David Belasco was born on July 25, 1853 in San Francisco. In 1858, his was one of the first Jewish families to immigrate to Victoria. His father, Abraham Humphrey Belasco, had been a noted British harlequin actor in London, before he and his wife Reina Martines Belasco immigrated to San Francisco for the Gold Rush. While in Victoria, his father owned a number of different businesses, beginning with fruit carts and ending up with a General Store on Yates Street. Abraham Humphrey Belasco was also an itinerant peddler who often went to the gold camps with his bags filled with necessities as well as tobacco. On his return , Abraham Humphrey Belasco would regale his family with stories of his adventures. Young David was captivated and would later rely on those tales in his own writing and productions.
David Belasco attended the Colonial School, and then the Boy’s Collegiate School. Roman Catholic priest Father McGuire found out about David Belasco and wanted him to enroll in school which the Order of Marie Immaculate had opened in 1864. Due to his Orthodox Jewish perspective, Abraham Humphrey Belasco strenuously objected. However, the less religious Reina Belasco allowed David to attend the Missionaries’ school. David was one of several Jewish boys educated there. He would later spin fanciful tales about his time in the “monastery.” In honor of his mentor Father McGuire, David often wore a priest’s collar which earned him the moniker “Bishop of Broadway.”
With a burning interest in theater, David Belasco collected bottles and sold them to buy theater tickets. His acting debut was in Victoria in 1858 when he was carried on stage as Caro’s child in the play Pizarro. In 1864 a troupe of distinguished British actors came to Victoria and performed several Shakespearean plays. David was given the role of Duke of York in their production of Richard III.
By 1865, the gold rush economy in Victoria was collapsing and many Victoria residents left. Rabbi Cohen couldn’t stay because the congregation could no longer afford his salary. David Belasco was turning 12, and needed to prepare for his Bar Mitzvah. Since his father’s business was not faring well, the family moved back to San Francisco.
From 1873 to 1879 David Belasco worked in several San Francisco theatres as actor, manager, and writer. David acted in a San Francisco based touring company and returned to Victoria in 1874 for a production of Leah the Forsaken! He moved to New York in the early 1880’s and became a theatrical producer, impresario, director and prolific playwright.
David Belasco was an innovator in American theater. He brought a new standard of naturalism to the American stage and gained a reputation for sensational realism in his directing, for lavish set design, and for his innovation in lighting. He was one of the first directors to place stage lights below floor level so that audiences wouldn’t see them. He modernized lighting techniques and successfully used colored lights in creating mood and magnificent visual effects.
In 1907 he built the Stuyvesant (later Belasco) Theater in New York which contained cutting edge technology for lighting and set design. He is possibly best known for his collaboration with Giacomo Puccini on Madame Butterfly and Girl of the Golden West.
David Belasco was married to Cecilia Loverich (1880 – 1926) for over fifty years; they had two daughters, Reina and Augusta. He died on May 14, 1931 at the age of 77 in Manhattan. He and his wife are buried in the Linden Hill Jewish Cemetery in Queens, New York. David Belasco also had a baby brother Joseph who died on February 10, 1863. He was buried in the Jewish Cemetery in Victoria; however, the exact location of his grave is unknown.