New York City Threatre History

In 1872 there were sixteen theaters in New York City that were usually in full operation.  Taking them in their order of location from south to north, they are the Stadt, the Bowery, Niblo’s, Theatre Comique, the Olympic, Lina Edwin’s, the Globe, Wallack’s, Union Square, the Academy of Music, the Fourteenth Street, Booth’s, the Grand Opera House, the Fifth Avenue, the St. James, and Wood’s.

They were open throughout the fall and winter season, were well patronized, and with one or two exceptions were successful in a pecuniary sense.  There were usually 50,000 to 100,000 strangers in the city, and the majority of these find the evenings dull without some amusement to enliven them.  Many of them are persons who come for pleasure, and who regard the theatres as one of the most enjoyable of all the sights of the city; but a very large portion are merchants, who are wearied with buying stock, and who really need some pleasant relaxation after the fatigues of the day.  To these must be added a large class of citizens who are fond of the drama, and who patronize the theatres liberally.  All these, it is stated, expend upon the various amusements of the place about $30,000 per night; and of this sum the larger part goes into the treasury of the theatres.  The sum annually expended on amusements is said to be from $7,000,000 to $8,000,000.

The New York theatres richly deserve the liberal patronage they enjoy.  In no other city are such establishments as elegant and commodious, and nowhere else in America are the companies as proficient in their art, or the plays as admirably put upon the stage.

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The most beautiful theatre in the city is Booth’s, at the southeast corner of the Sixth avenue and Twenty-third street.  It was begun in the summer of 1867, and opened to the public in January, 1869.  It is in the Renaissance style of architecture, and stands seventy feet high from the sidewalk to the main cornice, crowning which is a Mansard roof of twenty-four feet.  “The theatre proper fronts one hundred and forty-nine feet on Twenty-third street, and is divided into three parts, so combined as to form an almost perfect whole, with arched entrances at either extremity on the side, for the admission of the public, and on the other for another entrance, and the use of actors and those employed in the house.  There are three doors on the frontage, devised for securing the most rapid egress of a crowded audience in case of fire, and, in connection with other facilities, said to permit the building to be vacated in five minutes.  On either side of these main entrances are broad and lofty windows; and above them, forming a part of the second story, are niches for statues surrounded by coupled columns resting on finely sculptured pedestals.  The central or main niche is flanked on either side by quaintly contrived blank windows; and between the columns, at the depth of the recesses, are simple pilasters sustaining the elliptic arches, which serve to top and span the niches, the latter to be occupied by statues of the great creators and interpreters of the drama in every age and country.  The finest Concord granite, from the best quarries in New Hampshire, is the material used in the entire façade, as well as in the Sixth avenue side.  The glittering granite mass, exquisitely poised, adorned with rich and appropriate carving, statuary, columns, pilasters, and arches, and capped by the springing French roof, fringed with its shapely balustrades, offers an imposing and majestic aspect, and forms one of the architectural jewels of the city.”

In its internal arrangements the theatre is in keeping with its external magnificence.  Entering through a sumptuous vestibule, the visitor passes into the magnificent auditorium, which is, in itself, a rare specimen of decorative art.  The seats are admirably arranged, each one commanding a view of the stage.  They are luxuriously upholstered, and harmonize with the rich carpets which cover the floor.  Three elegant light galleries rise above the parquet.  The walls and ceiling are exquisitely frescoed, and ornamented with bas reliefs in plaster.  The proscenium is beautifully carved and frescoed, and is adorned with busts of the elder Booth and the proprietor of the theatre; and in the sides before the curtain are arranged six sumptuous private boxes.  The curtain is an exquisite landscape.  The decoration of the house is not done in the rough scenic style so common in the theatres of the country, but is the perfection of frescoe painting, and will bear the closest inspection.  It is impossible, even with a strong glass, to distinguish between some of the frescoes and the bas reliefs.  The stage is very large, and rises gradually from the footlights to the rear.  The orchestra pen is sunk below the level of the stage, so that the heads of the musicians do not interfere with the view of the audience.  The dressing of the stage is novel.  The side scenes, or wings, instead of being placed at right angles to the audience, as in most theatres, are so arranged that the scene appears to extend to the right and left as well as to the rear.  In this way the spectator is saved the annoyance of often looking through the wings, a defect which in most theatres completely dispels the illusion of the play.  The scenery here is not set by hand, but is moved by machinery, by means of immense hydraulic rams beneath the stage, and the changes are made with such regularity and precision that they have very much the effect of “dissolving views.”  The scenes themselves are the work of gifted and highly educated artists, and never degenerate into the rough daubs with which most playgoers are familiar.  The building is fireproof, and is warmed and ventilated by machinery.  The great central chandelier and the jets around the cornice of the auditorium are lighted by electricity.

