There wasn’t much professional theater in America before the Revolutionary War. A scant handful of English troupes braved the Atlantic crossing to perform in the colonies, but they did so under great duress. Colonial religious and civic leaders denounced theater as symptomatic of the Old World wickedness and frivolity they’d come to the Americas to escape. Theater was specifically associated with prostitution, as hookers had traditionally found the pickings easy in theater balconies stuffed with young males out for a good time. Preachers called theater “the Devil’s Church.” Several colonies banned all stage plays outright. Even New York, a wide open party town from its beginnings as New Amsterdam, issued a ban against “play acting and prize fighting.” As the independence movement heated up, the Sons of Liberty and other patriot groups also turned hostile to English actors with their English plays.

Besides, America wasn’t a very accessible market. In the early 1700s the entire population of the colonies didn’t amount to a million people, including slaves, from Georgia to New England. The trip from New York to Boston took three days in the best weather, and getting between New York and Philadelphia could be impossible in winter when rivers froze. All three cities had populations of under twenty thousand each in 1750, when London’s was around half a million; New York wouldn’t be that big for another hundred years.

In the decades after the war American cities grew prodigiously, filling up with tradesmen, shipbuilders, dockworkers and a merchant middle class. This burgeoning urban population hungered for entertainments other than those offered by the many taverns and bawdy houses. The bans were lifted and American theater developed, though it still met some resistance from the new republic’s moral watchdogs, especially in Puritan towns like Boston.

When it opened in 1798 New Yorkers called the New Theatre (soon to be renamed the Park Theatre) simply “the theatre.” An imposing edifice with a capacity of more than two thousand inside, it faced the park where City Hall would be built in the 1810s, then the uptown outskirts of the city. Opening night a large and clamorous crowd rushed the doors and nearly started a riot, they were so excited to see As You Like It, which shared the bill with a couple of trifles called All in a Bustle and The American Tar. The prostitutes showed up en masse as well; to preserve a little propriety they used a side entrance with stairs that led directly to the balconies.

The Park drew New Yorkers from all walks of life. The wealthy elite in the dollar-a-seat boxes constantly complained about the loud, raucous misbehaving of the working-class crowd in the pit and balconies. Washington Irving wrote of the “stamping, hissing, roaring, whistling” from the “host of strapping fellows standing with their dirty boots on the seats of the benches.”

More theaters opened around the city from the 1810s on. The Bowery Theatre came along in 1826. Its founders included John Jacob Astor’s brother Henry and Alexander Hamilton’s son James. They had fine homes in the area around Bowery (then known as Bowery Lane) and Canal Street, and wanted a theater more convenient than the Park. The site they chose had been for a long time a stockyard that received cattle driven down the Boston Post Road (the Bowery), where butcher Henry Astor had done business. A famous tavern, the Bull’s Head, was there as well. By the 1820s the stockyard with its attendant slaughterhouses and tanneries had shifted farther uptown. Astor and Hamilton’s group built themselves a lofty faux-Greek temple of the dramatic arts next-door to the Bull’s Head site and called it the New-York Theatre. The three thousand seat house opened in 1826 and promptly burned down, not for the last time, in 1828. When it reopened as the Bowery Theatre that year, it was said to be “nobler and greater” than London’s Covent Garden, with the largest stage in America.

At its start the New-York/Bowery Theatre competed directly with the Park by showing mostly classics imported from England. But it never really caught on with the upper crust, and when Thomas Hamblin took over the management in 1830 he adjusted the programming. A Jacksonian democratic fervor had roused the common man in the 1820s, abetted by anti-English and anti-Whig sentiments left over from the War of 1812 and the anti-immigrant nativist or Know-Nothing movement. Capitalizing on this trend, Hamblin billed the Bowery as “the American Theatre, Bowery, a nursery of native talent.” It would be a theater for the common man, not the snoots at the Park.

