Thursday, March 5, 2020

Theodore Pohlson - A Woman Violinist and Conductor of the 1920s

image source: San Francisco Historical Photograph Collection

Theolene Pohlson was a teacher, conductor, chamber and orchestral musician active in the San Francisco Bay Area during the mid-twentieth century. In the early twentieth century, it was very rare for a woman to work professionally as a classical musician.The San Francisco Symphony when it was founded in 1911 originally only employed women as harp players. They were actually on the cutting edge of gender equality when they hired five women as members of their string section during the 1924-1925 season.

The Pohlson family were immigrants from Norway who lived in Springfield, Illinois, a city with a long-standing Norwegian community. Theolene Pohlson was born in Springfield on March 27, 1889. City directories (found in show that her father worked a variety of menial professions such as laborer, custodian, elevator operator, feed yard, and coachman. The same directories show Theolene employed as a teacher at the Enos School and the Teachers Training School in Springfield.

Coming from a humble family background, Theolene Pohlson must have had considerable musical talent and drive. A San Francisco Examiner article published not long after she moved to California in 1922 gives us some information about her musical education. She had studied with Luigi von Kunits in Toronto and with Leon Sametini, the director of the violin department of the Chicago Music College, as well as Adolph Rosenbecker, the concertmaster of the Chicago Grand Opera. In a 1943 newspaper feature she recounted that she had been also a member of the "Chicago Opera Company" (which probably was the Chicago Grand Opera). While living in Chicago she married Norman E. Marshall who is listed in the 1920 Census as an orchestra musician. She also taught for a time at the State Normal School (today known as Illinois State University).

Around a year later she moved to San Francisco. In the September 16, 1921 issue of Music News she started advertising herself as a violin and voice instructor teaching from the Paisley Hotel (now the Union Square Plaza Hotel) and later the Hampshire Arms Apartments. Within a year she was head of the violin department of the Manning School of Music and the Fairmont Hotel School of Music.

By the following year she was concertizing all over the Bay Area with performances at San Francisco's Granada and Fairmont Hotels, and in Pinole and Alcatraz. Her October 17 program featured a "ladies' orchestra of eight pieces."

On October 26, 1922 she married Samuel Payne Reed, an electrical engineer and teacher at the Heald's Business College. For a time she was listed on concert programs as Mrs. Samuel Payne Reed or Theolene Reed. By early 1924 they were divorced not long after she gave birth to a son. In a San Francisco Examiner article she was quoted:
My husband and I were out of tune, so I must go back to my trusty violin, breadwinner and unfailing companion. High strung husbands are interesting -- by my fiddle is my best beau after all.

She was a very active musician. During the silent film era it became common for movie theaters to employ a small orchestra to perform in between features.  In late 1924 Theolene Pohlson was hired as the conductor an all-woman orchestra that performed before movie features at the Capitol Theatre (the former Cort Theatre at 64 Ellis Street).

The ensemble was made up of Theolene Pohlson, violin; Lillian Swaey, violin; Augrey Munroe, cello; Elsa Melville, double basso; Ethel Guyon, flute; Muriel de Vaughn, clarinet; Mae Franchi, cornet; Sadie van der Hoff, trombone; Alvina McLaughlin, piano, and Hazel Field, percussion.

source: "Theater Orchestra by Girl Musicians a S.F. Novelty, San Francisco Examiner (December 28, 1924)

A San Francisco Chronicle article said of her and her ensemble:
Theolene Pohlson, the San Franciscan violinist and director of the Capitol Theater orchestra, has the distinction of conducting the only women's orchestra regularly employed in a local playhouse and one of the few existing in the United States. The organization is now in its twelfth week and has met with the approval of patrons. The music is well selected from the classical, with enough contemporary flavor to keep in touch with popular songs and dances, and is presented with technical proficiency.
This ensemble also had the distinction of performing live on the radio airwaves of KPO.