The plays presented here are superbly put on the stage.  The scenery is strictly accurate when meant to represent some historic locality, and is the finest to be found in America.  Perhaps the grandest stage picture ever given to an audience was the graveyard scene in “Hamlet,” which drama, in the winter of 1869-70, “held the boards” for over one hundred nights.  The dresses, the equipments, and general “make up” of the actors are in keeping with the scenery.  Even the minutest detail is carefully attended to.  Nothing is so unimportant as to be overlooked in this establishment.

With a few exceptions, the company is unworthy of the place and the fame of the proprietor.  Mr. Booth, himself, is the great attraction.  It is his custom to open the season with engagements of other distinguished “stars,” and to follow them himself about the beginning of the winter, and to continue his performances until the spring, when he again gives way to others.  When he is performing it is impossible to procure a seat after the rising of the curtain.

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The Grand Opera House is next to Booth’s in beauty.  It is much larger than that theatre.  But for its unfortunate location, nearly a mile from Broadway, it would be one of the most successful establishments in the city.  The theatre is divided into two buildings, one fronting on the Eighth avenue and Twenty-third street, and containing the offices and entrances, and the theatre proper, which is in the rear of the former.  The former building is a magnificent structure of white marble, in the Italian style of architecture.  It fronts 113 feet on Eighth avenue, and 98 feet on Twenty-third street.  It is adorned with statuary and carvings, and is far too handsome for the part of the city in which it is located.  The greater portion of this building is taken up with the offices of the Erie Railway Company.

The theatre proper is connected with the front building by means of a superb vestibule, into which open the doors of the auditorium.  It is one of the most beautiful halls in America, and one of the pleasantest lounging places.  The auditorium is finished in light blue, white, and gold, and when lighted up is magnificent.  Every appointment and decoration is tasteful and beautiful, and there are many persons who consider it the finest interior in America.  The stage is large and convenient, and the scenery good.  The performances are passable.

The house was built by Mr. Samuel N. Pike for an Opera House.  It was not successful, and was sold by him to the late Colonel James Fisk, Jr., for $1,000,000, a slight advance upon its cost.

Wallack’s Theatre, at the northeast corner of Broadway and Thirteenth street, is, par eminence, the theatre of New York.  Its audiences are more exclusively composed of citizens than those of any other house.  New Yorkers are proud of it, and on Thursday evenings, or the first night of some new play, the audience will consist almost entirely of city people.  The theatre itself is very plain, and there are many things about it that might be bettered.  In other respects it is unqualifiedly the best theatre in which the English language is spoken.  It is devoted almost entirely to comedy, and the plays presented on its stage are always of a high character.  The Star system is not adopted here, but the company consists of the best and most carefully trained actors and actresses to be found here or in England.  It is emphatically a company of gentlemen and ladies.  At present it includes Lester Wallack, the proprietor, John Brougham, Charles Mathews, John Gilbert, Charles Fisher, and J. H. Stoddart, and Mrs. Jennings, Miss Plessy Mordaunt, Miss Effie Germon, and Mrs. John Sefton.  Mr. Wallack is very proud of his theatre, and with good reason.  He has made it the best in the country, and a model for the best establishments in other cities.  The greatest care is taken in the production of plays, and every detail is presented to the audience with a degree of perfection which other managers vainly strive to attain.  The scenery is exquisite and natural, the dresses are perfect—the toilettes of the ladies being famed for their elegance, and the acting is true to nature.  There is no ranting, no straining for effect here.  The members of the company talk and act like men and women of the world, and faithfully “hold the mirror up to nature.”  It is a common saying in New York that even a mean play will be a success at Wallack’s.  It will be so well put on the stage, and so perfectly performed by the company, that the most critical audience will be disarmed.