As time went by, more and more theaters — and in fact all American culture — ranged themselves on either side of a highbrow/lowbrow divide. “Legitimate” theaters like the venerable Park and the short-lived Astor Place Opera House sought refined audiences with Shakespeare and opera (though with plenty of lower-brow folderol tossed in). They were also the only theaters where “nice” women were in the audience — in fact, made up a large portion of it, their husbands preferring to spend their leisure time smoking cigars in their clubs and patronizing the city’s finer whorehouses. Meanwhile the Bowery and others drew almost exclusively male crowds of working stiffs with a mix of melodrama, spectacle, slapstick clowning and pantomime, patriotic razzle-dazzle, dancing girls, blackface minstrels, animals (lots of horses to be ridden around on stage, a pachyderm in The Elephant of Siam), duelists, acrobats, and whatever else they could throw on stage. It was the start of what came to be known as variety theater, the precursor to vaudeville.

Four out of five plays at the Bowery in the 1830s were slam-bang melodramas, or mellers, with titles like The Curse, The Maid of the Mist, The Demon Duke, Captain Kyd, The Enchanted Flying Steed, The Last Days of Pompeii and The Liberation of Texas. Some were English imports, but increasingly they were written by Americans, and pitched directly at an audience of working men and boys. They featured simple plots and eye-popping stage mechanics — working volcanoes and waterfalls, fully rigged ships, fireworks, lots of trap door entrances and exits. The characters were broad — an evil villain, a virtuous maiden and a doughty hero — and fight scenes led up to a climactic melee that left the stage littered with corpse-actors. Fans, recalling what had stood on the site previously, nicknamed it the Bowery Slaughterhouse. There was typically so much fighting and dying in the last act that stars took it easy earlier in the play to conserve their energy. The actor J. Hudson Kirby was so notorious for pacing himself through the early acts that "Wake me up when Kirby dies" became common slang on the Bowery in the 1840s.

The Bowery and other theaters also drew crowds with a nineteenth-century version of the Hollywood star system. Big name actors like the American Edwin Forrest and the British thespians William Charles Macready and Junius Brutus Booth (Edwin and John Wilkes’ father) enjoyed large, very passionate followings. Philadelphia-born Forrest was one of the first Americans to rival the British Shakespeareans. He honed his craft touring the boonies of the South and West, specializing in blackface roles like Othello, which he brought to the New-York Theatre in its inaugural year. Booth, meanwhile, was pure Grade A ham. His histrionic acting style, endlessly parodied in his time and since, was looked down on as vulgar and showy by the sophisticated Park Theatre audience, but much loved on the Bowery stage. Edwin would be a much more restrained actor. Stars could make or break a theater. When the popular comic performer George L. Fox left the New National Theatre on Chatham Square for the Bowery in 1858, a sizable part of the audience went with him. The National struggled without its star and closed four years later.

You can tell how successful this all was from the fact that when the Bowery burned down again in 1836, and again in 1838, and again in 1845, Hamblin easily raised the funds to start rebuilding before the ashes were cold. After the 1845 fire, for instance, a rebuilt Bowery Theatre — the fifth and last — reopened for business within three months. It managed to stand the longest, until it too burned in 1929. The Park, meanwhile, burned down in 1848 and was never revived. Its highbrow patrons had moved too far uptown to continue supporting it. (The J&R complex of gizmo stores now occupies its site.)

With its spectacles and stars, the Bowery packed them in. One newspaperman in the 1840s described the typical Bowery audience as “firemen, butcher-boys, cab and omnibus drivers, fancy men, and b’hoys, generally,” who formed “a vast sea of upturned faces and red flannel shirts, extending its roaring and turbid waves close up to the footlights… chanking peanuts and squirting tobacco juice upon the stage.” An apron of iron spikes barred them from rushing the stage, but the theater’s food concession handily sold fruit they could hurl at actors they didn’t like. Ushers functioned more as bouncers, and carried rattan canes for use on the rowdiest.

