Theatre in NYC: A Brief History I

by John Kenrick

(Copyright 2003-2005)

(All photographs are items from the author's private collection, and should not be used without permission.)

Gentle reader: Theatre is an art of the "now," and most of its practitioners (both in the past and the present) have rarely given much thought to history. Documentation of early theatre in New York City is sketchy, and respected sources often differ on specifics. Research keeps turning up new information, so although the paragraphs that follow are based on the best available material, time will almost certainly reveal new information not available as of this writing.

Crude Beginnings

The first Dutch colonists settled Lower Manhattan in 1624. Displacing the native Lenape tribe, the Europeans called their crude trading post "New Amsterdam." The staunchly Protestant Dutch had no taste for theatre, and even though the British forcibly took over in 1664 -- and promptly renamed the colony New York -- more than a century would pass before the town saw its first professional stage production. While Britain had a rich theatrical tradition, the cultural spirit of New York was still opposed to such entertainment.

Through the early 1700s, New York's primary form of leisure was consuming alcoholic beverages. With pure water hard to come by, booze was a necessity. The fashionable classes eventually found an alternative when a coffee house called The King's Arms opened in 1696 (on Broadway just south of Trinity Church). Some scholars theorize that The Kings Arms may have housed Manhattan's earliest theatrical performances. If so, they would have been makeshift amateur events. No written record of such performances is known to survive.

In September of 1732, a troupe of actors from London presented a repertory of plays (we are not certain which titles) on the unoccupied second floor of a building near the intersection of Maiden Lane and Pearl Street. It was just an empty space, not a formal theatre. Records tell us the room was large enough to hold about four hundred people, with raised seats overlooking a stage platform. The earliest documented professional performance of a specific play in New York City occurred on Dec. 6, 1732, when this same troupe offered a comedy entitled The Recruiting Officer. Performances continued in this space (which at least one newspaper ad referred to as "The Playhouse") through the end of the decade. Over time, it is believed that other troupes used improvised performance spaces in Manhattan, but no records of their repertories are known to survive.

Location of the Nassau Theatre 2004The location of the Theatre on Nassau Street as it appeared in 2004 -- a brick office building dwarfed by skyscraping neighbors.

By 1750, New York had over ten thousand citizens, more than 150 taverns -- and (finally!) one formal performance space. Sitting slightly East of Broadway, the Theatre on Nassau Street was a two story wooden structure that held about 280 people. Actor-managers Walter Murray and Thomas Kean set up a resident company that presented Shakespeare's Richard III on March 5, 1750. Their repertory also included the first documented performance of a musical in New York -- John Gay's The Beggars Opera, which they offered on Dec. 3, 1750.

Little documentation exists describing the Theatre on Nassau, so historians have had to resort to guesswork, suggesting that this building –

. . . may have been either a warehouse or a brewery (or both). . . probably fitted up with a stage at one end, benches in front of it, and a raised gallery at the rear for common folk. Murray and Kean made a significant addition to their New York playhouse – they added boxes along the side walls, not only to increase the seating (a sign that they attained a moderate success) but also to provide a special place for the elite of the city.
- Mary C. Henderson, Theater in America: 200 Years of Plays, Players and Productions (New York: Harry Abrams, Inc., 1986), p. 237.

Eventually, the building was taken over by an adjoining business and turned into storage space. Another company played on the same block of Nassau Street in 1753, but records are unclear as to whether this was in the old theatre space or a new structure. In 1754, the theatre was torn down to make way for a church

Location of the John Street Theatre in 2004A four-story office structure now stands where the Theatre on John Street was located in the late 1700s.

Just around the corner from that location, the Theatre on John Street opened on Dec. 7, 1767 with a performance of George Farquhar's comedy The Beaux' Strategem. A period illustration currently in the Harvard Library collection depicts this theatre as all-wooden structure that looked very much like a storehouse, but we have no solid information on its seating capacity or interior appearance. It was home to a repertory company run by actor-managers Lewis Hallam and John Henry who remained in charge during all but the final year of this theatre's existence, 1798.

Records indicate that there were no professional stage productions in New York during the Revolutionary War years -- only amateur performances staged by some of the British troops occupying the city. After the war, New York became the nation's capital for a time, and George Washington is known to have attended several performances at the John Street Theatre. Years later, that same theatre hosted The Archers (1796), a native-born opera that some scholars point to as arguably the earliest American musical.

The Park Theatre

Interior of the Park TheatreA period print depicting the interior of The Park Theatre, New York City's premiere performance space in the early 19th Century.

At the end of the 18th Century, New Yorkers started to exhibit a clear passion for theatre, and actor-managers Hallam and Hodgkinson responded by building the city's first world-class performance space. The Park Theatre, built in 1798 on Chatham Street (now called Park Row), housed few musicals in its fifty year existence. With a spacious bench-filled pit, four tiers of private boxes, and a top gallery, this handsome stone structure could hold up to 2,000 spectators. This theatre helped to make the area around what is now City Hall Park one of the most fashionable districts in the city. The Park attracted a wide ranging audience -- each class sitting in its preferred section. In the quote below, "mechanics" refers to working class men:

All kinds of performances were housed under one roof, so that audiences in the 1830s might see drama, circus, opera and dance on the same bill. New York's Park Theater, despite a reputation as an elite house, had a relatively large room that permitted the masses to govern the stage. Each class had its own part of the theatre, but all attended – mechanics in the pit, upper classes and women in the boxes, and prostitutes, lower class men, and blacks in the balcony. The rowdy audiences often yelled, stamped, drank and smoked during the performance.
- Lewis A. Erenberg, Steppin' Out: New York Nightlife and the Transformation of American Culture 1890-1930 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), p. 15.

Admission was 50 cents for the pit, 25 cents for the gallery, and a full dollar for the boxes. The overall din of a rowdy audience often drowned out the action on stage. Most of it came from the "gallery gods" in the uppermost tier, who considered it their social duty to proclaim their feelings. Showers of fruits and nuts (and sometimes worse) from the upper reaches were common. Prostitutes openly transacted business in the balcony, which only added fuel to the fiery sermons of preachers convinced that theatres were "foyers of hell."

When Stephen Price took over as manager of the Park in 1808, he initiated a policy of importing and promoting renowned British actors -- America's first taste of a "star system." Any degree of success in London almost guaranteed sell out houses in the United States. Price used his British contacts to create a virtual monopoly on imported talent, and every theatre in America had to negotiate with him to book imported stars.

Sex in the Balcony

It may seem hard to believe today but theatres were once hot beds of illicit sexual activity -- not onstage, but in the audience. This had long been the case in Europe, and this lamentable custom carried over to 19th Century New York City. It was widely known that theatre owners allowed prostitutes to ply their trade in the top balcony, where such carryings on were least likely to disrupt the performances. New York's corrupt and understaffed police force offered no objections. According to historian Timothy J. Gilfoyle in his fascinating study City of Eros (NY: Norton & Co., 1992) --

"Leading establishments like the Bowery, Chatham, Olympic, and Park theatres permitted prostitution in the uppermost tier of seats. 'Public prostitution [in the theater] is not noticed by law,' admitted one observer. First-time middle-class visitors incredulously conceded that they 'had not even dreamed of the improprieties then publicly tolerated in the third tier and galleries.' " (p. 67)

Through the mid-1800s, theatrical prostitution remained an accepted feature of the so-called "sporting life" common to men of that time, whether single or married. Since the top gallery was also the only place where young boys could afford seats, it is easy to see why preachers and newspaper editorials condemned theatre as a sinful influence on all age groups.

On to: Part II - 1849 to 1900