Theatre in NYC: History - Part II

by John Kenrick

(Copyright 2005)

(All photographs are items from the author's private collection, and should nit be used without permission.)

Race & Class

In the summer of 1821, William Henry Brown (a black West Indian and former ship's steward) opened a "pleasure garden" in his backyard at 38 Thomas Street. It was the first establishment of its kind in New York to welcome all races. With blacks barred from every other pleasure garden in town, Brown drew capacity crowds. Curious white customers soon joined the mix. Brown moved indoors, and his American Theatre drew multi-racial audiences to see all-black casts in the same blend of plays and musical acts found elsewhere.

In a rash move, Brown leased space on the same block as the Park Theatre. Park manager Stephen Price and other white theatre owners hired street toughs to literally break up Brown's performances. Brown returned to his old location, where continuing harassment forced him to shut down altogether in 1823. African Americans would not return to Broadway in a production of their own until the next century.

(For more on this sad and often overlooked chapter in New York's theatrical history, see Marvin McAllister's White People Do Not Know How to Behave at Entertainments Designed for Ladies and Gentlemen of Color. Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2003.)

The Bowery TheatreThe Bowery Theatre as depicted in a 20th Century cigarette card. Rebuilt several times, it was the first American theatre to remain in use for more than 100 years.

When the Bowery Theatre opened in 1826, it aimed at upper class audiences, but soon found the competition too intense. New management took over and decided to cater to "mechanics" (ie - the working class) by presenting action packed spectacles. American tragedian Edwin Forrest triumphed here with lurid melodramas and bombastic interpretations of Shakespearean classics.

Over time, Manhattan found itself with two rather different entertainment centers. The Bowery area became the home for all forms of working class entertainment, while Broadway catered increasingly to the rich. Resentment grew on both sides of the social divide. When a group of wealthy patrons built the swank Astor Place Opera House at the intersection of Astor Place and Broadway in 1847, no one realized that the stage was being set for a civic tragedy.

The Astor Place Riot

The Astor Place Opera HouseA period sketch depicts the Astor Place Opera House as it appeared in 1847.

In the Spring of 1849, two actors appeared in simultaneous productions of Macbeth. American star Edwin Forrest found his following among the working and lower classes at the Bowery, and the more cerebral British tragedian William Macready appealed to the upper class gentry at the Astor Place Opera House. A volatile combination of press ballyhoo and widespread anti-British sentiment incited a claque of Forrest's fans to disrupt a few of Macready's performances. The cast was bombarded with refuse, rotten eggs -- and even seats torn from the gallery flooring. Macready wanted to end the engagement, but wealthy patrons publicly petitioned him to carry on. It looked as if the "haves" were thumbing their noses at the "have-nots" -- which only made Forrest's have-nots angrier.

On the night of May 10, 1849, an ugly mob of twenty thousand lower and working class men descended on the Astor Place Opera House. As Macready's performance of Macbeth continued inside before an uneasy (and mostly upper class) audience, the mob outside broke into a full-scale riot. As the violence peaked, police fired their guns directly into the crowd, killing at least twenty-two and wounding more than 150. The furious rioters did not disperse until canons were brought in.

In the aftermath of this massacre, the social structure of New York City was fractured.

After the Astor Place Riot of 1849 entertainment in New York City was divided along class lines: opera was chiefly for the upper middle and upper classes, minstrel shows and melodramas for the middle class, variety shows in concert saloons for men of the working class and the slumming middle class.
- Robert W. Snyder in The Encyclopedia of New York City (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), Kenneth T. Jackson, editor, p. 1226.

The Astor Place RiotThis engraving appeared in an 1849 booklet about the Astor Place Riot.

While festering class resentments would inspire unrest and further rioting over the years, they would never again center around a theatrical event. In fact, during the mid-1800s, Broadway gradually became a place where all classes could find entertainment to their taste.

. . . in the nineteenth century, theatre was permanently established as an institution in the community, elegant theatres were built, and professionals followed the trend of the times by searching for an area in which to focus their activities. By mid-century, theatres had settled upon Broadway as their locale and they moved with the northward flow of the city . . .
- Mary Henderson, The City and The Theatre: New York Playhouses from Bowling Green to Times Square (Clifton, NJ: James T. White & Co., 1973), p. xi.

Musical Diversions

Interior of Niblo's GardenThe interior of Niblo's Garden, from an 1855 newspaper engraving.

Uptown movement was the mark of life in Manhattan from its earliest days until the mid-Twentieth Century, and where the populace went, theatre soon followed. In 1829, impresario William Niblo supplemented his popular theatre and open air beer garden with a hotel and saloon. Located at Broadway and Prince Street, Niblo's Garden quickly became one of New York's premiere night spots. The three thousand seat theatre presented all sorts of entertainments. Destroyed by fire in 1846, it was lavishly rebuilt, now boasting the best-equipped stage in America. Niblo retired in 1858, but the complex retained his name.

The first native-born form of musical entertainment to thrive on the American stage was the minstrel show. According to The Encyclopedia of New York City (Kenneth Jackson editor, Yale Univ. Press, New Haven, 1995, pp. 763-764) blackface acts -- in which white men blackened their faces in imitation of African slaves -- were common features in circuses and traveling shows from the 1790s onwards. Thomas Rice gave new popularity to blackface acts with his performance of the song "Jump Jim Crow." After touring the country, he brought his acclaimed routine to New York in 1832. Just over a decade later in 1843, a troupe of four white men calling themselves the Virginia Minstrels presented the first recorded full length minstrel show at the Bowery Amphitheatre. Minstrelsy, the first American-born form of musical theatre, proved amazingly popular. By 1856, New York City had ten full time resident minstrel companies, and that number doubled within another decade.

In 1841, the wily P.T. Barnum purchased the American Museum on Chambers Street, and started presenting plays in the spacious lecture hall. People who did not want to be seen entering a theatre had no qualms about visiting a museum, and "moral" dramas like The Drunkard (1850) made Barnum's one of the most popular venues in New York City. Barnum turned the hall into a fully equipped 3,000 seat auditorium, staging variety shows, musical farces -- anything that sold tickets. His success inspired a number of theatres across the country to call themselves "museums," a trend that continued through the end of the 19th century.

As New York City's population boomed, the demand for more ambitious entertainments grew. Riding the crest of this new cultural wave, Laura Keene became one of the first nationally recognized actress-managers of the American stage. She produced and starred in a wide range of popular comedies and musicals in her theatre at 622 Broadway (just above Houston Street). After setting Broadway's first "long-run" record with a 50 performance hit called The Elves (1857), Keene astounded everyone in New York when her "musical burletta" Seven Sisters (1860) racked up 253 performances. Keene starred as one of seven female demons who come up from hell to go sightseeing in New York. Surviving programs list a score cobbled from now-forgotten songs. Keene even borrowed the minstrel classic "Dixie" to provide a slam-bang finale.

The Civil War (1861-1865) -- which many Southerners still refer to as "The War of Northern Aggression" -- wrought many changes in American society. One in particular had a tremendous effect on the theatre. Railroads had been expanded and upgraded to facilitate the movement of troops and supplies. This made it easier and more affordable for large productions to tour extensively.

It was during such a tour that Laura Keene's troupe came to Ford's Theatre in Washington, DC in the Spring of 1865. President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated while attending Keene's performance of the hit comedy Our American Cousin on April 14. The fact that his killer was famed actor John Wilkes Booth incited widespread hostility towards actors for years to come. Even though Keene had nothing to do with Booth's plot, her name became so linked to the tragedy that she was soon forced to retire from public life.

On to: Part III - 1865 to 1900