Their hour-long segment, sponsored by the George W. Caswell Coffee Company, featured the women as an ensemble and as soloists.  Their repertoire spanned light classical music (Schubert and Saint-Saens) and current show tunes (Berlin and Herbert).

Theolene Pohlson came to our attention attention at the Library because a set of parts that she once owned a performed from turned up in one of our unprocessed collections.  This an arrangement of Anton Rubinstein's "Romance" that was published by G. Schirmer. This was one of countless stock arrangements, arrangements for reduced orchestras with flexible instrumentation, available to the hundreds (maybe thousands) of theater orchestras performing across the United States.  The pieces listed on the radio program were probably performed from similar published arrangements.

Theolene Pohlson continued to work on and off as a director and performer at the Capitol Theater until 1930.  She also led orchestras in Oakland at the Franklin Theater. After that she was mostly active as violin soloist and as a chamber musician in the San Francisco Concert Trio with pianist Guyala Ormay and cellist Elsa Melville. She was a frequent performer at the Denmark Pavilion during the Golden Gate International Exposition in 1940.

During the Second World War she contributed to the war effort working as a drafter at the Marinship shipyard.  The Chronicle reported, "Theolene Pohlson Reed, violinist symphony player and orchestra conductor, has exchanged her fiddle and bow for a drafting board in the marine drafting of a San Francisco shipyard." During this time she wrote a song entitled "Marinship" that was performed at the Curran Theater.  She registered another composition entitled "Marching On" with the Copyright Office. Pohlson-Reed also performed for servicemen at the Stagedoor Canteen of San Francisco.

A 1948 article in the Berkeley Daily Gazette mentioned that Theolene Reed-Pohlson was a member of the Oakland Symphony Orchestra. At this point she was 59 years old and after this she is no longer prominently mentioned in the newspapers.  She died at the age of 89 on February 27, 1979 in Alameda after playing a significant role in the Bay Area's musical life.


Anderson, Helene, "Notes, Cues," Berkeley Daily Gazette (September 18, 1940).

"Author's Wife Seeks Decree," San Francisco Examiner (February 1, 1924).

"Capitol Features Ladies Orchestra," San Francisco Examiner (December 18, 1924).

Eads, Jane, "Women At Work: There'll Be 18,000,000 by End of '43, Says War Manpower Commission," San Francisco Chronicle (February 21, 1943).

Estcourt, Zilfa, "Women in War: How Mr. Karstensen Trains Workers for the Shipyards," San Francisco Chronicle (January 20, 1943).

"'The Gorilla Hunts' Closing at Franklin," Oakland Tribune (February 24, 1927).

"KPO Features Women Singing," San Francisco Chronicle (July 2, 1925).

Neuls-Bates, Carol, "Women's Orchestras in the United States, 1925-1945," in Women Making Music: The Western Art Tradition, 1150-1950, edited by Jane Bowers and Judith Tick (University of Illinois Press, 1986).

"Patrons Approve Women's Orchestra," San Francisco Chronicle March 6, 1925

"Pohlson Recital," San Francisco Examiner Sept. 24, 1922

"San Francisco Musician Is Ogden Visitor," Ogden Standard Examiner (March 28, 1943).

"Sorority Group to Entertain Pledges," Berkeley Daily Gazette (June 14, 1948).

"Theolene Pohlson in California," Music News vol. 14, no. 45 (November 10, 1922).

"Theolene Pohlson," Music News vol. 14, no. 44 (November 3, 1922).

Waterstreet, Mary, "Goings On," San Francisco Chronicle (March 17, 1943).

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Presentation: The Silk Road

Globalization in the Ancient World (Asian Art Museum Speaker Series)

Travel the ancient routes that provided goods, technologies, and ideas to countries and cultures from the Mediterranean to the Pacific. Discover the transformations that resulted from the complex exchanges between East and West.

