FOR the half-century preceding the Civil War New Orleans was an important center in the theatrical world. The population of the city, made up in large part of pleasure-loving Latins, was quick to support the first efforts at establishing a theater. As a result several theaters sprang up during the early part of the nineteenth century, and the drama in New Orleans for a time achieved a standard of excellence rivaling, or perhaps surpassing, that of any city in the country.
While New Orleans was yet under the rule of Spain, there arrived in 1791 a homeless refugee band of actors and actresses who had fled the terrors of a murderous Negro uprising in the French West Indies. This troupe, which was headed by a Monsieur Louis Tabary, for a time gave performances in improvised quarters such as tents or vacant shops, and received such enthusiastic acclaim that before long it obtained a more permanent and commodious location. This first theater was known under various names through the years, but is best remembered as Le Spectacle de la Rue St. Pierre. The building was located at 732 St. Peter Street; it is not known whether any part of the original structure remains.
A noisy and boisterous element, as well as the elite, must have frequented the playhouse, because on November 28, 1804, the following police orders were published and posted in the theater:
The second theater to be founded in New Orleans was the St. Philip, erected in 1808 on St. Philip Street between Royal and Bourbon at a cost of approximately $100,000. It had a seating capacity of seven hundred and included a large parquet with two tiers of boxes. One of the early programs here included the first corps de ballet to be presented in New Orleans; for several years the best dramatic talent available was offered. The theater continued to be a successful enterprise until 1832.
The Orleans Theater, the third to be established in the city, was located at 721 Orleans Street, just off Royal. The first building, erected in 1809, was destroyed four years later by fire, but rebuilt soon after in a more pretentious style, the exterior being adorned with Doric colonnades. Besides a spacious parquet, the building contained several galleries, two tiers of boxes, and loge seats set off by lattice or iron grillwork. Performances began at six in the evening and frequently lasted until two or three o'clock the next morning. One night's program might include an opera or vaudeville, a comedy, and finally a heavy drama to complete the bill. It was here that Lafayette was entertained in 1825, a special performance having been arranged in his honor. In the building next door, and operated in connection with the theater, was the Orleans Ballroom, scene of many of the most noted entertainments of the period; for a time the famous quadroon balls were held here.
These first theaters were given over to programs in the French language. It was not until an American troupe known as the Commonwealth Company, with Noah Ludlow as one of its members, came to New Orleans in 1817 and obtained temporary use of the St. Philip Theater that plays were produced in English. These first performances were so well received by the English-speaking element of the city that James Caldwell, an English actor who came to the city in 1820, was encouraged to build a theater in which only English plays would be produced. This was accomplished with the erection of the American Theater in 1822-23, the first building in New Orleans to be illuminated with gas. Located on the lake side of Camp Street, between Gravier and Poydras, and seating 1100 people, the building was put up at a cost of $120,000. The theater, formally opened on January 1, 1824, became noted throughout the country for its excellent entertainment. Almost every prominent actor or actress of the day appeared there.
Caldwell erected another theater, the St. Charles, at 432 St. Charles Street, in 1835 and in 1842 took over the New American, the second theater of that name erected on Poydras near Camp Street. The St. Charles, then perhaps the most magnificent in America, is said to have compared favorably with the opera houses of Naples, Milan, and Vienna. Construction of the building alone cost $350,000. The huge central dome and mammoth chandelier attracted hundreds of people from all over the country; the chandelier, weighing more than two tons, had 250 gas lights and 23,300 cut-glass drops. Playing to a full house containing four thousand seats and forty-seven boxes, the theater opened with the ' School for Scandal' and the 'Spoiled Child.' Seven years later it was destroyed by fire, and a second theater by the same name was built on the site by Noah Ludlow and Sol Smith, competitors of Caldwell.
This theater was operated with success until it was destroyed by fire in 1899. A new theater, built on the site in 1902, was used by the Orpheum Company before the present Orpheum Theater on University Place was constructed in the early 1920's. After remaining closed for several years, the St. Charles was used from time to time for legitimate stage productions; at present it is a motion-picture house.
