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Early Reenactment Captured Horror of 1906 Quake

Soon after the San Francisco earthquake and fires of 1906, actors in a New York City studio recorded a dramatic reenactment of the disaster on wax cylinders. This "audio theater," called The Destruction of San Francisco, lasted just two minutes but captured the horrors of the catastrophe.

"It gave people a chance to experience listening to the sounds of the earthquake without actually having to live through it," says Patrick Feaster, an assistant instructor at Indiana University in the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology.

Even though there were many copies sold of The Destruction of San Francisco, it is a rare cylinder today.

Actor Jeffrey Weissman, a wax-cylinder collector, owns one. He also has an antique spring phonograph to play it. The phonograph is a wood box with a big horn -- the turn of the century equivalent of a speaker.

The recording starts with music and then an announcer begins, "It's an earthquake! Run for your lives! To the park! To the park!" Screams and sounds of panicked people follow.

The reenactment ends with music and the announcer proclaiming the burying of the dead.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Laura Sydell fell in love with the intimate storytelling qualities of radio, which combined her passion for theatre and writing with her addiction to news. Over her career she has covered politics, arts, media, religion, and entrepreneurship. Currently Sydell is the Digital Culture Correspondent for NPR's All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, and NPR.org.