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 Greek Theater  

UC Berkeley's Greek Theatre turns 100 years old this month

– Berkeley - One hundred years ago this month, the William Randolph Hearst Greek Theatre opened in Berkeley at the University of California with a performance befitting an amphitheater modeled after architecture from ancient Greece - Aristophanes' "The Birds," a Greek play presented in Greek by a student cast.

Since then, the site has become a popular venue for ceremonies, classical music performances, plays, and more recently, rock concerts. Audiences there have seen it all - from Jerry Garcia to Sarah Bernhardt, Corazon Aquino to the Dalai Lama, Janet Reno to Bill Cosby. And it's put UC Berkeley on the cultural map.

"It vividly expressed Berkeley's aspirations to be the 'Athens of the West.' Once it was finished, leading performing artists started coming to Berkeley, and they never stopped," said Steve Finacom, a UC Berkeley staff member and local historian.

To celebrate its centennial - the theater opened on Sept. 24, 1903, with a festival that lasted several days - the Greek Theatre will once again host a Greek play. On Sept. 20 and 21, Cal Performances will present the American premiere of Euripides' "Medea" by the National Theatre of Greece. These two UC Berkeley shows, in original Greek with English supertitles, will be the only ones the actors will offer in this country.

On those two days, a display of the history of the Greek Theatre will be on view at the theater. It then will move to the campus's Doe Library for the remainder of the year.

In conjunction with the performances, Mark Griffith, UC Berkeley professor of classics, will moderate a symposium on Euripides' "Medea" with scholars and members of the National Theatre of Greece on Friday, Sept. 19, from 3:30-5 p.m. in the Morrison Library.

With the gift of the amphitheater to the university in 1903 by William Randolph Hearst, the Greek Theatre - and the campus - began to make history with what is now a century of great performances, concerts and addresses by some of most renowned figures in the arts, politics and world affairs.

Benjamin Ide Wheeler, who became the University of California's president in 1899, was a moving force in bringing a Greek amphitheater to the campus. He had spent a year in Athens, and while he was there, served as a judge for the first modern summer Olympic Games held in that city in 1896. A professor of comparative philology and Greek, Wheeler was recruited from Cornell University, and he brought with him the importance of classical studies.

U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, whom Wheeler knew from his days in New York, was invited to address the UC's graduating class of 1903. The Greek Theatre was not quite finished, but commencement took place there anyway.

"On May 10th, the workmen left so that staff could begin the transformation of the construction site into a setting for commencement," said Linda Jewell, a UC Berkeley landscape architecture professor who is involved in preparing this fall's display on the history of the theater. She got much of her information from a Ph.D. thesis written by Mark Wardrip.

"Julia Morgan oversaw the installation of colorful banners, a speaking platform and endless yards of muslin covering wooden frames to create the impression of finished structures. But commencement was not the first event in the theater," said Jewell.

"On May 12, the senior class, with a portion of the concrete seats still too wet to use, claimed the temporary stage for their annual extravaganza. By the 14th, all evidence of the extravaganza was gone, and flower garlands, a covered platform and other final decorations completed a setting appropriate for hosting a president."

The San Francisco Chronicle also reported on the commencement: "In a great walled amphitheater such as has scarcely existed in the world since the memory days of Greece, one whose only roof was a perfect sky, azureous as that above Athens, President Roosevelt delivered the most striking and interesting address of his series of speeches in California."

Over the years, along with world-renowned politicians, many famous entertainers have appeared on the Greek Theatre's stage.

Sarah Bernhardt performed in 1906 in a production of Jean Racine's "Phaedre" as a benefit for victims of the San Francisco earthquake and fire. In 1934, the second act of William Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" was staged there by promoter and producer Max Reinhardt, whose production of the play was later made into a popular film. The first act was performed on campus in the Faculty Glade, and then the cast, holding torches, led audience members to the Greek Theatre, where the rest of the play, illuminated by the torches, was performed. The cast included such stars as Olivia De Haviland and Mickey Rooney.

Since the late 1960s, with the opening of UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall, the Greek Theatre has seen fewer theatrical performances. But an ongoing tradition has been to hold rallies there before sporting events, as well as Commencement Convocation, an event held each May to honor all graduating seniors.

The largest rally of the year is the Big Game Bonfire Rally, held at the Greek Theatre before Big Game, the annual football competition between UC Berkeley and Stanford University. It concludes with the reading of "The Spirit of California," a brief reflection on Cal spirit written by Ken Raust, a 1981 graduate of UC Berkeley, in a tradition that began in 1985.

During the reading, the lights of the theater are turned off, and the only light comes from what's left of a bonfire that burns in the orchestra pit and from lit candles held by members of the audience.

"At last year's rally, we filled the seating as well as the hill with an unprecedented, in recent decades at least, crowd of nearly 10,000 loyal Californians," said Jon Locascio, chair of the UC Berkeley Rally Committee. "The Big Game Bonfire Rally is our marquee and most beloved event. Witnessing the bonfire rally for the first or the fortieth time is an awesome, if not 'spiritual,' experience that should not be missed."

Finacom said that anyone who's been around Berkeley "for a few years or more can easily recall a memorable experience at the Greek - an unforgettable operatic performance, a Grateful Dead concert, the speech of some statesman or stateswoman or leading figure in world culture."

And with limited special seating, he said, "it's an embodiment of the California ideal that life and culture can be enjoyed outdoors and democratically."