Many famous players appeared at the three theaters, among them Edwin Booth, James Brutus Booth, Jenny Lind, and Fanny Ellsler. Joe Jefferson, who made his home at Jefferson Island, Louisiana, after 1869, appeared often at the St. Charles. Returning from a tour of Texas during the Mexican War, he mentions seeing Mr. and Mrs. James W. Wallack, Jr., in 'Richard III,' a play 'finely acted but indifferently mounted.' What impressed him most, however, was the after-piece, 'A Kiss in the Dark,' a farce featuring the rising young comedian, James E. Owens, whose 'effective style and great flow of animal spirits' aroused the professional jealousy of Jefferson, who 'had hoped to see something not quite so good.'
Another popular theater of the nineteenth century was Placide's Varieties, opened in 1849, on Gravier Street between Baronne and Carondelet. The establishment was under the management of Tom Placide, the actor. After five successful seasons the theater was partially destroyed by fire, but reopened the next year under a new name, the Gaiety. In 1870 the building burned down completely, and the owners built a new theater, afterwards called the Grand Opera House, on the present site of the Maison Blanche, a Canal Street department store.
The old Varieties experienced its greatest period of prosperity during the three-month stay in 1853 of Lola Montez, the famous dancer who was created Countess of Lansfield by the King of Bavaria. Upon arrival in New Orleans she was met by two large groups, one representing the more puritanical element in the city which bitterly opposed her appearance; the other hailed her coming with glee and boisterous celebration. A near-riot occurred at the St. Charles Hotel a few hours later, when the music of a band employed by the welcoming young blades was drowned out by boos and catcalls of the opposing faction.
Perhaps the most amusing series of many hilarious incidents surrounding Lola's stay in New Orleans ensued when she, replying with a kick to amorous advances made by the theater prompter, was very much astonished to be soundly kicked in return; the stage manager and others intervened, and the luckless Lothario suffered a severe beating. He then very ungallantly proceeded to file charges of assault and battery against the dancer. A great crowd scrambled madly to her trial, cheering when Lola exhibited as evidence a swollen, angry bruise high upon her thigh. Thereafter the prompter cherished his one rather dubious bid to fame as the 'Man who kicked the Countess.'
On December 1, 1859, the initial performance was given at the French Opera, which housed plays as well as operas until it was destroyed by fire in 1919.
The National Theater, established about the middle of the nineteenth century, was located on Baronne Street, at the present site of the De Soto Hotel. The theater was founded for the production of German plays, and for a time was known as the German National. The playhouse had a varied but successful existence until it burned in 1885.
Other places of amusement in existence before 1880, but which played comparatively minor roles in the development of dramatic art in the city, include the Club Theater, the Bijou, Atlantic Gardens, and Wenger's Garden.
The showboats were in their heyday from 1870 to 1890. These 'floating palaces' bore such picturesque names as 'Cotton Blossom,' 'Daisy Belle' and 'River Maid.' Up and down the Mississippi and its tributaries they plied, playing the old favorite melodramas over and over, to a thousand miles of audience. 'East Lynne' and 'Tempest and Sunshine' were enjoyed time and again by young and old, white and Negro, often so many times that the audiences knew the lines as well as the actors did; but when the showboat came round the bend, calliope screaming, band blaring, and flags flying, excitement spread along the levee and back into the fields like wildfire, as if an entirely new and wonderful thing were about to happen.
The Greenwald Theater, 201 Dauphine Street, opened in 1904 with a stage presentation of 'The Wife.' But the following season it opened with a burlesque show, which type of entertainment continued for some years. Then, for a time, the building was used by a stock company, the 'Emma Bunting Players,' and the name was changed to the Emma Bunting Theater.
The Tulane Theater, Baronne between Canal and Common, built in 1898, had a seating capacity of 1500, with a parquet, balcony, and gallery including four boxes on each floor. Special attention was given to the acoustics, the design imitating the drumlike formation of the old French Opera. A great number of famous actors and actresses appeared at the Tulane, including Julia Marlowe, George Arliss, Richard Mansfield, Maude Adams, De Wolf Hopper, Robert Mantell, Katharine Cornell, and Anna Held.
