Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Theater History in Chicago in the Nineteenth Century.

The first public professional performance in Chicago took place in 1834, one year after Chicago incorporated as a town. It cost 50¢ for adults, 25¢ for children, and was staged by a Mr. Bowers, who promised to eat “fire-balls, burning sealing-wax, live coals of fire and melted lead.” Somehow, he also did ventriloquism. Other traveling showmen passed through over the next two years; the first traveling circus pitched its tent on Lake Street in the fall of 1836. 
The Sauganash Hotel. The log building on the left was Chicago's first drug store.
The Eagle Exchange Tavern (later the Sauganash Hotel) is regarded as the first hotel, [EXPLANATION ], and restaurant in Chicago. Built-in 1829 by Mark Beaubien, it was located at Wolf Point, the intersection of the north, south and main branches of the Chicago River, at Lake and Market Streets (North Wacker Drive). The addition of the frame building became the Sauganash Hotel in 1831.

Wolf Point Tavern opened in December of 1828.
Eagle Exchange Tavern opened in 1829 - Sauganash Hotel opened in 1831 
The Green Tree Tavern wasn't built until 1833.

The Sauganash Hotel changed proprietors often in its twenty-year existence. It was named after Billy Caldwell "Sauganash," an interpreter in the British Indian Department. 

When Harry Isherwood, co-manager of this pioneering ensemble, arrived in Chicago in 1837, he said: "It was the most God-forsaken looking place it had ever been my misfortune to see." Then he went on to say: "The mud was knee-deep. No sidewalks, except a small piece here and there. No hall that could be used to any advantage for theatrical presentation." A sign, he thought, that Chicago was not yet ready for culture.

However, the following morning he began to inspect every building that might be turned into something for his purpose. He finally decided on the abandoned dining room of the Sauganash Hotel. John Murphy, then proprietor of that pioneer habitation, had just opened a new and more commodious place for the care of weary visitors to the new city and was glad to have a part of the building occupied.

Isherwood, who was not only a capable actor, but a scenic artist as well, (In fact, every company traveling in those days had someone that could and did paint scenery.) and his partner, Alexander McKinzie (who took care of bookings and logistics), nevertheless obtained an amusement license from the city council for $125.00 ($2,800 today). On Monday, October 23, 1837, they began offering plays, the first being James Sheridan Knowles' "The Hunchback." Other play titles included The Idiot Witness, The Stranger, and The Carpenter of Rouen. The bill changed every night and the season lasted about six weeks, after which the company went on tour.

By 1839, the Sauganash returned to service as a hotel, but was destroyed by fire on March 4, 1851, and subsequently torn down. The Wigwam 
(an Indian word meaning "temporary shelter") was built in its place nine years later.

When they returned to Chicago in the spring of 1838, Isherwood and McKinzie set the company up in an old wooden auction house known as the Rialto. There was opposition to their presence: a formal petition cited the risk of fire; moral objections were made as well. Even so, the city council voted to grant the troupe a new license. On September 3, 1839, two Chicago Theater shows — The Warlock of the Glen and The Midnight Hour — became the subjects of Chicago's first published theater review.

The ensemble members included Joseph and Cornelia Jefferson and their nine-year-old son, also named Joseph. The child sang comic songs, filled out crowd scenes, and played the Duke of York. He grew up to become one of the iconic performers of his time, a stage comedian widely, intensely, and fondly identified with several roles, especially that of Rip van Winkle. His connection with Chicago is memorialized in the Joseph Jefferson awards, given annually for distinguished work in local professional theater.

The Chicago Theater did not outlast its 1839 season, and Chicagoans went back to relying, for the most part, on touring shows and circuses. A nonprofessional Thespian Society was formed by local men in 1842 and flourished — according to the story — until somebody stole their sets.

The next great leap took place in 1847, when John B. Rice, newly arrived from Buffalo, New York, contracted with a local alderman to build a theater near the corner of Randolph and Dearborn Streets. Rice's Theater opened on June 28 with a comedy called The Four Sisters in which Mrs. Henry Hunt (later known as Louisa Lane Drew, a founder of the Barrymore dynasty) played all the title roles. According to newspaper accounts, both the play and the place were enthusiastically received. Rice's Theater attracted major stars of the time, including Edwin Forrest and Junius Brutus Booth. Built of wood, it burned during the summer of 1850 but was replaced within six months by a new brick structure. John Rice sold his theater in 1857 and began a successful political career, serving as mayor of Chicago from 1865 to 1869.

1857 was also the year McVicker's Theatre opened, under the management of James H. McVicker, an actor and former employee of Rice's who went on to own a chain of theaters in cities around the United States.

McVicker's Theater, on Madison Street between State and Dearborn Streets, was built by Chicago actor and producer James H. McVicker in 1857. Photograph from 1863.
For the Chicago theater community as for everyone else, the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 was both devastating and opportune. James McVicker took a leading role in the rebuilding, as did David Henderson. A Scottish-born newspaperman turned entrepreneur, Henderson built the Chicago Opera House, ran several other theaters, and produced a series of musicals with exotic Levantine settings (The Arabian Nights, Sinbad the Sailor, Ali Baba) that not only revived the Chicago stage but earned the city a reputation as an American theatrical hub into the 1900s.

If the affluent downtown crowds were looking for exotica and the new immigrants in the neighborhoods were longing for something familiar — and found it in their own theaters.

Lydia Thompson (1838-1908) introduced Victorian burlesque to America with her troupe the "British Blondes," in 1868 and brought burlesque to Chicago in 1869

Lydia Thompson and the British Blondes, featuring Pauline Markham, Ada Harland, Lisa Weber, Olive, and Kate Logan.
Thompson's success inspired extraordinary reactions, including charges that her blonde hair was a wig and newspaper columns calling her an "English prostitute." Vehement protest swelled into a "war upon the blondes" that Lydia Thompson and Pauline Markham brought to a climax by horsewhipping Wilbur Storey, the editor of the Chicago Times, on the streets of the city in 1869. Put on trial, the ladies were required to pay $100 damages ($1,900 today) each to Storey. They could not have purchased the ensuing publicity for ten times the amount of the fine. Thompson would enjoy six lucrative years in America before returning to England to reinstall herself in English theater. 

A German-language company was operating as early as 1852. Others followed fairly quickly.

A Yiddish theater scene developed at the turn of the century and even produced a few mainstream stars. The best-known of these was Muni Weisenfreund, who became Paul Muni on Broadway and in Hollywood. Muni first appeared onstage in 1908, at the age of 13, in the Metropolitan Theatre at Jefferson Street and 12th Street (today; Roosevelt Road), a theater his parents operated about a block away from the Maxwell Street Market. It is not the same theatre as the Metropolitan Theatre at 4644 South Parkway (today; Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive), Chicago.

Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.

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