History of the Croatian American Cultural Center

The Slavonic Mutual and Benevolent Society was founded in San Francisco in 1857 by Croatian immigrants, primarily from the Dalmatian coast of Croatia. Until 1975 the Society was based on fraternal membership, a type of organization with a long tradition among Croatians from Slavonia, Dalmatia, Istria, Croatia Proper, Hercegovina and Bosnia.

After 1975 membership was opened to women reflecting the cultural diversity and cultural interests of the larger San Francisco Bay Area community.

In 1979 the dream of a physical home was realized, and the Croatian American Cultural Center on Alemany Street opened its doors, as a center to share the rich cultural heritage Croatia. The scope of programs broadened and the Center has become an important gathering place for enthusiasts of Croatia and other Slavic music and dance, and recent immigrants as well as long time members.

For more than 150 years the SMBS/Croatian American Cultural Center of San Francisco has welcomed men and women from Croatia, other Slavic regions and beyond.

It all started in 1857 along the San Francisco Waterfront, where a community of immigrants from the Dalmatian coast had settled and established coffee houses, restaurants, saloons and produce stores. In fact, by 1875, at least forty percent of the coffee houses and twenty percent of the restaurants on the Waterfront area were owned by men of Croatian-Dalmatian origin.

In 1857 the organization was formalized and opened its doors as the Slavonic Illyric Mutual and Benevolent Society, later shortened to the Slavonic Mutual and Benevolent Society, or SMBS. In these early days, the purpose of the society was fraternal and benevolent, that is, it provided financial aid for those who needed it, a post office box for itinerant workers to send and receive mail, a graveyard plot, various kinds of insurance, and more important, a networking base for newcomers and old-timers to exchange business, homelife and social affairs information.

Such organizations were common during this time; there were a number of them right in San Francisco — the Blato (Korcula) Club, the Brac Club, etc., mostly organized around a particular region. The complexities of politics in the region made a mark on how these societies developed in the United States.

Through the end of the 19th century and the early 20th century, the Society played an important role in providing insurance and social contact when the need was great. But the world was changing and so were the SMBS members. These smart and industrious people prospered quickly in the United States and had less need for material benefits. Their children assimilated into local culture. The end of World War II brought another wave of immigration. And with the growth of government social services and other insurance in the United States, material help for the members became less necessary.

By 1965, membership had dwindled to 180, down from 650 members in the 1870s; attendance at meetings was twenty at the most. But those faithful members rallied together to realize a longtime dream, a permanent home. This small group pooled their skills and their financial resources and many years of patient work until the Croatian American Cultural Center opened its doors on March 24, 1979 on the corner of Alemany and Onondaga Avenues in San Francisco. The Center has become a focal point for the many cultural events and activities through the years.

While the building plans were proceeding, some members felt it was a good time to review and revise the mission. Adam Eterovich, who has been influential in the SMBS in innumerable ways, took the dramatic and controversial step of suggesting that women be allowed to join. He has this to say:

“We unfortunately lost some of our social purpose because you have unemployment, social insurance, grave insurance, you have everything [provided by other sources]. So when that purpose got lost, I think sometimes we wander.”

1975 was a big turning point when the by-laws were changed to admit women and people of other nationalities. Membership quickly jumped to 400. The Society clearly benefited from the new blood, new ideas, creativity and energy offered by the expanded membership.

Another major innovation was the formation of the Cultural Committee by Adam Eterovich and John Daley in 1985. Under John Daley’s leadership the Croatian American Cultural Center has become a focal point in the San Francisco Bay Area for Slavic music, dance and culture, and has been recognized through major grants, awards and invitations to the performing groups sponsored by the Committee. Here are some of the projects sponsored by the Cultural Committee:

San Francisco Croatian Festival/San Francisco Tamburitza Festival – In the late 80s the Cultural Committee initiated two events which have become traditions at the Center, and bring together longtime members with the general public in celebration. The Marko Polo Festival (now called the San Francisco Croatian Festival) is held each fall to celebrate Croatian heritage exemplified by the famous explorer Marko Polo, who was born on Korcula Island when it was under Venetian rule. Poklada (now called the San Francisco Tamburitza Festival) is the traditional Croatian Prelenten Carnival, held every President’s Day weekend. Both events offer food and drink, music, participatory dancing, and performances. These two events are highlights for the SMBS members as well as the extended folk dance and music community in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Slavonijo Kolo Ensemble was formed in 1986, consisting at first, of a mix of Croatian American and non-Croatian dancers The purpose was to revive and reproduce authentic village dances, complete with costumes and music. The choreography reproduced a village setting as much as is possible and usually included audience participation. Traditional dances from Olib Island, Korcula Island, the villages of Cilipi and Glamoc were revived. The Ensemble worked closely with folklorist Elsie Dunin and with local experts to ensure authenticity. The Ensemble performed throughout the greater Bay Area and performed the Glamoc Dance at the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival.

The Dalmacijo Singers, one of the groups existing under the umbrella of the Croatian American Cultural Center, have been delighting audiences since 1986. This choral ensemble has performed in various concerts, ethnic festivals, family gatherings, and Church of Nativity functions. With many of the member’s family ties linking to the Dalmation Coast, their repertorie consists mostly of songs from different parts of Croatia. They fill out their repertoire with songs from other Slavic traditionss.

The Slavonian Traveling Band diverse sound and repertoire crosses all boundaries and speaks for tolerance and hope. The seven-member ensemble blends traditional Bosnian, Sephardic, Gypsy, Croatian and Macedonian music with songs in the American folk tradition. Founded in 1986, the Slavonian Traveling Band performs throughout the San Francisco Bay Area as a tamburitza orchestra typical of the Balkan region. The band also plays instruments found on the Dalmacian coast of Croatia, including the mandolin, mandola and guitar. As the band’s repertoire features Macedonian and Romany (gypsy) music, they often include the sax, harmonica and dumbek (drum).

Bridging the Balkans – This series features master artists of traditional music who now live the USA. A musical bridge built from Croatia to Greece that spans Bulgaria, moderated by a folklorist and followed by dancing, this series makes the exotic scales and unusual rhythms easy for the American ear. Each Friday night concert features a different master artist.

CroatianAmericanWeb – This website brings to an international audience a digest of all the activities of the Croatian American Cultural Center, as well as other aspects of the culture which are more suited to electronic format. It is our goal to utilize emerging technologies to bring to a larger public a “virtual museum” of Croatian culture as we see it. This website is constantly changing. Please visit us frequently.

Oral histories – Men and women who are connected with the Croatian American Cultural Center share their stories and their songs in taped interviews conducted in 1999. These oral histories highlight the “up close and personal” stories of growing up Croatian American. When the interviewee has requested anonymity, a pseudonym is provided in quotes.