New Orleans has produced a host of lesser theatrical lights and about a half-dozen who attained world-wide recognition and fame. At the head of the list is Adah Isaacs Menken, born in Milneburg, a suburb of New Orleans, about 1835. Her parentage and early life are shrouded in mystery; her own accounts, conflicting statements apparently given out for publicity purposes, add to the confusion. She began her career as a dancer, graduated to drama in her early twenties, and in the short space of her life, thirty odd years, became remarkably versatile, adding poetry, painting, sculpturing, singing, and a knowledge of French, Hebrew, German, and Spanish to her accomplishments. In 1856, at Livingston, Texas, she married Alexander Isaacs Menken, the first of a series of four or more husbands, and the following year made her stage debut at Shreveport, Louisiana, as Pauline in 'The Lady of Lyons.' A few months later she appeared in New Orleans as Bianca in ' Fazio,' and thereafter, using her first husband's name, began a theatrical career that made her the toast of Europe and America.
Her remarkable beauty, her extravagant and uninhibited manner of acting, and the aura of rumored immorality attached to her name caused her every performance to be a sell-out. Adept in the modern Hollywood technique of acquiring box-office value through publicity stunts, she committed one sensational act after another. She was involved in bigamy with her second husband, John Heenan, famous prize-fighter of the day, was arrested as a Secessionist, and at Astley's Theater in London in 1864 created a sensation as a scantily clad Mazeppa, the first woman to essay the role and the first performer to ride a horse in the scene in which a dummy had always been strapped to a horse.
Celebrities of two continents Mark Twain, Bret Harte, Artemus Ward, Walt Whitman, Georges Sand, Alexandre Dumas, Theophile Gautier, Charles Dickens, Algernon Swinburne paid homage to her, and she went from triumph to triumph, amusing herself and the world. She died in Paris in 1868 while rehearsing for a new version of 'Les Pirates,' and was buried in Montparnasse. The simple inscription on her tomb, 'Thou Knowest,' epitomizes her brilliant career, as does Swinburne's remark written on a copy of her volume of poems, 'Infelicia,', 'Lo, this is she that was the world's delight.'
Cora Urquhart Potter, another native star, made her first professional appearance in London, in a play called 'Man and Wife,' produced hi 1877. She later played at the Fifth Avenue Theater in New York and toured the United States in Shakespearian and other roles.
Minnie Maddern Fiske was born in New Orleans in 1865. She made her first appearance at the age of five as the little Duke of York in 'Richard the Third.' In 1897 she attained her greatest success in 'Tess of the D'Urbervilles,' one of the greatest pieces of emotional work done by any actress of her time.
Edward Hugh Sothern was born in a boarding-house on Bienville Street, New Orleans, in 1859, while his parents were on tour. During the first years of his career he was known as a comedian, later as a romantic and Shakespearian actor. Between 1904 and 1914 he and Julia Marlowe were considered the leading Shakespearian exponents in the United States.
In Sothern's entertaining reminiscences, Melancholy Tale of Me, he tells of how, on a visit to New Orleans, an old lady gave him 'a small fawn-colored coat, very old-fashioned, with high collar, bell-shaped cuffs, pearl buttons as large as a half dollar, much moth-eaten,' which Dion Boucicault had lent to Sothern's father to wear on the stage. In a pocket of the coat he was pleasantly surprised to find some memoranda written in his father's hand.
Sidney Shields, who for many years was Walker Whiteside's leading lady, was born and reared in New Orleans. She came of a family long active in theatrical circles of this city.
Robert Edeson, born in New Orleans in 1868, spent his childhood in Brooklyn, and began his successful stage career in New York. He was one of the first actors of the legitimate stage to enter motion pictures.
Marguerite Clark (Mrs. Harry P. Williams), famous star of the silent films, has lived in New Orleans many years.
Many plays have been written in, about, and for New Orleans, ranging from French printings on the intrigues of the nineteenth century to a very modern play, 'Stevedore,' based on Negro life of the city's wharves.
