(All photographs are items from the author's private collection, and
should not be used without permission.)
Theatre is an art of the "now," and most of its practitioners
(both in the past and the present) have rarely given much thought to history.
Documentation of early theatre in
New York City is sketchy, and reliable sources often
differ on specifics. Research keeps turning up new information, so
paragraphs that follow are based on the best available material, time may
reveal new information not available as of this writing.
The first Dutch colonists settled Lower Manhattan in 1624. Displacing the
native Lenape tribe, the Europeans called their crude trading post
"New Amsterdam." The staunchly
Protestant Dutch had no taste for theatre, and even though the British
forcibly took over in 1664 -- and promptly renamed the colony New York --
more than a century would pass before the
town saw its first professional stage production. While Britain had a rich
theatrical tradition, the cultural spirit of New York was still opposed to
Through the early 1700s, New York's primary form of leisure was consuming
alcoholic beverages. With pure water hard to come by, booze was a
fashionable classes eventually found an alternative when a coffee house called The
King's Arms opened in 1696 (on Broadway just south of Trinity Church).
Some scholars theorize that The Kings Arms may have housed Manhattan's earliest
theatrical performances. If so, they would have been makeshift
amateur events. No written record of such performances is known to
In September of 1732, a troupe of actors from London presented a repertory
of plays (we are not certain which titles) on the unoccupied second floor of
a building near the intersection of Maiden Lane and Pearl Street. It was just
an empty space, not a formal theatre. Records tell
us the room was large enough to hold about four hundred people, with raised
seats overlooking a stage platform. The earliest documented professional
performance of a specific play in New York City occurred on Dec. 6, 1732, when this
same troupe offered a comedy entitled The Recruiting Officer. Performances
continued in this space (which at least one newspaper ad referred to as "The
Playhouse") through the end of the decade. Over time, it is believed
that other troupes used improvised performance spaces in Manhattan, but no
records of their repertories are known to survive.
location of the Theatre on Nassau Street as it appears in 2004 -- now a
brick office building dwarfed by skyscraping neighbors.
By 1750, New York had over ten thousand
citizens, more than 150 taverns -- and (finally!) one formal performance space.
Sitting slightly East of Broadway, the
Theatre on Nassau Street
was a two story wooden structure that held about 280 people.
Actor-managers Walter Murray and Thomas
Kean set up a resident company that presented Shakespeare's
Richard III on March 5, 1750. Their repertory also included the first
documented performance of a musical in New York -- John Gay's
The Beggars Opera, which they offered on Dec. 3, 1750.
Little documentation exists describing the Theatre on Nassau, so
historians have had to resort to guesswork,
suggesting that this building
. . . may have been either a warehouse or a
brewery (or both). . . probably fitted up with a stage at one end,
benches in front of it, and a raised gallery at the rear for common
folk. Murray and Kean made a significant addition to their New York
playhouse they added boxes along the side walls, not only to increase
the seating (a sign that they attained a moderate success) but also to
provide a special place for the elite of the city.
- Mary C. Henderson, Theater in America: 200 Years of Plays,
Players and Productions (New York: Harry Abrams, Inc., 1986), p.
the building was taken over by an adjoining business and turned into storage
space. Another company played on the same block of Nassau Street in 1753,
but records are unclear as to whether this was in the old theatre space or
a new structure. In 1754, the theatre was torn down to make way for a
four-story office structure now stands where the Theatre on John Street
was located in the late 1700s.
Just around the corner from that location, the
Theatre on John Street
opened on Dec. 7, 1767 with a performance of George Farquhar's comedy
The Beaux' Strategem. A period illustration currently in the Harvard
Library collection depicts this theatre as all-wooden
structure that looked very much like a storehouse, but we
have no solid information on its seating capacity or interior appearance.
It was home to a repertory company run by actor-managers Lewis Hallam
and John Henry who remained in charge during all but the final year of this
theatre's existence, 1798.
Records indicate that there were no professional stage productions in New York
during the Revolutionary War years -- only amateur performances staged by some
of the British troops occupying the city. After the war, New York became the
nation's capital for a time, and George Washington is known to have attended
several performances at the John Street Theatre. Years later, that same theatre
hosted The Archers (1796), a native-born opera that some scholars
point to as arguably the earliest American musical.
The Park Theatre
A period print depicting the
interior of The Park Theatre, New York City's premiere performance space
in the early 19th Century.
At the end of the 18th Century, New Yorkers started to exhibit a
clear passion for theatre, and actor-managers Hallam and Hodgkinson
responded by building the city's first world-class performance space.
The Park Theatre, built in
1798 on Chatham Street (now called Park Row),
housed few musicals in its fifty year existence. With a spacious
bench-filled pit, four
tiers of private boxes, and a top gallery, this handsome stone
structure could hold up to 2,000 spectators. This theatre helped to make the
area around what is now City Hall Park one of the most fashionable
districts in the
city. The Park attracted a wide
ranging audience -- each class sitting in its preferred section. In the
quote below, "mechanics" refers to working class men:
All kinds of performances were housed under one
roof, so that audiences in the 1830s might see drama, circus, opera and
dance on the same bill. New York's Park Theater, despite a reputation as
an elite house, had a relatively large room that permitted the masses to
govern the stage. Each class had its own part of the theatre, but all
attended mechanics in the pit, upper classes and women in the boxes,
and prostitutes, lower class men, and blacks in the balcony. The rowdy
audiences often yelled, stamped, drank and smoked during
- Lewis A. Erenberg, Steppin' Out: New York Nightlife and the
Transformation of American Culture 1890-1930 (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1981), p. 15.
Admission was 50 cents for the pit, 25 cents for the gallery, and a
full dollar for the boxes. The overall din of a rowdy audience often
drowned out the action on stage. Most of it came from the "gallery gods"
in the uppermost tier, who considered it their social duty to proclaim their
feelings. Showers of fruits and nuts (and sometimes worse) from the upper
reaches were common. Prostitutes openly transacted business in
the balcony, which only added fuel to the fiery sermons of preachers
convinced that theatres were "foyers of hell."
When Stephen Price took over as manager of the Park in 1808, he
initiated a policy of importing and promoting renowned British actors --
America's first taste of a "star system." Any degree of success in
London almost guaranteed sell out houses in
the United States. Price used his British contacts to create a virtual
monopoly on imported talent, and every theatre
in America had to negotiate with him to book imported stars.
Sex in the Balcony
It may seem hard to believe today but theatres were once hot
beds of illicit sexual activity -- not onstage, but in the audience.
This had long been the case in Europe,
and this lamentable custom carried over to 19th Century New York City.
It was widely known that theatre owners allowed
prostitutes to ply their trade in the top balcony, where such
carryings on were least likely to disrupt the performances. New York's
corrupt and understaffed police force offered no objections. According to
historian Timothy J. Gilfoyle in his fascinating study City of Eros
(NY: Norton & Co., 1992) --
"Leading establishments like the Bowery,
Chatham, Olympic, and Park theatres permitted prostitution in the
uppermost tier of seats. 'Public prostitution [in the theater] is not
noticed by law,' admitted one observer. First-time middle-class
visitors incredulously conceded that they 'had not even dreamed of the
improprieties then publicly tolerated in the third tier and galleries.'
" (p. 67)
Through the mid-1800s, theatrical prostitution remained an accepted
feature of the so-called "sporting life" common to men of that time,
whether single or married. Since the top gallery was also the only place
where young boys could afford seats, it is easy to see
why preachers and newspaper editorials condemned theatre as a
sinful influence on all age groups.
On to: Part II - 1849 to 1900