Gunn Theater’s New Name Helps a Shady Past Recede

Janos Gereben on October 24, 2017
The Legion’s Gunn Theater | Credit: IQ Photo

The coincidence was arresting. The first San Francisco Symphony chamber-music performance in the Legion of Honor’s newly renamed theater at the Sunday matinee was Shostakovich’s Trio No. 2 in E Minor.

As violinist Alexander Barantchik, cellist Peter Wyrick, and pianist Anton Nel gave a brilliant, deeply felt performance my thoughts went back to the hall’s previous name.

Shostakovich wrote this dramatic threnody on the wartime death, in 1944, of Ivan Sollertinsky, a musician the composer called his “closest friend,” as millions in Europe fell victim to Nazi devastation.

Interior of the glorious Little Theater by any other name, at the Sunday concert | Credit: Janos Gereben

The Legion’s jewel of a theater carried the name of Florence J. Gould in recent years, an art philanthropist whose foundation contributed to the building’s 1987 restoration. In recent years, however, she has also been described as “... a Nazi sympathizer and a terrible anti-Semite who cohabited with the most appalling figures of the German occupation in Paris,” including the head of the Gestapo responsible for dynamiting synagogues and deporting Jews to the death camps, according to documentation by Frederic Spotts in his book, The Shameful Peace.

Gould has also been unmasked by the journalist Alex Beam and in books, such as Alan Riding’s And The Show Went On: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris” and Charles Glass’s Americans in Paris: Life and Death Under Nazi Occupation. SFCV  covered this story some years ago.

It took a long time to right this wrong, but a month ago, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco held a ceremony to mark the hall’s renaming as the John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn Theater or the Gunn Theater for short. (I was also glad to see “theatre” changed to “theater.”)

It’s way up high and difficult to see, but the new name is up there | Credit: Janos Gereben

The Gunns have been major benefactors of the arts; as chairman of the San Francisco Opera Board of Directors, John Gunn has raised millions of dollars for the company, including direct donations of at least $50 million ... and still counting. S.F. Opera General Director Emeritus David Gockley has called Gunn “our own King Ludwig,” comparing him with Wagner’s fabled benefactor.

Originally called the Little Theater, the hall opened in 1924. It was designed by George Applegarth, architect of the museum itself, which opened in 1921. It is a full-scale replica of the French Pavilion at the 1915 Panama–Pacific International Exposition. That, in turn was a three-quarter-scale version of the 1782 Palais de la Légion d’Honneur in Paris, by Pierre Rousseau.

The ceiling of the 316-seat theater has an elaborate mural, “The Apotheosis of the California Soldier,” painted by Spanish artist Julio Villa y Prades.

The San Francisco Symphony chamber-music concerts, featuring the orchestra’s musicians in recitals, are given both in the Legion and in Davies Hall