The Fifth Avenue Theatre, on Twenty-fourth street, in the rear of the Fifth Avenue Hotel, is next to Wallack’s in popular favor.  It is very much such an establishment in the character and excellence of its performances.  It possesses a first-class company of ladies and gentlemen, some of whom have achieved national reputations, and all of whom are worthy of the highest praise.  The theatre itself is a handsome marble edifice, not very large, but of very attractive appearance.  The interior is bright and cheerful.  The ceiling is finely frescoed, the walls are panelled with large plate-glass mirrors, and the general effect is very brilliant.  The building was owned by the late Col. James Fisk, Jr.  The manager is Mr. Augustin Daly, a well-known writer of successful plays.  To his literary gifts Mr. Daly adds a high order of managerial talent, and it is to his efforts exclusively that the very marked success of the theatre is due.

The Academy of Music is, as its name indicates, the Opera House of New York.  It is a gloomy-looking structure without, but possesses a magnificent auditorium, fitted up in the style of the European Opera Houses.  Its decorations are in crimson and gold, and are magnificent and tasteful.  It is the largest theatre in the city, and one of the largest in the world.  It is opened occasionally during the winter for operatic performances.  The audiences to be seen here are always in full dress, and the toilettes of the ladies, to say nothing of the beauty of many of the fair ones, offer a great attraction to sight-seers.

Niblo’s Theatre, or as it is generally called, “Niblo’s Garden,” is situated in the rear of the Metropolitan Hotel, with an entrance on Broadway.  It is one of the largest and handsomest theatres in the city, and by far the coolest in warm weather.  It is devoted principally to the spectacular drama.  It was here that the famous spectacle of the Black Crook was produced.  Its revival is to take place before these pages are in print, and it will probably be continued throughout the remainder of the season.

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The Olympic is a large, old-fashioned theatre, on Broadway, between Houston and Bleecker streets.  It is devoted to pantomime, and is famous as the headquarters of the erratic genius who calls himself Humpty Dumpty.

The Old Bowery Theatre, situated on the thoroughfare from which it takes its name, below Canal street, is the only old theatre left standing in the city.  Three theatres have preceded it on this site, and all have been destroyed by fire.  Within the last few years, the interior of the present theatre has been greatly modernized.  The plays presented here are of a character peculiarly suited to that order of genius which despises Shakspeare, and hopes to be one day capable of appreciating the Black Crook.  “Blood and thunder dramas,” they are called in the city.  The titles are stunning—the plays themselves even more so.  A writer in one of the current publications of the day gives the following truthful picture of a “Saturday night at the Bowery:”

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“I had not loitered long at the entrance after the gas blazed up, when from up the street, and from down the street, and from across the street, there came little squads of dirty, ragged urchins—the true gamin of New York.  These at once made a gymnasium of the stone steps—stood on their heads upon the pavements or climbed, like locusts, the neighboring lamp-posts; itching for mischief; poking fun furiously; they were the merriest gang of young dare-devils I have seen in a long day.  It was not long before they were recruited by a fresh lot of young ‘sardines’ from somewhere else—then they went in for more monkey-shines until the door should be unbarred.  They seemed to know each other very well, as if they were some young club of genial spirits that had been organized outside of the barriers of society for a long while.  What funny habiliments they sported.  It had never been my experience to see old clothes thrown upon young limbs so grotesquely.  The coat that would have been a fit for a corpulent youth nearly buried a skinny form the height of your cane.

