The Incredible Legacy of the Anderson Family
May 12, 2017
Posted by: Aimee Ellis, JFNA Israel Action Network Senior Associate for Community Strategy
In celebration of Jewish American Heritage Month, I’m detailing just some of the Anderson Family in San Francisco’s incredible contributions to art, culture, athletics and society. Their family’s combined civic contributions are too many to list in one post!
The Anderson Family of San Francisco is a Jewish-American theatrical family. Numerous family members have and had impressive careers in the arts as master performers and teachers. This post is part two of a post I previously wrote on how my identity as both a Jew and San Franciscan was greatly influenced by my close relationship with Miss Jean Anderson, my former dance and performing arts master teacher. I’m incredibly grateful to have had an opportunity this year to get to know Miss Jean’s brother, Jack Anderson. Jack is a master performer himself and has personally made numerous contributions to the people and city of San Francisco. I thank him from the bottom of my heart for sharing with me such detailed information on the story of his family, and for trusting me to help share with the public more about their epic legacy.
Their Jewish ancestors left Europe for San Francisco during the 1800s, one coming around the Horn in a sailing ship, the other coming over land by wagon train. Some of the Anderson family’s ancestors, Phineas and Sarah Mish (Jack's great-grandparents on his mother's side), first arrived in San Francisco circa 1850, in the midst of the gold rush. Sarah Mish ran the Phineas and Sarah Mish Haberdashery Shop downtown, had 10 children, one of whom, Mrs. Lily (Mish) Schlesinger, is Jack’s maternal grandmother. Among other things, Lily was a beloved local opera singer, professional whistler, and a gold star mother, having lost a son, David, in WWI. The Mish Family lived in a beautiful and now historic 21 room Victorian Mansion built exclusively for their family -- it is known as the “Mish House.” The historic importance of the Mish House itself has been noted in various places, including books, online publications and the National Register of Historic Places in San Francisco. Phineas and Sarah were philanthropists and active in civic affairs, they also donated the trees being planted at that time in the Panhandle. Lily married Nathan Schlesinger, whose Jewish roots trace back to Germany. In 1894, one of Lily and Nathan’s daughters Irene later married Edwin Anderson.
Irene Anderson, mother to Jack, Jean and Lenore, was a force to be reckoned with! At 17, she became the department head of the Decorative Arts Department at the famed White House Department Store. She was a civic leader, master artist (vaudeville performer, composer and choreographer),established a doll hospital to house her museum-quality collection of dolls, and opened the Anderson Sisters School of Dance on 6th Avenue in 1942 (jointly with her daughters, Jean and Lenore). The School of Dance operated until 2004, when Miss Jean passed away at the age of 83. It trained generations of San Franciscans and at one time participated in an annual citywide youth pageant, The May Day Festival (which is to date was the largest children’s showcase in the city). The Anderson Dancing School provided entertainment on stage at San Francisco's Traditional Golden Gate Park Bandstand Concerts with Concert Master Ralph Murray, a free concert tradition in San Francisco.
Performing artists extraordinaires that they were, the Anderson Family did a lot of entertaining during the 1939/40 Golden Gate International Exposition hosted on Treasure Island. Jack Anderson, who started his theatrical career by being carried onstage at age two by his sisters, and at nine years old acted as master of ceremonies performing at the Hall of the Western States, which seated 60K people. During World War II, Jack, Jean, Lenore, and their students, formed a USO group to entertain troops. Irene went to great lengths to ensure that Jewish Armed Service members had a place to go during Passover, hosting those stationed in San Francisco for Seders at her home. She and her children were also longtime members of Congregation Sherith-Israel, where her grandfather Phineas Mish was President 1881-1885, and Jean and her mother Irene composed the anthem, “Sherith Israel,” for the congregation's 90th anniversary!
The Anderson Family Dancing school was the first children’s dance school in San Francisco to be racially integrated. The family made a dedicated effort to be inclusive, which Jack says they accomplished with great success.
For his part, Jack served as president of San Francisco Comedy Day, Inc., a free outdoor comedy concert now in its 35th year. He established two local theaters, the Open Theater on Clement Street and the Back Room Theater on Mission Street. He also established the first Visual and Performing Arts Department for the SFUSD at Lowell High School where he served as debate coach for students like Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States Stephen G. Breyer, San Francisco Senior District Judge Charles R. Breyer, and Yale President Richard Levin, among many others. Jack served as President of the San Francisco State University Alumni Association as well as Vice President of the Lowell Alumni Association.
As president of the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame of Northern California, which provides scholarships for worthy Jewish High School Athletes, he established the world’s first interactive screen at the Taube Koret Campus for Jewish Life in Palo Alto. In 2016, the Lowell High School Alumni Association hosted a benefit for the Lowell Forensics Society and Visual and Performing Arts Department. To pay tribute to his incredible life’s work on his 85th birthday, they hosted the “Let’s Back Jack Show.” Among other notables, BBC’s Perry Simon, Director Lee Sankowich, and film star Benjamin Bratt are just a few of the Lowell alums who credit Jack with influencing their career choice and success.
As a Jewish San Franciscan whose life was so deeply touched by the Anderson Family, like so many others (Jewish and non-Jewish alike), I salute their entire family and seek to continue to be a part of carrying on in their footsteps as we build community in a uniquely San Francisco kind of way. I’m also forever grateful to have had the privilege of being one of the last generations of performers to be trained at the dance school. Jack’s sister, Miss Jean, always ‘let love lead the way’ in everything she touched, following in the footsteps of her mother, Irene, and grandmother, Lily, both of whom deeply valued humanity, community and public service.
PHOTO courtesy of Jack Anderson.