One of the earlier plays, titled 'Mis' Nelly of N'Orleans,' was written by Lawrence Eyre; Minnie Maddern Fiske toured in it for several years. 'Danse Calinda,' by Ridgely Torrence, is a pantomime of nineteenth-century Mardi Gras in New Orleans. 'A La Creole,' a three-act play by Flo Field produced in 1927, is of authentic New Orleans atmosphere, and has genuine Creole and Cajun characters; as presented in New Orleans, the play was considered one of the best ever written about the city.
'Stevedore,' by George Sklar and Paul Peters, is the latest play with a New Orleans setting. This three-act race tragedy, performed by a cast of Negroes and whites, is a dynamic portrayal of a wharf strike. The play has been highly successful in the East.
A history of the amateur theatrical groups about which theatrical activity in the city now centers would begin with what is believed to have been one of the earliest 'little theaters' in the country. On the spacious grounds of her mansion 'Roselawn' (now 3512 St. Charles Avenue) Madame Rosa Salomon da Ponte, a noted beauty, built and equipped a miniature theater. She engaged a director in 1891, and presented the first play, 'Called Back, a Romance Drama,' a thriller with subtitles such as 'The Blind Witness,' 'Recognition', 'The Vanished Past,' 'A Black Lie,' and 'Tracked to Siberia.'
Madame da Ponte carried stage illusion into her drawing-room; her friends remember teas in caverns of ice, and balls in Egyptian marble palaces. After a few years the Roselawn's patroness left for Europe in search of new triumphs; she succeeded in her quest, gaining international fame as a beauty and belle. But the hitherto promising little theater, no longer blessed with Madame da Ponte's extraordinary personality and generous purse, went into a decline and died an almost unnoticed death.
Today Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre, 616 St. Peter Street, the outgrowth of 'The Drawing Room Players,' headed by Mrs. Oscar J. Nixon and organized in 1916, has become one of the best-known little theaters in the country. The Group Theater, 2211 Magazine Street, organized in 1934, has given a number of noteworthy modern productions. Le Petit Theatre du Reveil Francais, 939 North Rampart Street, was started in 1930 with the purpose of preserving the French language in New Orleans. The Civic Theater, the Algiers Little Theater, and the dramatic clubs of the schools and colleges throughout the city are also active. A limited number of tickets for non-members are usually on sale for the various productions.NEW ORLEANS CITY GUIDE
Of these, the GRAND OPERA HOUSE on Canal, near corner Dauphine, is the most prominent. In this building the most noted engagements are made. It has a seating capacity of eighteen hundred.
ST. CHARLES THEATRE, No. 102 St. Charles Street, is also a leading theatre, and has a seating capacity of three thousand.
The Academy of Music 90 and 92 St. Charles Street, is another under the same management as the St. Charles. It seats twenty-two hundred.
THE FRENCH OPERA HOUSE, an immense pile at the corner of Bourbon and Toulouse streets. It was built in 1849. Greek revival architecture, it is entirely void of curves, and composed of squares and angles piled up against each other like a huge cathedral that required centuries to build. It is quite in keeping with the quaint Franco-Spanish edifices around it, but a giant among them. It is the home of French opera in New Orleans, and which, to inaugurate each season, a large subscription list is necessary. The following is a list for the season of 1884-85:
Exposition Season commencing February 2, and ending May 31, 1885.
Robinson's dime museum. Canal Street, below St. Charles, what you will find in every city of a hundred thousand inhabitants, the usual dwarf, giant, skeleton, long-haired lady, long haired-man, bearded lady, glass-blower, extraordinary cow and Punch and Judy, supplemented by a stage performance every hour. "Please pass on gentlemen to the theatre below; reserved opera chairs only one dime extra."
GRUNNEWALD HALL, Baronne Street, seats one thousand, but has no regular engagements.
ROYAL MEXICAN AUTOMATON SHOW, 199 Canal Street. Pictures of Life in Mexico. Admission ten cents.
BATTLE OF SEDAN, opposite Magazine Street, entrance to Exposition. Admission fifty cents.
BUFFALO BILL'S WILD WEST EXHIBITION, at Oakland Park, afternoons only. Admission fifty cents. Horse-cars from Canal and Carondelet.NEW ORLEANS AS IT IS