“And on the other hand, ‘young dropsy’s’ legs and arms were like links of dried ‘bolonas’ in the garments which misfortune’s raffle had drawn for him.  Hats without rims—hats of fur, dreadfully plucked, with free ventilation for the scalp—caps with big tips like little porches of leather—caps without tips, or, if a tip still clung to it, it was by a single thread and dangled on the wearer’s cheek like the husk of a banana.  The majority seemed to have a weakness for the costumes of the army and the navy.  Where a domestic tailor had clipped the skirts of a long blue military coat he had spared the two buttons of the waist-band, and they rested on the bare heels like a set of veritable spurs.  Shoes and boots (and remember it’s a December night) are rather scarce—and those by which these savoyards could have sworn by grinned fearfully with sets of naked toes.  One ‘young sport,’ he had seen scarcely ten such winters, rejoiced in a pair of odd-mated rubber over-shoes, about the dimensions of snow-shoes.  They saluted him as ‘Gums.’  A youngster, with a childish face and clear blue eyes, now shuffled upon the scene.

“‘O Lordy, here’s Horace, jist see his get up.’  A shout of laughter went up, and Horace was swallowed in the ragged mob.

“‘Horace’ sported a big army cap like a huge blue extinguisher.  He wrapped his wiry form in a cut-down, long-napped white beaver coat, the lapels of which were a foot square, and shingled his ankles as if he stood between a couple of placards.  I had seen the latest caricature on the philosopher of the Tribune, but this second edition of H. G. swamped it.  I knew that that young rogue had counted upon the effect of his white coat, and he enjoyed his christening with a gleeful face and a sparkle in his blue eyes.  O, for the pencil of a Beard or a Bellew, to portray those saucy pug-noses, those dirty and begrimed faces!  Faces with bars of blacking, like the shadows of small gridirons—faces with woful bruised peepers—faces with fun-flashing eyes—faces of striplings, yet so old and haggard—faces full of evil and deceit.

“Every mother’s son of them had his fists anchored in his breeches pockets, and swaggered about, nudging each other’s ribs with their sharp little elbows.  They were not many minutes together before a battle took place.  Some one had tripped ‘Gums,’ and one of his old shoes flew into the air.  I think he of the white coat was the rascal, but being dubbed a philosopher, he did his best to look very wise, but a slap on the side of the ridge of his white collar upset his dignity, and ‘Horace’ ‘went in,’ and his bony fists rattled away on the close-shaven pate of ‘Gums.’

“The doors are now unbarred, and this ragged ‘pent up little Utica’ rends itself, but not without much more scratching and much swearing.  O, the cold-blooded oaths that rang from those young lips!  As the passage to the pit is by a sort of cellar door, I lost sight of the young scamps as the last one pitched down its gloomy passage.

“In the human stream—in a whirlpool of fellow-beings—nudging their way to the boxes and the upper tiers, I now found myself.  It was a terrible struggle; females screaming, were eddied around and around until their very faces were in a wire cage of their own ‘skeletons.’

“‘Look out for pickpockets,’ shouted a Metropolitan.  Every body then tried to button his coat over his breast, and every body gave it up as a bad job.  In at last, but with the heat of that exertion—the smell of the hot gas—the fetid breath of two thousand souls, not particular, many, as to the quality of their gin—what a sweltering bath follows!  The usher sees a ticket clutched before him, and a breathless individual saying wildly, ‘Where?’  He points to a distant part of the house, and the way to it is through a sea of humanity.  A sort of a Dead Sea, for one can walk on it easier than he can dive through it.  I shall never know how I got there at last; all I remember now are the low curses, the angry growls and a road over corns and bunions.

“The prompter’s bell tingles and then tingles again.  The bearded Germans of the orchestra hush their music, and the big field of green baize shoots to the cob-web arch.

