(All photographs are items from the author's private collection, and
should nit be used without permission.)
Race & Class
In the summer of 1821, William Henry Brown (a
black West Indian and former ship's steward) opened a "pleasure
garden" in his backyard at 38 Thomas Street. It was the first establishment
of its kind in New York to welcome all races. With blacks barred from every other
pleasure garden in town,
Brown drew capacity crowds. Curious white customers soon joined
the mix. Brown moved indoors, and his American Theatre drew multi-racial
audiences to see all-black casts in the same blend of plays and musical acts
In a rash move, Brown leased
space on the same block as the Park Theatre. Park
manager Stephen Price and other white theatre owners hired street
toughs to literally break up Brown's performances. Brown returned to his old location,
where continuing harassment forced him to shut down altogether in
1823. African Americans would not return to Broadway in a production of
their own until the next century.
(For more on this sad and often overlooked chapter in
New York's theatrical history, see Marvin McAllister's White People Do Not
Know How to Behave at Entertainments Designed for Ladies and Gentlemen
of Color. Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2003.)
Bowery Theatre as depicted in a 20th Century cigarette card. Rebuilt
several times, it was the first American theatre to remain in use for
more than 100 years.
When the Bowery Theatre
opened in 1826, it aimed at upper class audiences, but soon found the
competition too intense. New management took over and decided to cater to
"mechanics" (ie - the working class) by presenting action
packed spectacles. American tragedian Edwin Forrest triumphed
here with lurid melodramas and bombastic interpretations of Shakespearean
Over time, Manhattan found itself with two rather different
entertainment centers. The
Bowery area became the home for all forms of working class entertainment,
while Broadway catered increasingly to the rich. Resentment grew on both
sides of the social divide. When a group of wealthy patrons built the
swank Astor Place Opera House
at the intersection of Astor Place and Broadway in 1847, no one realized
that the stage was being set
for a civic tragedy.
The Astor Place Riot
A period sketch depicts the Astor Place Opera House
as it appeared in 1847.
In the Spring of 1849, two actors appeared in simultaneous productions of
Macbeth. American star Edwin Forrest found his following
among the working and lower classes at the Bowery, and the more cerebral British
tragedian William Macready appealed to the upper class gentry at the
Astor Place Opera House. A volatile combination of press ballyhoo and widespread
anti-British sentiment incited a claque of Forrest's fans to disrupt a few of
Macready's performances. The cast was bombarded with refuse, rotten eggs --
and even seats torn from the gallery flooring. Macready wanted to end the
engagement, but wealthy patrons publicly petitioned him to carry on.
It looked as if the "haves" were thumbing their noses at the
"have-nots" -- which only made Forrest's have-nots angrier.
On the night of May 10, 1849, an ugly mob of twenty thousand lower and
working class men descended on the Astor Place Opera House. As Macready's
performance of Macbeth continued inside before an uneasy (and mostly upper
class) audience, the mob outside broke into a full-scale riot. As the
violence peaked, police fired their guns directly into the crowd, killing at least
twenty-two and wounding more than 150. The furious rioters did not disperse until
canons were brought in.
In the aftermath of this massacre, the social structure of New York
City was fractured.
After the Astor Place Riot of 1849
entertainment in New York City was divided along class lines: opera was
chiefly for the upper middle and upper classes, minstrel shows and
melodramas for the middle class, variety shows in concert saloons for
men of the working class and the slumming middle class.
- Robert W. Snyder in The Encyclopedia of New York
City (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), Kenneth T. Jackson,
editor, p. 1226.
This engraving appeared in an 1849 booklet about the
Astor Place Riot.
While festering class resentments would inspire unrest and further
rioting over the years, they would never again center around a theatrical event. In
fact, during the mid-1800s, Broadway gradually became a place where all
classes could find entertainment to their taste.
. . . in the nineteenth century, theatre was
established as an institution in the community, elegant theatres were
built, and professionals followed the trend of the times by searching
for an area in which to focus their activities. By mid-century, theatres
had settled upon Broadway as their locale and they moved with the
northward flow of the city . . .
- Mary Henderson, The City and The Theatre: New York
Playhouses from Bowling Green to Times Square (Clifton, NJ: James T.
White & Co., 1973), p. xi.
The interior of Niblo's Garden, from an 1855
Uptown movement was the mark of life in Manhattan from its
earliest days until the mid-Twentieth Century, and where the populace
went, theatre soon followed. In 1829, impresario William Niblo
supplemented his popular theatre and open air beer garden with a hotel
and saloon. Located at Broadway and Prince Street,
Niblo's Garden quickly became one of
New York's premiere night spots. The three thousand seat theatre presented
all sorts of entertainments. Destroyed by fire in 1846, it was lavishly
rebuilt, now boasting the best-equipped stage in America. Niblo
retired in 1858, but the complex retained his name.
The first native-born form of musical entertainment to thrive on the
American stage was the minstrel show.
According to The Encyclopedia of
New York City (Kenneth Jackson editor, Yale Univ. Press, New Haven,
1995, pp. 763-764) blackface acts -- in which white men blackened their
faces in imitation of African slaves -- were common features in circuses and
traveling shows from the 1790s onwards. Thomas Rice gave new popularity to blackface
acts with his performance of the song "Jump Jim Crow." After
touring the country, he brought his acclaimed routine to New York in
1832. Just over a decade later in 1843,
a troupe of four white men calling themselves the Virginia Minstrels presented
the first recorded full length minstrel show at the Bowery Amphitheatre. Minstrelsy,
the first American-born form of musical theatre, proved amazingly popular.
By 1856, New York City had ten full
time resident minstrel companies, and that number doubled within another decade.
In 1841, the wily P.T. Barnum purchased the American Museum on Chambers
Street, and started presenting plays in the spacious lecture hall. People who did
not want to be seen entering a theatre had no qualms about visiting a
museum, and "moral" dramas like The Drunkard (1850) made
Barnum's one of the most popular venues in New York City. Barnum turned
the hall into a fully equipped 3,000 seat auditorium, staging variety shows,
musical farces -- anything that sold tickets. His
success inspired a number of theatres across the country to call
themselves "museums," a trend that continued through the end of
the 19th century.
As New York City's population boomed, the demand for
more ambitious entertainments grew. Riding the crest of this new cultural wave,
Laura Keene became one of the
first nationally recognized actress-managers of the American stage.
She produced and starred in a wide
range of popular comedies and musicals in her theatre at 622 Broadway
(just above Houston Street). After setting Broadway's first
"long-run" record with a 50 performance hit called The
Elves (1857), Keene astounded everyone in New York when her
"musical burletta" Seven Sisters
(1860) racked up 253 performances. Keene starred as one of seven
female demons who come up from hell to go sightseeing in New York.
Surviving programs list a score cobbled from now-forgotten songs. Keene
even borrowed the minstrel classic "Dixie" to provide a slam-bang
The Civil War (1861-1865) -- which many Southerners still refer
to as "The War of Northern Aggression" -- wrought many
changes in American society. One in
particular had a tremendous effect on the theatre. Railroads had been
expanded and upgraded to facilitate the movement of troops and supplies.
This made it easier and more affordable for
large productions to tour extensively. It was during such a tour that Laura
Keene's troupe came to Ford's Theatre in Washington, DC in the Spring of
1865. President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated while attending Keene's
performance of the hit comedy Our American Cousin on April 14. The fact
that his killer was famed actor John Wilkes Booth incited widespread
hostility towards actors for years to
come. Even though Keene had nothing to do with Booth's plot, her name
became so linked to the tragedy that she was soon forced to retire from
On to: Part III - 1865 to 1900