On September 1, 1821, New York City celebrated the reopening of one of its greatest cultural institutions–the Park Theatre. For over two decades, beginning in 1798, the Park was New York’s principal facility for theatrical entertainment, hosting some the country’s greatest productions and importing some of Britain’s greatest stars to show Americans how it’s done. But in 1820, the theatre burned down, leaving the city without its premiere playhouse. (Was it mere coincidence that the African Grove suddenly took off in 1821 as the first great venue for African American performances of Shakespeare and other new works, hoping to fill the gap left by the loss of the Park?) John Jacob Astor, who purchased the building in 1805, immediately began plans to rebuild. It wasn’t a business decision–there’s evidence the theatre was only modestly profitable at best. It was for Astor, however, a cultural necessity–his gift to the city. And when it reopened on this very day in 1821, Astor got a bit of a pleasant surprise. The theatre’s year-long hiatus in what was now America’s largest city (having recently surpassed Philadelphia for that honor), made culturally starved audiences hungry for entertainment. For the next two years, as New York’s only professional playhouse, The Park reigned supreme, and it proved to be the theatre’s most profitable period. Despite competition appearing in 1823 with the opening of the Chatham Garden and again in 1826 with the Bowery, the Park had reestablished itself as the city’s finest playhouse, providing New Yorkers with the very best American theatre had to offer. But it wouldn’t last, of course. The financial depression of 1837 forced theatres to reinvent themselves. Commercial necessities dictated by financial exigencies, demanded new forms of entertainment and new audiences not drawn from the city’s elite classes. By the mid 1840s, the Park was no longer New York’s top theatre. The city had grown up and its population center moved north of the Park’s once prime location on Park Row near City Hall. When the structure burned again in 1848, the Astor family wisely decided not to rebuilt, recognizing that the theatre industry had moved north, along with the city’s population, up an ever-expanding boulevard called Broadway, and New York’s first great playhouse disappeared forever.
- Today in Theatre History: WILLIAM WELLS BROWN’S “ESCAPE” LEAPS TO FAME–January 30, 1858
- Today in Theatre History: SHERIDAN’S FIRST PLAY, THE RIVALS, GETS A DO-OVER–January 28, 1775
- Today in Theatre History: OFF TO SEE THE WIZARD WITH DOROTHY AND IMOGENE THE COW–January 21, 1903
- Today in Theatre History: GEORGE BERNARD SHAW, “A THIRD RATE IBSEN”–January 9, 1905
- Today in Theatre History: GODOT FINALLY ARRIVES!–January 5, 1953
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