MItchell’s Theatre, NYC, showing patrons rushing past the day’s matinee inside…
On this day in theatre history—Dec. 25, 1843—(yes, there was theatre history even on Christmas), British expat-turned-New York-theatre-producer, William Mitchell offered the world’s first known modern matinee performance* at his Olympic Theatre located on Broadway, between Grande and Howard Streets. Mitchell specialized in English-style burlesques and pantomimes, but found his finances and audiences eroding in the long depression that followed the Panic of 1837. Hoping to recoup some of his losses, Mitchell identified several days during the year when audiences seemed especially thin—one being Christmas, a day when New Yorkers traditionally traveled from house to house for holiday visits, especially in the evening. Rather than fight this tradition, Mitchell did something unheard of—he opened his theatre during the day instead, presenting burlesques in the afternoon. It worked. People loved the idea of getting out of the dark and dreary winter day in advance of their evening tarriances. Though the term “matinee” would not be applied to the practice until 1851, the afternoon theatrical experience was now a part of New York life.
(*This assumes, of course, that we don’t count the afternoon performances in the outdoor theatres during the Elizabethan age…)
San Francisco in 1852
On this day in theatre history–December 23, 1852–the first playhouse in the United States catering specifically to a Chinese audience opened in San Francisco. Located on Telegraph Hill, fronting onto Dupont Street (Grant Avenue today), it sat approximately 1400 people in one large pit, with no boxes, galleries or scenery. It was known as “The Theatre of Celestial John.”
While the exterior was described by one visitor as “a curious pagoda-looking edifice,” the interior was “most magnificently decorated and varnished” and included “ornamental paintings, Chinese lanterns and transparencies.”
A Chinese theatre in San Francisco, ca. 1860.
With a raked auditorium, cushioned seats, and an orchestra pit that could hold up to forty musicians, the facility was among the most modern and luxurious in the city. It was also among the most popular venues in San Francisco with two shows every day at 11am and 7pm, including Sundays. But concern from city officials that any large gathering of Chinese was a potential threat to public safety led to the theatre’s eventual closure in March of 1853 when the building was sold to David Jobson and converted into a reception hall for newly arrived immigrants. The structure remained standing until the 1906 earthquake, when it burned to the ground, never to be rebuilt.
The ladies of the Majestic–and their manager.
On this very day in theatre history–December 16, 1903–the Majestic Theatre on New York’s Columbus Circle became the first playhouse in the United States to employ female ushers in an effort to demonstrate how safe and respectable the theatre had become for female attendees. That the novelty also attracted a sizable male crowd was just an “unexpected” perk, of course…
Why female ushers? Simple. Playhouses had long sought to make themselves more socially acceptable (and profitable) by attracting women and families. Female ushers provided a concrete demonstration that the facility was safe and respectable. Plus, the recent creation of cinema was beginning to have its influence on theatre attendance. Managers were actively looking for ways to attract new audiences to their venues. Columbus Circle–north of the current Broadway district–was projected to be the next center of the city’s theatrical industry. So in 1903 the builders of the new Majestic decided to situate their new theatre there. It didn’t work out that way, of course, as Broadway continued to expand around the Times Square neighborhood. The Majestic, renamed the Park in 1911, continued to serve as a performance space off and on until it was torn down in 1954. Not surprisingly, sensing an important and profitable trend, cinema owners soon began employing female ushers as well, effectively appropriating the Majestic’s innovation while claiming film to be as respectable and safe as theatre. By the 1920s, female ushers were common in most mainstream playhouses and cinemas. But it all began at the Majestic on this day in theatre history.
Jean Racine’s Britannicus is considered by many to be his signature piece–a thoughtful, carefully structured tragedy solidly within the Neoclassical fold and a model of French literature. Its story of Nero’s rise to power in a corrupt Rome can be seen as a corrective contrast to the stability of Louis XIV’s France after the series of rebellions known as the Fronde (1649-53) led to the Sun King’s ultimate ascent as absolute monarch.
But there may be more to this play’s importance that is not generally covered in theatre history. It was on this day–December 13, 1669–that Racine’s play first premiered at the Hotel de Bourgogne to a less than enthusiastic reception and showed Parisian audiences where the playwright stood on a popular scandal of the day.
One clue to both the mild reception and the work’s political importance can be found in the play’s title–Britannicus. As the play’s story unfolds, it quickly becomes apparent that the title character is merely secondary to the corrupt machinations of Nero and his mother, Aggripine. The point of this may be explained by an event that occurred earlier in the year and that might well have prompted Racine to write his masterpiece–the trial, torture, and execution of Roux de Marcilly in June of 1669.
Roux de Marcilly had been suspected of plotting the assassination of Louis XIV while arranging for the dissolution of several French provinces in favor of the legendary “Man in the Iron Mask”–Louis XIV’s alleged twin step-brother. When the plot was discovered, Roux de Marcilly, who had been hiding in Switzerland, was kidnapped and returned to Paris where he was publicly tortured and executed. Why Britannicus? Roux de Marcilly had been plotting with the English in London. Britannicus was a name given to the Roman emperor, Claudius (after his conquest of Britain), who then bestowed it upon his son. And for Racine, the story of Nero’s half-brother, named after France’s great enemy must have seemed too convenient to pass up in the wake of the scandal against the king.