“Now is the time to scan the scene—that teeming house—that instant when all faces are turned eagerly to the foot-lights, waiting breathlessly the first sound of the actor’s voice.  The restlessness of that tossing sea of humanity is at a dead calm now.  Every nook and cranny is occupied—none too young—none too old to be there at the rise of the curtain.  The suckling infant ‘mewling and puking in its mother’s arms.’  The youngster rubbing his sleepy eyes.  The timid Miss, half frightened with the great mob and longing for the fairy world to be created.  Elder boys and elder sisters.  Mothers, fathers, and the wrinkled old grand-sire.  Many of these men sit in their shirt-sleeves, sweating in the humid atmosphere.  Women are giving suck to fat infants.  Blue-shirted sailors encircle their black-eyed Susans, with brawny arms (they make no ‘bones’ of showing their honest love in this democratic temple of Thespis).  Division street milliners, black-eyed, rosy-cheeked, and flashy dressed sit close to their jealous-eyed lovers.  Little Jew boys, with glossy ringlets and beady black eyes, with teeth and noses like their fat mammas and avaricious-looking papas, are yawning everywhere.  Then there is a great crowd of roughs, prentice boys and pale, German tailors—the latter with their legs uncrossed for a relaxation.  Emaciated German and Italian barbers, you know them from their dirty linen, their clean-shaven cheeks and their locks redolent with bear’s grease.

“Through this mass, wandering from pit to gallery, go the red-shirted peanut-venders, and almost every jaw in the vast concern is crushing nut-shells.  You fancy you hear it in the lulls of the play like a low unbroken growl.

“In the boxes sit some very handsome females—rather loudly dressed,—but beauty will beam and flash from any setting.

“Lean over the balcony, and behold in the depths below the famous pit, now crowded by that gang of little outlaws we parted with a short time ago.

“Of old times—of a bygone age—is this institution.  In no other theatre in the whole town is that choice spot yielded to the unwashed.  But this is the ‘Bowery,’ and those squally little spectators so busy scratching their close-mown polls, so vigorously pummeling each other, so unmercifully rattaned by despotic ushers—they are its best patrons.

“And are they not, in their light, great critics, too?  Don’t they know when to laugh, when to blubber, and when to applaud, and don’t they know when to hiss, though!  What a fiat is their withering hiss!  What poor actor dare brave it?  It has gone deep, deep into many a poor player’s heart and crushed him forever.

“The royal road to a news-boy’s heart is to rant in style.

“Versatile Eddy and vigorous Boniface are the lads, in our day, for the news-boys’ stamps.

“Ranting is out of the female line, but Bowery actresses have a substitute for it.

“At the proper moment, they draw themselves up in a rigid statue, they flash their big eyes, they dash about wildly their dishevelled hair, with out-stretched arms and protruding chins they then shriek out, V-i-l-l-a-i-n!

“O, Fannie Herring! what a tumult you have stirred up in the roused pit!  No help for it, my dear lady.  See, there’s ‘Horace,’ standing on his seat and swinging his big blue cap in a cloud of other caps—encore! encore!  And the pretty actress bows to the pit, and there is more joy in her heart from the yells of those skinny little throats than from all the flowers that ladies and gents from above may pelt her with.

“The bill of fare for an evening’s entertainment at the Old Bowery is as long as your cane, and the last piece takes us far into the night—yet the big house sits it out, and the little ones sleep it out, and the tired actor well earns his pay.

“I’ll not criticise the acting—a great part of the community thinks it’s beyond the pale of criticism—this peculiarity of tearing things to pieces, and tossing around ‘supes’ promiscuously.

“And another thing, those little ungodly imps down there have a great appreciation of virtue and pathos.  They dash their dirty fists into their peepers at the childish treble of a little Eva—and they cheer, O, so lustily, when Chastity sets her heavy foot upon the villain’s heart and points her sharp sword at his rascal throat.  They are very fickle in their bestowal of approbation, and their little fires die out or swell into a hot volcano according to the vehemence of the actor.  ‘Wake me up when Kirby dies,’ said a veteran little denizen of the pit to his companions, and he laid down on the bench to snooze.