Before jet planes and smartphones, militia, merchants, monks and pilgrims spent months, even years, traveling over perilous land routes to carry luxury goods and new ideas thousands of miles across lost civilizations. Luxury commodities such as silk, porcelain, paper, tea, jade, amber, spices, ivory, gunpowder, gold and silver were carried across overland and sea trade routes known as the Silk Road. Religions and ideas, technologies and innovations also spread along these trade routes in all directions.

History’s greats such as Alexander the Great, Marco Polo, Zhang Qian, and Genghis Khan, all left their traces on the greatest roads humankind has ever known. Come discover the complexity of the exchanges and variety of cultures transformed as a result of goods, knowledge and techniques transmitted between East and West in this slide show and lecture by an Asian Art Museum docent.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020
Learning Center, 5th Floor, Main Library
12:00pm - 1:00pm

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Performance: Violins of Hope; Along the Trade Route

Main Library - Koret Auditorium
Thursday, 2/6/2020: 6:00 - 7:30

This program is part of Violins of Hope San Francisco Bay Area presented in association with Music at Kohl Mansion, Burlingame, CA.

Each violinist will be performing on a violin once owned and played by a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp, now repaired and repurposed as an instrument of peace, social justice and hope.

Musicians have been sharing melodies for centuries, with no regard to political and national boundaries. Irish sailors brought melodies to sea ports in Ukraine; Turks, Roma and Jews shared common songs, and Roma music has origins in India. In Trade Routes, we present these internationally renowned Bay Area musicians steeped in seemingly separate cultural musical traditions with an exciting and surprising common vision of musical sharing.

Featuring violinists Cookie Segelstein (Klezmer), Emmanuel  During Middle Eastern), Darcy Noonan (Celtic) and Suzy Thompson (Americana).

Related Event:
Film: Violins of Hope: Strings of the Holocaust
Friday, 2/7/2020
3:00 - 4:30
Documentary featuring Israeli violin maker Amnon Weinstein and his efforts to restore violins recovered from the Holocaust. Some were played by Jewish prisoners in concentration camps; others belonged to the Klezmer musical culture, which was all but destroyed by the Nazis.  Narrated by Academy Award-winner Adrien Brody. WVIZ/PBS. NR, 60 mins., 2016.

This program is part of the Violins of Hope San Francisco Bay Area presented in association with Music at Kohl Mansion, Burlingame, CA.

This free concert is funded by a generous grant from the Walter & Elise Haas Fund. Learn more at

Exhibition: Through the Lens of Black Photographers

Doris and Virginia "Ann" on the steps with her 1st Brownie camera, 1957.  Courtesy of the San Francisco Historical Photograph Collection "Shades of Western Addition".

A. P. Bedou, Photographer in a Crowd", c. 1910

“In a time when the deliberate distortion of black images in popular culture was as common as ice vendors in turn-of-the-century cities in August, the camera became a mighty weapon in the hands of pioneering black photographers. The same photographic technology responsible for the circulation of minstrel caricatures … was used to create counter images of African-American life—images of dignity, pride, success, and beauty. A wide array of figures such as James Presley Ball and Augustus Washington of the nineteenth century, and Robert McNeill and Chuck Stewart of the twentieth, wielded their cameras against the Goliath of white supremacy.”
— Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers 1840 to the Present by Deborah Willis

Since the earliest days of photography, black artists and documentarians have used the medium to assert the vibrancy and importance of their communities on their own terms. The images they captured with their cameras provided a different view that counteracted the racial stereotypes and bigotry prevalent in the visual media of popular culture.

This small-scale exhibit aims to recognize and celebrate the legacy and canon of many remarkable artists, illustrating their real-life experiences of dignity and pride.

To complement the fine art photography of well-known black artists, photographs taken throughout the decades by members of San Francisco’s African-American community round out this visual narrative. Pulling from the San Francisco History Center’s Shades of San Francisco photo project, this “community scrapbook” forms a constellation of friends, neighbors, acquaintances and relatives who used their cameras to document holidays, celebrations and moments of everyday life – authenticating experience and contributing to the visual history of San Francisco.

