Today in Theatre History: AMERICA’S FIRST PROFESSIONAL OUTDOOR THEATRE–July 9, 1800

On this day in theatre history–July 9, 1800–the first commercial outdoor theatre in the United States was opened by chef-turned-theatre manager, Joseph Corre, on the northwest corner of Leonard Street and Broadway in New York City.  It was called The Theatre at Mount Vernon Gardens and was situated within Corre’s private outdoor park and tavern.  Mount Vernon Gardens was among the first of many New York “gardens” that became popular hangouts for hot and tired city dwellers looking to escape the hustle and bustle.  It was certainly the first of New York’s gardens to offer professional theatre.  The performance advertised for this evening was a two-act farce entitled Miss in Her Teens; or, the Medley of Lovers.  Playing the leading roles were some of New York’s top performers, including Joseph Jefferson I and Lewis Hallam, Jr., both on loan from the nearby Park Theatre–which was on summer hiatus. Price of admission was 4s (shillings were still in use in most American cities and were worth about 25 American cents), with a curtain scheduled for 9pm–quite late for a Wednesday evening.  It was the first of several plays performed that summer at the gardens.

No images survive of Corre's Mount Vernon Gardens.  But this print of Vauxhall Gardens in 1803 gives a sense of what these New York pleasure gardens were like.  Vauxhall was one of Corre's chief competitors and may well have driving him out of business.

No images survive of Corre’s Mount Vernon Gardens. But this print of Vauxhall Gardens in 1803 gives a sense of what these New York pleasure gardens were like. Vauxhall was one of Corre’s chief competitors and may well have driven him out of business.

Today, of course, the site of Corre’s Mount Vernon Gardens is deep within lower Manhattan, just two blocks north of City Hall.  But in 1800, it was out in the country and served as a refreshing rural getaway.  Theatre was only a sidelight for the gardens, whose principal function was as an outdoor tavern–a place for New Yorkers to sip a beverage within a bucolic, pastoral setting just minutes from downtown.  As the popularity of “gardens” grew, they became major entertainment centers, employing a wide variety of events and performances to entice visitors.  By the mid-century, New York’s gardens were becoming serious competition to legitimate theatre, especially during the summer months.  But instead of fighting, many commerical managers embraced the opportunity that summer theatre offered.  Eventually, the term “garden” became associated with any multipurposed indoor facility–hence, Madison Square Gardens.

Unfortunately, Mr. Corre’s Mount Vernon Gardens didn’t last, at least as a theatrical venue.  After three seasons, the formal theatrical offerings ceased, though the facility continued for several more years, offering concerts, pyrotechnical displays and various paratheatrical events that were typically found at New York’s other private gardens.  But Corre’s innovation was quickly picked up by others and within 20 years there were a number of garden theatres successfully operating in New York City.  Some were roof gardens, operating on top of buildings and providing extra income for property owners.  Among the best known of these early outdoor facilities were Columbian Gardens, United States Gardens, and Vauxhall.  Even New York’s first African-American theatre, The African Grove, was at one point an outdoor “garden.”

While it’s tempting to draw a connection between these early facilities and today’s outdoor Shakespeare festivals, I think it’s a very tenuous one.  Performing outdoors was certainly not a New York invention.  And the impetus to perform alfresco at the many summer festivals today is unrelated to Corre’s decision to offer up his gardens for theatre in the summers.  Perhaps Corre’s real contribution to American theatre was not staging outdoor performances, but creating a summer season that allowed audiences lighter fare in a less formal setting.  And in this way, perhaps, we can draw at least some similarities to summer theatres today.

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