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A dark side of the Pan-Pacific Fair

Courtesy of Society of California Pioneers / Cropped and Resized
Sheet music from the 1915 Pan Pacific Expo

The official celebration of the centennial of the 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition in San Francisco has ended, but a number of events associated with the Pan-Pacific Expo continue into the spring.

And an online exhibit at the website of The Society of California Pioneers (SCP) titled “Popular Songs of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition,” might go on forever, according to curator James Keller.

He notes that the clouds of war caused some European countries to cancel or postpone their planned participation in the festivities because World War I was creeping across the continent. While the expo was “teeming with music,” Keller says very few songs referred to those troubles. One notable exception was "San Francisco, at that San Fran Pan American Fair"

“Send out your invitations
Don't forget the foreign nations.
Make them stop their plottin'
All will be forgotten
When they're turkey trottin'
to a Yankee melody.

We'll mend the map of Europe
We'll end that scrap in Europe
At that San Fran Pan American Fair.” 

While reference to war may have been unusual, Keller says songs about current events were very common at the time. The Panama Canal was celebrated (that’s the “Panama” part of the expo’s title, by the way), as was the disruptive technology of the day.

One example is the advent of transcontinental telephone service which gave rise to “Hello, ‘Frisco,” a light tune featuring a duet of sweet nothings. A contemporary version of that song can be found at the SCP website—a rarity. Most of the songs in the online exhibit are remembered by the cover art of their sheet music, sound recordings and phonographs being in primitive development at the time.

Cute compositions like “Hello, ‘Frisco” were crowd pleasers, but so were more substantial songs, such as ballads and military marches. John Philip Sousa, America’s “march king,” was one of the celebrity draws. The composer of another march, the “San Francisco Panama 1915 March,” became more famous than his song when he ended up in San Quentin prison.

Keller relates that Damasus Gallur claimed to have sold one of his marches in 1911 for $52,000. That would be equivalent to well over a million dollars today—a truly unbelievable sum. Keller didn’t believe this either, so he did some research—and found a newspaper story saying the composer had been arrested at his home in Oakland, for murder. 

Gallur had gotten into “some very shady dealings with a money lender in Oakland,” Keller says. The money lender demanded payment, as money lenders will do – an affront to Gallur, who grabbed the man, “stuffed him into a closet, stabbed him two times, and was just at the point of dragging his body out onto his front porch where he could hang him from the porch, to show the world how evil money lenders are...” when his son-in-law arrived to stop him.

Gallur was convicted of second-degree murder and sent to San Quentin. But being a musician, he soon organized some inmates and created the San Quentin Penitentiary Band, continuing to compose music from behind bars.

“One thing I love about the popular songs of this era is how vividly they bring alive a moment that is gone,” Keller says. “When we listen to these songs, if there's a recording, it may only last three minutes, but for three minutes we're really there. They take us right back to the PPIE of 1915.”

You can hear vintage recordings, and see sheet music covers from the Panama Pacific International Exposition, at the Society of California Pioneers’ website.