About the images in this exhibit

The images on display in the wall cases have been selected from the Art, Music and Recreation Center’s collections of fine art photography books, which can be found in the Dewey Decimal call number range of 770-779. A bibliography is available.

The images in the two wooden cases are reproduced courtesy of the donors of the Shades of San Francisco projects – specifically the neighborhoods Western Addition, Bayview/Hunters Point and Oceanview/Merced/Ingleside. To learn more about the San Francisco History Center’s Shades of San Francisco community history photography project, visit or visit the Center on the 6th floor.


Ashe, Jeanne. Viewfinders : Black women photographers. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1986. Print. 770.973 M867v

Ball, James P., and Deborah Willis. J.P. Ball, daguerrean and studio photographer. New York: Garland Pub, 1993. Print.  770.973 M867v

Bey, Dawoud, et al. Dawoud Bey : portraits 1975-1995. Minneapolis New York: Walker Art Center Available through Distributed Art Publishers, 1995. Print.  779.2092 B468d

Brathwaite, Kwame, Tanisha C. Ford, and Deborah Willis. Kwame Brathwaite: black is beautiful. New York, NY: Aperture, 2019. Print.  770.92 B7373f

Combs, Rhea L., Deborah Willis, and Lonnie G. Bunch. Through the African American Lens. Washington, D.C. London: National Museum of African American History and Culture, Smithsonian Institution in association with D Giles Limited, 2014. Print.  973.0496 T4166

Cowans, Adger W., et al. Personal vision : photographs. New York: Glitterati Incorporated, 2017. Print.  779.092 C8386p

Millstein, Barbara H. Committed to the image : contemporary black photographers. Brooklyn, N.Y: Brooklyn Museum of Art in association with Merrell, 2001. Print. 779.0899 C737

Parks, Gordon, and Philip Brookman. Half past autumn : a retrospective. Boston: Little, Brown and Co, 1997. Print.  770.92 P236a

Reed, Eli. Black in America. New York: W.W. Norton, 1997. Print.  779.9973 R251b

Roberts, Richard S., Thomas L. Johnson, and Phillip C. Dunn. A true likeness : the black South of 
Richard Samuel Roberts, 1920-1936. Columbia, South Carolina: The University of South Carolina Press, 2019. Print.  779.2092 R543t 2019

Shabazz, Jamel, Fab 5. Freddy, and Ernie Paniccioli. Back in the days. New York: PowerHouse Books, 2001. Print.  974.71 Sh113b

Sue, Jacqueline A. A dream begun so long ago : the story of David Johnson ; Ansel Adams' first African American student. Corte Madera, Calif: Khedcanron Publishing, 2012. Print.  779.9979 J6312s

Wallis, Brian, and Deborah Willis. African American vernacular photography : selections from the 
Daniel Cowin Collection. New York Göttingen: International Center of Photography Steidl, 2005. Print.  779.9973 Af834

Weems, Carrie M., et al. Carrie Mae Weems : Kitchen table series. Bologna, Italy New York: Damiani Matsumoto Editions, 2016. Print.  779.092 W4188e

Willis, Deborah. Black : a celebration of a culture. New York, NY: Skyhorse Publishing, 2014. Print.  779.0899 B5611 2014

Willis, Deborah. Reflections in Black : a history of Black photographers, 1840 to the present. New York: W.W. Norton, 2000. Print.  770.8996 W679r

Willis, Deborah, et al. VanDerZee, photographer 1886-1983. New York: Harry N. Abrams, in association with The National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, 1993. Print.  779.2092 V286w

Related Program:
Film:  Through a Lens Darkly
The first documentary to explore the role of photography in shaping the identity, aspirations and social emergence of African Americans from slavery to the present, Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People, probes the recesses of American history by discovering images that have been suppressed, forgotten and lost. 92 mins, 2014