Walt Whitman had his own reasons to be sympathetic to a crowd of working men and boys. His reminiscences of the theater pulse with a barely suppressed eroticism as he recalls the place “pack’d from ceiling to pit with its audience mainly of alert, well-dress’d, full-blooded young and middle-aged men, the best average of American-born mechanics… the whole crowded auditorium, and what seeth’d in it, and flush’d from its faces and eyes, to me as much a part of the show as any — bursting forth in one of those long-kept-up tempests of hand-clapping peculiar to the Bowery — no dainty kid-glove business, but electric force and muscle from perhaps 2,000 full-sinew’d men… the young ship-builders, cartmen, butchers, firemen… Slang, wit, occasional shirt sleeves, and a picturesque freedom of looks and manners, with a rude good-nature and restless movement, were generally noticeable.”

Whipping up this crowd with a constant display of apocalyptic stage mayhem could be dangerous, as Hamblin and other impresarios discovered. In 1834, which came to be known as the Year of the Riots, mob violence broke out in New York thirteen times — Irish versus Negroes, Tammany toughs against hoity-toity Whigs, abolitionists versus pro-slavers, nativists against immigrants, and the Stonecutters’ Riot in Greenwich Village, where local workers objected to constructing the first NYU building using cheap stone cut upriver by prisoners at Sing Sing. The worst of these riots involved the Bowery, where Hamblin’s English-born stage manager was reported to have grumbled, “Damn the Yankees. They are a damn set of jackasses, and fit to be gulled.” A mob of more than a thousand trashed his theater as part of four nights of general destruction that also targeted the homes, churches and businesses of blacks and abolitionists. Hamblin evaded serious bodily harm by frantically waving an American flag and apologizing to the mob.

A feud between Forrest and Macready was the pretext for the Astor Place riot of 1849, the deadliest public disturbance in the city’s history to then. The rivalry between them evidently began in London in 1845, when Forrest was touring England to some success, until an audience hissed at him during a performance of the Scottish play. Critics wrote that Macbeth was simply not a role suited to Forrest’s talents, but he chose to believe that Macready had instigated a hissing campaign out of jealousy. Not long after, Macready was performing Hamlet in Edinburgh when Forrest stood up in his booth and hissed loudly. This ungentlemanly act ruined his good reputation in England. In New York, Forrest’s fans were associated with the Bowery, Macready’s with the higher-class Astor Place Opera House. On May 10 1849 a mob of Forrest’s fans marched up to the Opera House, where Macready was performing Shakespeare — Macbeth no less — for an audience of the city’s elite. The mob tossed paving stones through the windows and set the building alight. When police failed to quell the disturbance, the militia was called out. They fired on the crowd, killing twenty-three and wounding many others. “Disaster Place,” as it was now nicknamed, lost its audience, turned into a minstrel house and closed a few years later.

More than an actor’s bruised feelings were behind the mob’s action. Among those arrested was E. Z. C. Judson, better known by his nom de plume Ned Buntline, the Wild West dime novelist who made Buffalo Bill famous. Judson was a rabid Know-Nothing and co-founder of the nativist American Committee. He had helped stir up the crowd with an incendiary broadsheet railing against “the English Aristocratic Opera House” and asking, “Working men: Shall Americans or English rule in this city?” He was convicted of inciting a riot and given a year’s jail time.

In 1859 George L. Fox and a partner built a direct competitor to the Bowery just a block away, and boldly named it the New Bowery Theatre. From then on the original was known colloquially as the Old Bowery, as in the opening passage of Horatio Alger’s 1868 Ragged Dick, where Dick the bootblack wakes up late because “I went to the Old Bowery last night, and didn’t turn in till past twelve.” Its programming kept changing with the demographics of the area. In the 1870s, it became the German-language Thalia. (Next door, the old Bull’s Head site was now a grand German beer hall, Atlantic Garden.) By the 1890s the Thalia was a Yiddish theater. Yip (“Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”) Harburg used to sneak off to the Thalia with his dad on Saturdays when they were supposed to be at temple. In the early 1900s the theater was presenting Italian vaudeville, and by the 1920s it was the Chinese Fay’s Bowery Theatre. There are photos of the grand neoclassical hall looking completely out of place on the downtrodden, El-dominated Bowery of the early 1900s. When Fay’s burned down in 1929, that was the final curtain for the Old Bowery. The large building that stands on its site today houses Chinese restaurants and a walk-through arcade of shops and stalls.

by John Strausbaugh 

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