Today in Theatre History: JOHN WILKES BOOTH’S PREMIERE PERFORMANCE–August 14, 1855

English: John Wilkes Booth.

John Wilkes Booth–at the height of his fame and fortune–looking very much like a Corinthian capital.

Yes.  I know this is a day late.  But nonetheless on this day (yesterday) in theatre history–August 14, 1855–John Wilkes Booth made his professional stage debut performing the Earl of Richmond in Shakespeare’s Richard III at the Charles Street Theatre in Baltimore, Maryland.  His opening night did not go well.  Experiencing a bit of stage fright, he went up on several lines, resulting in a chorus of hisses and boos from the overly attentive audience.  But he remained unfazed by the experience and continued his storied and infamous career as a member of several stock companies, mainly in Philadelphia and Richmond, Virginia.  By 1858, he was fast on his way to becoming a leading star of the stage, praised by critics as a “natural genius” and “the handsomest man in America.”  One critic called him a “perfect man… like a Corinthian capital.”  His performances were described as highly athletic, even acrobatic.  And his expertise with stage weaponry was legendary–despite the fact that he ran himself through with his own sword more than once during performances.  Most importantly, he had become a matinee idol of national renown, especially favored by the young women in the audience.  By the end of the 1850s, Booth was earning in excess of $20,000 a year–top pay for an actor in those days, roughly the equivalent today of half a million dollars.

But over the next several years, things began to sour for the young star.  Several failed business ventures cost him a considerable percentage of his personal wealth and the Civil War was further cutting into his annual profits and national fame.  Quarrels with his equally famous brothers over the war led to a family split.  And as we all know, by 1865 Booth had become involved in a plot to first kidnap President Lincoln and then to assassinate him.  Almost ten years after he made his professional stage debut, John Wilkes Booth put a premature end to both his career and his life in his final performance at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865.  He was 26 years old.

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