Recent Comments


    Panama-Pacific Centennial Concert Brings 1915 World’s Fair to Life

    HeidiBy Heidi Beeler

    This year, the 37th Annual Pride Concert expands the boundaries of Pride to include the entire City of San Francisco when it brings to life music from the Panama Pacific International Exhibition (PPIE) for the Panama-Pacific Centennial Concert. Showcasing music premiered at the 1915 world’s fair that’s being celebrated throughout the City this summer, the concert—to be held on Saturday, June 20—features co-producers Lesbian/Gay Chorus of San Francisco (LGCSF), the San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band, along with the Bay Area Rainbow Symphony (BARS) and other ensembles at the Palace of Fine Arts, the only PPIE building to be preserved in its original location.


    To wrap your head around what a big deal the original PPIE was to San Francisco, you have to imagine the world of 1915. Before the Internet, before television or air travel, world’s fairs gathered the latest art, technology and international culture in one location, so visitors arriving by horse, train or boat could see the globe in one shot. Thomas Edison, Laura Ingalls Wilder and Buffalo Bill Cody were among the almost 19 million visitors that year, and one of the most awe-inspiring exhibits in the Hall of Technology was a mini assembly line turning out Henry Ford’s Model T’s.

    The 1915 PPIE officially celebrated the opening of the Panama Canal, linking the Atlantic to the Pacific. After the devastation of the 1906 earthquake, the fair also became San Francisco’s opportunity to shine as a world-class city–and shine it did. The exhibition stretched 635 acres from Fort Mason into the Presidio, a city of domed buildings with its central Tower of Jewels rising 43 stories high and covered in 100,000, shimmering, cut-glass “gems.” Every state in the union built exhibition halls, as did more than 20 countries, despite the start of WWI the year before.

    What’s missing from all the historic photographs and text descriptions is precisely what made this concert so exciting. Recorded music was unheard of in 1915, so live music filled the PPIE grounds, with original compositions written by world-famous composers and thousands of performances given in the Festival and Fine Arts halls, at the outdoor bandstands, at the exhibition hall demonstrations, and in the carnival concession stands. The Panama-Pacific Centennial Concert will recreate some of those key music moments. In fact, the timing of the concert marks the centennial anniversary of one of the major pieces commissioned for the exhibition.

    Pete Nowlen, Freedom Band Artistic Director, shared that the upcoming concert will happen 100 years and 1 day after the very night that John Philips Sousa and Camille Saint-Saens premiered the piece that Saint-Saens wrote for the world’s fair, Hail California! Nowlen believes that the June 20 event will mark the first complete performance of that work over the entire century.


    Hail, California! is unusual because Saint-Saens composed it for full orchestra and a military band, an indication of the huge scale of music performances at the PPIE. The exhibition had hired its own seated orchestra, but marching bands were in their heyday, and John Philip Sousa and his band were among the PPIE’s headliner performers that summer. Saint-Saens took the opportunity to combine them. It then became hugely popular to feature impromptu groupings in mass performances of the singers and musicians gathered at the exhibition that year.

    The Pride Concert is similarly taking advantage of its large gathering of many ensembles. BARS joins the Freedom Band to recreate “Hail, California!” Amy Beach’s anthem for the PPIE, Panama Hymn, will combine orchestra and chorus, as will Victor Herbert’s Until We Meet Again. The Saint-Saens Organ Symphony features a soloist from the Freedom Band performing with BARS. Other guest performing groups for the evening include Camerata California, Chabot College and Mill Valley Philharmonic.

    That this music exists at all is something of a minor miracle. Much of the sheet music from this era is out of print. The Freedom Band is blessed with a music librarian, Kevin Tam, who is so passionate about resurrecting lost band music, he’s begun to work with the estates of Ferde Grofe’ (arranger of Rhapsody in Blue), William Grant Still, and the Sousa Archives at the Center for American Music at University of Illinois Champaign Urbana to unearth scores and arrange or edit them for performance. Several of the pieces featured at the concert, including Hail, California!, A Day at the Panama-Pacific Exposition and Sousa’s Among My Souvenirs are performed thanks to Tam’s efforts.

    To celebrate the restoration of this music, the Freedom Band is releasing a CD at the concert featuring many of these newly available arrangements. Titled “A San Francisco Affair,” the recording also includes Grofe’s San Francisco Suite, arranged by Tam, as well as several marches composed for the PPIE, newly arranged by Philip Orem.

    The evening also brings the sights and sounds of the PPIE to life through film and writings. First, R. Christian Anderson premieres the new docudrama, When the World Came to San Francisco. The film celebrates the thousands of artists, architects, designers, performers and attendees who created the PPIE by following the footsteps of one visitor through the fair. Laura Ackley will then read from her celebrated new history of the PPIE, The Jewel City.

    That an LGBT Pride Concert could become a vehicle for larger civic pride is another reason to celebrate and to be proud of San Francisco.

    Trumpet player Heidi Beeler has been a member of the San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band since 1991. She is also a founding member of the Dixieland Dykes +3. For more information, please visit or