Today in Theatre History: “A WELL-REGULATED THEATRE”; OR, THE OPENING OF THE BOWERY–October 22, 1826

English: illustration of bowery theatre NYC

Most definitely not Hone’s idea of a “well-regulated theatre.”

With the rise in immigration and industrialization following the Napoleonic wars, New York’s neighborhoods began reaching farther northward and away from the traditional old city at the southern tip of Manhattan.  And as the city expanded, the wealthy found themselves moving farther north to avoid the crowds and working classes that were now filling up the old neighborhoods.  By the mid-1820s, the northerly migrating elite were demanding easier access to culture–the Park Theatre being too far south now and too close to the more unsavory elements flooding the city.  With the help of Henry Astor, a committee was formed to buy a site and build a new theatre within reach of the newly opened and fashionable Lafayette Street.  And it was on this day in theatre history–October 22, 1826–that the “New York Theatre” was opened.  The city mayor, Philip Hone, extolled the theatre’s latest features and encouraged the city’s elite to frequent the new facility in his opening day speech:  “It is therefore incumbent upon those whose standing in society enables them to control the opinions and direct the judgment of others, to encourage, by their countenance and support, a well-regulated theatre.”   And indeed, for the first couple of years, the “New York Theatre” was home to great plays, operas, and ballets.  Classy and well-regulated indeed.  But after burning down in 1828, a new management team took over– Thomas Hamblin and James H. Hackett.  They not only rebuilt the theatre but immediately recognized that the city was expanding faster than most had realized.  The working classes were beginning to move northward as well.  So the “New York Theatre” became the “Bowery Theatre” and began offering productions designed to appeal to a much larger audience–rejecting the Eurocentric fare of the earlier seasons and replacing it with nativist-Americanist melodramas and eventually blackface minstrelsy.   The Bowery became the seat of popular culture and the city’s working-classes, embracing the caricatures and stereotypes that would come to dominate American entertainment for decades.  Among the performers who were welcomed on the Bowery’s stage were Thomas D. Rice (the earliest and most famous of the Jim Crow blackface performers), Frank Chanfrau (whose “Bowery B’hoy” character became a fixture of New York culture), and George L. Fox (the great pantomime performer who remained one of the theatre’s top stars well into the 186os).  Eventually, the Bowery became home to a succession of immigrant audiences, reflecting the ever-changing demographics of New York City–Irish, German, Yiddish, Italian, and finally Chinese.  In 1929, the structure burned down for the last time and was not rebuilt–Broadway had moved well north, beyond the confines of the old city.  But the Bowery, and its many manifestations, had permanently changed the American theatre, providing working-class entertainment and identity, encouraging American plays, actors, caricatures and stereotypes, while altering the nature of popular culture well into the 20th century.  For better or worse, the Bowery was an iconic American institution.  And while it quickly abandoned Hone’s exhortation to become “a well-regulated theatre,” the Bowery instead established its own regulation in ways Hone could never imagine and would most likely never condone.

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