there, and left them there too.

The 45-minute tour is guided on the Detour mobile app. It features the voices of famous performers like Carol Channing, who grew up in San Francisco and performed Hello Dolly at the Curran. In one clip, Channing talks of saving her allowance for weeks as a young girl to buy a ticket to shows at the Curran.

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"I want to be buried between the Curran Theater and the Geary Theater," Channing exclaims.

Stage managers and stage hands also weigh in and as do members of the renovation crew to talk about cleaning decades of nicotine and dust off the magnificent chandelier that hangs over the house. Kristen Chenoweth remembers the world premiere of Wicked at the Curran before taking it to Broadway.

Dressing room being rennovated
Dressing room being rennovated (Jaron Caldwell )

"We were in a progressive town, with very smart audiences who wanted to love us and - I think – were a part of the process of making Wicked what it became," Chenoweth says in the Detour's recording.

The tour is narrated by Carole Shorenstein Hays, the Broadway producer who with her husband bought the Curran and financed its renovation. She invited me to sit with her in her favorite seats in the balcony with a grand view of that chandelier.

"I will admit that I was always focused on the stage," Hays told me when I kept asking which part of the renovation was most important to her. But she acknowledged that patrons thanked her most for fixing up and adding more restrooms.

"The bathrooms, the bathrooms, the bathrooms," Hays said, remembering a certain exasperation. "We got the best reviews on stage, but the worst reviews off stage."

The bathrooms are fantastic now, but what I really wanted to talk to Hays about was Fences. She produced the original Broadway production of August Wilson's play, which premiered at the Curran 30 years ago before going on to win the Tony Award for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Carole Shorenstein Hays
Carole Shorenstein Hays (Jaron Caldwell )

The year was 1987, and I was an aspiring actor, studying Theater at Yale. I took a bus to New York to see Fences, and was blown away by the powerful performances of James Earl Jones, Mary Alice, Courtney Vance, and Frankie Faison. I had no idea who Carole Shorenstein Hays was.

Thirty years later, audiences are finally discovering Fences as a movie, starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. It's up for four Academy Awards. But I had to ask Carole Shorenstein Hays what it was like bringing the play to Broadway.

"It was like childbirth," Hays said. "No one believed in Fences. They said 'it won't work because of this and because of that, and P.S.' the pundits said 'well, black people won't go to Broadway.' So I went to the churches [to promote the play], and I said, 'People will come.'"

The next play at the Curran is Eclipsed, set to open on March 9, and Hays calls it the next Fences.

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