“‘Mind yer eye, Porgie,’ said his companion, before Porgie had got a dozen winks.  ‘I think ther’s somthen goen to bust now.’  Porgie’s friend had a keen scent for sensation.

“As I came out, at the end of the performance, I again saw ‘Horace.’  He had just rescued a ‘butt’ from a watery grave in the gutter.  ‘Jeminy! don’t chaps about town smoke ‘em awful short now’days!’ was the observation of the young philosopher.

“The theatre is almost the only amusement that the ragged newsboy has, apart from those of the senses.  The Newsboys’ Lodging House, which has been the agent of so much good among this neglected class of our population, find the late hours of the theatre a serious obstacle to their usefulness.  It is safe to say that if the managers of the two Bowery Theatres would close at an earlier hour, say eleven o’clock, they would prosper as greatly as at present, and the boys who patronize their establishments would be much better off in body and mind.  An effort is about to be made to obtain this reform from the managers voluntarily—instead of seeking legislative aid.  We are quite sure it will be for the interest of all to close the theatres early.”

The Stadt Theatre, just across the street from the Old Bowery, is exclusively a German establishment.  It is a plain old-fashioned building, without and within, but is worth a fortune to its proprietors.  The performances are given in the German language, and the company is usually good.  The prices are high and the audiences are large.  Occasionally a season of German opera is given.  I doubt that a more appreciative audience is to be found than that which assembles within the walls of the Stadt on opera nights.  They are to a man good judges and dear lovers of music, and their applause, when it breaks forth, is a spontaneous outburst which shakes the house to its foundations.  It is generously given, too, and must be particularly grateful to the performers.

It is said that the members of the dramatic profession and the various attachés of the theatres number 5000 persons.  They constitute a class, or rather a world of their own.  We shall have more to say of some portions of them in other chapters, and can only speak of them in a general way here.  As a rule they are poor, and are compelled to work hard.  Wallack’s and a few other establishments pay good salaries and have many “off nights,” but of the majority of performers constant labor is required, at poor pay.  It is said that Forrest and Booth have received as much as $500 per night, and that Jefferson and Owens are paid at very near the same rate.  The “stars,” however, can make their own terms, but the rank and file of the profession have to take what they can get.  The pay of these ranges from $15 to $50 per week.  Some of the leading ladies and gentlemen receive from $100 to $200 per week, but these can be counted on the fingers of one hand.  Considering the work, the pay is poor, for an actor’s life requires an immense amount of study and preparation, and is terribly trying to the nervous system.  At some of the theatres three performances are sometimes given in a single day, the same members of the company appearing each time.

“Ballet girls,” says Olive Logan, “get from $8 to $15 per week; the prompter $25 to $30; the call boy $15; the property man’s salary ranges from $15 to $30.  Then there are men up in the rigging loft, who attend to the flies and the curtain wheel, and various assistants, at salaries of $20 and $10.  There are from two to three scene painters at salaries of from $60 to $100.  The back door keeper has $10, and two women to clean the theatre every day at $6 each.  The orchestra consists of a leader, at $100, and from twelve to sixteen musicians, whose salaries range from $30 to $18 a week.  The gasman and fireman get from $6 to $25 a week; costumer or wardrobe keeper $20 to $40; dressers $5 to $6; ushers $4 to $6; doorkeepers $12; policeman $5; treasurer $25 to $40.”

One of the most important positions in the establishment is the ticket clerk.  The receipts of the house pass through his hands, and as a constant effort is made to pass off bad money in this way, it is necessary to have some one in this position who is a good judge of money.  In some of the theatres a broker’s clerk or bank clerk is employed in this capacity.

With the exception of Wallack’s, the Fifth Avenue, and perhaps Booth’s, the theatres generally change their companies every season.  The houses named retain the favorites, and there are among these companies many whose loss would be loudly deplored by the theatre-going people of the city.  Many of the best actors, having distinguished themselves here, assume the rank of stars, and play engagements throughout the States.  A metropolitan reputation will carry them successfully over the whole Union.

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