The Richmond history of the actor who lit up Lady Liberty


In 1886, a colorful man with a colorful past that included managing the Richmond Opera House used his fortune to light the Statue of Liberty, which was something U.S. Congress declined at the time to fund.

Maurice B. Curtis was an actor, producer, real estate developer, promoter, hotelier, benefactor, and was even accused, and acquitted, of fatally shooting a San Francisco police officer. On Sunday, May 5, Curtis will be the subject of a talk at the Richmond Museum of History, 400 Nevin Ave., from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.

Berkeley historian Richard Schwartz, author of “The Man Who Lit Lady Liberty: The Extraordinary Rise and Fall of Actor M.B. Curtis,” will tell the story of the Jewish actor who achieved overnight success in Sam’l of Posen, a “groundbreaking play that transcended the common stereotypes of Jewish characters current at the time,” museum officials said. 

Curtis would later use some of his income to build a 60-room hotel in Berkeley that no longer exists. He also spent time as manager of the Richmond Opera House, which operated from 1907 to 1918 and featured well-known performances such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Girl of the Golden West. After his acquittal from charges that he fatally shot a police officer, his acting career virtually ended, according to museum officials. 

“We are delighted to have Richard Schwartz tell this story at the Museum because Maurice Curtis played an important but little-known role in Richmond’s history said Melinda McCrary, the Richmond Museum of History’s executive director.

The event “fits perfectly into our Pioneers to the Present: Jews of Richmond and Contra Costa exhibit,” McCrary added. The exhibit closes June 30 and includes many other little known vignettes. 

A gala closing event is scheduled for June 23 with Jewish food and wine featured. For more information, go here.