Today in Theatre History: THE PASSING SHOW, 1894

A good example of how economic crashes have influenced the stage can be seen in The Passing Show of 1894.  It opened on May 12 and ran for a very healthy 145 performances at a time when other theatres were struggling to remain open.

The previous year saw the great Panic of 1893 sweep the industrialized countries followed by a severe and lasting depression.  Like previous economic declines, the theatre suffered with thousands out of work and the entertainment industry heading for another long stretch of financial distress.  As usual, managers and producers struggled to make ends meet by trying anything and everything to attract a paying audience.  In some cases, nothing was enough and bankruptcy was the only option.  Such was the case with the famed McCaull Comic Opera Company which had been successfully operating at the Casino Theatre on Broadway since 1882, producing the works of Gilbert and Sullivan, among others.

By 1893, the company was in serious trouble and the next year, with the untimely death of its founder, John A. McCaull, the theatre finally went under.  Seizing the opportunity, former opera singer, George Lederer, purchased the lease for the theatre at a steep discount and threw together what he called a “review” (yes, not “revue”)–a collection of short sketches and acts that spoofed shows from the previous theatrical season.  He called it The Passing Show and it was an enormous success–so successful, in fact, that Lederer continued to offer his spoofs each summer for the next five years.  His “review” would become Broadway’s first successful revue and set the standard for those tGeorge Lederer .jpghat followed, including The Ziegfeld Follies (1907-1931) and the Shuberts’ own annual version, which they also titled The Passing Show (1912-1924).  Lederer continued to be a major player on Broadway, producing a number a major hits, until another great depression forced him into retirement in 1931.  Lederer’s influence is still felt today in the variety/parody forms found in such shows as Forbidden Broadway and The Second City productions as well as the ubiquitous variety format common to many popular television shows (“Saturday Night Live,” “Late Night with David Letterman,” etc.).  And it all started on this day–May 12–back in 1894.

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