Today in Theatre History: THE FLAMMABLE BEGINNINGS OF CHICAGO THEATRE–February 24, 1834

Chicago in 1833, just before the theatrical explosion of 1834.

Chicago in 1833, prior to the theatrical explosion of 1834.  Looking very closely, one can just make out Steppenwolf’s first theatre in the upper lefthand corner.

It was on this very day in theatre history (February 24) that Chicago saw its very first documented theatrical performance back in 1834.  A “Mr. Bowers,” billed as a “professeur de tours amusant,” gave an evening’s performance on an improvised stage in the house of one “D. Graves.”  At the time, Chicago was the largest commercial settlement in Illinois with a population of 3200 inhabitants and fifty-one stores.  As described in some detail in the Chicago Democrat, Mr. Bowers performed a series of tricks that began with his impersonation of:  “Monsieur Chaubert, the celebrated Fire King, who so much astonished people of Europe, and go thro’ his wonderful Chemical Performance.  He will draw a red hot iron across his tongue, hands, &c. and will partake of a comfortable warm supper, by eating fire balls, burning sealing wax, live coals of fire, melted lead.  He will dip his fingers in melted lead, and make use of a red hot spoon to convey the same to his mouth.”  The second act consisted of Bowers introducing “many very amusing feats of Vantriloquism [sic] and Legerdemain, many of which are original, and too numerous to mention.  Admittance 50 cents, children half price.”  There is no indication if Mr. Bower’s performance was a success.  And nothing more was heard from him after this announcement.  But clearly it was a very short step from eating fire balls and displays of vantriloquism [sic] to the extraordinarily vibrant theatrical scene we find in Chicago today.   Within just a few months, in fact, the very first groups of university students were already setting up their storefront theatres on the northside in hopes of becoming the next “Mr. Bowers.”  I guess Chicago theatre had to start somewhere…

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