The tepid critical response to the play perhaps had less to do with its aesthetics than the author’s political implication that Britain (and hence Louis’s cousin, Charles II) was behind the failed plot. Nonetheless, the play’s reputation quickly recovered as Louis’s political status solidified and Britannicus soon become one of the most studied and popular tragedies in French literature.
The great Richmond Theatre fire of 1811.
On this day in theatre history—December 26, 1811—occurred one of the greatest theatre calamities in American history: the infamous Richmond Theatre Fire. At the time, it was the worst urban disaster ever in the U.S., killing 72 in all. The fire started after the first act, when a young stagehand, apparently under the thoughtless direction of an overbearing actor, raised the front chandelier before extinguishing the candles. As the chandelier moved up into the fly loft, it set fire to hanging scenery (35 sets in all). The fire spread quickly, as most theatre fires do, filling the house with thick black smoke. The auditorium, nearly sold out, contained 518 adults and 80 children enjoying a Christmas pantomime that had been delayed from the 23rd,, ensuring a full house. Among the audience were a number of Virginia’s political and social elite. Though the facility contained several exits, the doors and hallways were too narrow to accommodate a sudden mass exodus. Many victims were pushed to their deaths from the upper galleries, while others were crushed in the panic downstairs. Among those killed was Virginia’s governor, G. W. Smith.
Monumental Church as it looks today on the site of the 1811 fire.
Helping to save as many as a dozen people, Gilbert Hunt—a blacksmith and slave whose shop was next door to the theatre—stood outside catching patrons as they jumped from the upper windows. In the immediate aftermath, overzealous ministers and moralists cited the disaster as concrete proof that the theatre was an evil institution and that God was clearly displeased by such frivolous entertainments in their city. As a memorial to those killed (and perhaps as an appeasement to an angry and anti-theatrical god), Monumental Church was built on the site in 1814 where it still stands today. A new theatre was constructed a few blocks away a few years later, this time with the latest technological innovation: gas lighting. But Richmond—once a popular center for the commercial stage (George Washington and his brother were regular attendees)—never regained its status as the South’s premiere theatrical city. Instead, Baltimore took over as the region’s top theatre city, where eventually a young John Wilkes Booth would quickly rise to become the most famous of southern matinee idols.
Jefferson as Rip.
It was on this very day in theatre history–December 24, 1860–that Joseph Jefferson first performed his famed Rip van Winkle on the New York stage at the Winter Garden Theatre. And the opening was a rough one. Critics were tepid at best. While many acknowledged Jefferson’s excellent comic abilities, some were skeptical that he was ready to become a leading star. Worse still, the vehicle, adapted by Jefferson himself from Irving’s original, was deemed by acclamation to be less than stellar. The New York Tribune, for example, called the script “weak and tame to an unexpected degree… overstrained and ineffective… utterly unworthy.” Even worse, the New York Times declared that “comedians seldom succeed as stars,” and called Jefferson’s performance, “…cold and overwrought, going through the egoisms of a star engagement. The applause was hollow, and will not, we fear, contribute to the fortunes of the engagement.”
Defying the critics, Jefferson persevered and both the play and the character would soon become one of the greatest successes on the American stage. During the next 40 years, Jefferson toured the world, performing the play countless times–even recreating the role on film and recording Rip on early wax cylinders. But admittedly, his success came at a price. Jefferson was too often locked into the role by popular demand and soon became known as a “one-part actor.” Francis Wilson noted that ultimately, “He was Rip and Rip was he.” Despite having demonstrated a wide acting range and receiving praise for his abilities in other roles, the audiences continued to demand Rip night after night. And thus, acknowledging the preference of his fans, he made his fortune playing the part for the rest of his life. In doing so, Jefferson created one of the most enduring characters in popular American culture and reenforced both the viability and dangers of actors becoming identified with a single role.
A.A. Milne, understandably pooped after writing so many plays, took a short break to publish a couple of children’s stories.
On this day in theatre history–December 23, 1921–the author of Winnie-the-Pooh, the great A. A. Milne, saw the opening of his first major success on the Broadway stage, a lighthearted romp called The Dover Road. Despite the popularity of the Pooh stories, Milne was not principally a children’s author. He only wrote two Pooh books (in 1926 and 1928) while penning some 34 plays and screenplays during his prolific career.
The Dover Road was typical of the sort of mild sex farces that found their way onto the English and American stages in the post-WWI era. Much like his chief theatrical rivals, Noel Coward and J. M. Barrie, Milne was known for writing clever and witty works about the foibles of British upper crust society. In this piece, a pair of lovers are escaping to France via Dover but are waylaid by a faulty automobile and end up as guests of an eccentric estate owner who requires them to remain for a full seven days to see if they are genuinely in love and suitable for marriage. Inevitably, things go wrong almost immediately and the happy couple soon learn that lust and love are two very different things. The play was a raging success, running for over 200 performances at the Bijou Theatre on West 45th Street. The New York Times called it, “one of the best examples of fine-textured high comedy to come out of England in the last ten years.” The New York Tribune was a little less enthused, describing the play as a “quiet, intelligent diversion… a charming trifle…[but] one that you will enjoy.” That the creator of Winnie, Piglet, Eeyore, and Christopher Robin, could also write such adult fare may come as a surprise to many. But that’s how Milne made his living. In fact, he was somewhat annoyed by the overwhelming success of his two children’s books, since he was rightly concerned that his reputation as a multi-genre writer would be subsumed by the popularity of the 100 Aker Wood. For Milne, children’s books were a temporary digression. While playwriting was clearly nothing to pooh-pooh.