The Winter Garden Theatre (1850)

The Winter Garden Theatre (1850)

A showcase for the finest in American theater

The first theater in New York to bear the name The Winter Garden Theatre had a brief but important seventeen year history as one of New York's premiere showcases for a wide range of theatrical fare, from Variety shows to extravagant productions of the works of Shakespeare. And although the theatre burned to the ground several times, it rose from the ashes under different managers, baring various names, to become known as one of the most important theatres in New York history. Some of the leading actors and managers worked at the theater, from Jenny Lind and Laura Keene to Dion Boucicault and Edwin Booth. [March C. Henderson. "The City and the Theatre", (Back Stage Books, New York, 2004) p. 95.] One of the most significant and politically influential productions in American theater history took place on a single night at The Winter Garden Theatre on November 25, 1864, when three sons of one of America's great tragedians, Junius Brutus Booth, namely Junius Brutus Booth, Jr., Edwin Booth, and John Wilkes Booth staged a benefit performance of Shakespeare's " Julius Caesar" to raise funds to build a statue of Shakespeare in Central Park; four months later John Wilkes would assassinate Abraham Lincoln in Washington D.C. as he cried out the historic words of Brutus in ancient Rome. [Eleanor Ruggles. "Prince of Players." (New York), p. 282] Throughout its seventeen-year history, The Winter Garden Theatre played an significant role in the history of the American theater.

Groundbreaking in 1850

The theater was originally planned in 1850 for the first engagement of the famous singer from Sweden, Jenny Lind, known as the "Swedish Nightingale." Located at 624 Broadway, New York, across from Bond Street just south of West Third Street, [For a good map of New York theaters of this era, see Mary C. Henderson's "The City and the Theatre", (Back Stage Books, New York), p. 82.] the new theater was to be "one of the largest musical halls in the world," boasting one of the largest stages in New York. [Brown, T. Allston. "A History of the New York Stage." (New York, Dodd, Mead & Company, 1903) p. 424.]

s, a entertainment then quite fashionable on the American stage.

There were a few notable exceptions to these theatrical diversions, demonstrating that Tripler Hall had a more legitimate reputation during this period. In December of 1850 an important ceremonial meeting was attended by thousands of Freemasons of New York City at Tripler Hall, of which it was written: "the event was regarded and still is regarded [1899] as a landmark in the history of Freemasonry in the history of New York." [Ross, Peter. "A Standard History of Freemasonry in New York." (The Lewis Publishing Company, New York) 1899.] In February of 1852 a memorial service was held at Tripler Hall for the renowned American novelist James Fenimore Cooper, presided over by the noted statesman Daniel Webster, with a eulogies said by Washington Irving, and William Cullen Bryant. That same year William Thackeray concluded a national tour with a lecture at Tripler Hall. ["The Mercer Arts Center History", compiled by Joseph Devorkin, 2004.]

The theater went through several different managers during this period, each manager naming the theater as he or she pleased. After burning down in 1854, the rebuilt theater was at last leased to Jenny Lind for her acclaimed "Varieties" and renamed the Jenny Lind Hall. During her residence there, she performed her famed music. Nevertheless, the "Swedish Nightingale" had competition when the theater was used for the American Art Union Distribution. The report in "The London Illustrated News" gives an interesting description of the interior of Tripler Hall:

:Never - not even on the nights of the "Nightingale" - has the capacity of Tripler Hall been more fully booked than the evening appointed for the distribution of the Art Union prices. The immense floor (30 feet wider than Kester Hall), the aisles, the galleries before the stage, and beside the doors, were crowded to excess.. ["The Illustrated London News", January 24, 1851.]

On May 15, 1855, the theater passed to new management with a musical by John and Morris Barnett called "Monsieur Jacques", and was renamed Metropolitan Hall, and managed by John Lafarge, owner of the famed Lafarge House which adjoined the theater to the rear.

The "Varieties" of Miss Laura Keene

On February 22, 1856, the actress and manager Laura Keene reopened the theater as Laura Keene's Variety House with her original "musical extravaganza" featuring music by Thomas Baker. This production was rightly called Varieties, as it featured a range of entertainments, from singers to acrobats.

of New York, Laura Keene, developed her talent for producing an eclectic form of entertainment which she would perfect in subsequent productions such as the musical "Seven Sisters" five years later.

Two rare etchings of the interior of the theater at this time depict two different productions by Laura Keene in her theater; one picture (right) shows what appears to be a contemporary domestic comedy, with four figures on the stage in various positions (including a man in a pants suit seated in a chair in a comic posture to the right); a second picture (left), from the point of view from the stage, depicts what is probably the production of a classical text, with two figures in historical costumes standing downstage close to the footlights. [Vernanne Bryan. "Laura Keene: A British Actress on the American Stage, 1826-1873" (McFarland & Company, Inc., 1997).] Together, these two etchings - from both the actor's and the audience's points of view - give a rare glimpse into theatrical production on the American stage in the pre-Civil War era.

Despite the success of the theater under the management of Laura Keene, the Panic of 1857 bankrupted the theater and it was forced to be closed once again. [March C. Henderson. "The City and the Theatre", (Back Stage Books, New York, 2004) p. 94.]

Later next year, on December 30, 1857, John Burton took over management and renamed the theater simply Burton's New Theatre with the opening of his musical burlesque "Columbus El Filibustero!!"

Dion Boucicault and the naming of the theatre

's Christmas story "Cricket on the Hearth" was his opening production, starring Jefferson as Caleb Plummer and Robertson as Dot; this immensely popular production eventually toured, as one critic has said, to "every possible playhouse in English-speaking America." ["Dickensian" 48: 21.]

The sensational premiere of "The Octoroon"

That winter, on December 5 of 1859, Boucicault premiered one of his most popular - and controversial - melodramas "The Octoroon", subtitled "Life in Louisiana", which he had adapted from the novel "The Quadroon" by Thomas Mayne Reid. "The Octoroon", dealing with people of mixed white and African heritage, caused nothing short of a sensation, to see on the stage a drama that provoked discussions about race and politics. About this new phenomenon, "The New York Times" wrote that it had become "the great dramatic "sensation" of the season":

:Everybody talks about the "Octoroon," [sic] wonders about the "Octoroon," goes to see the "Octoroon;" and the "Octoroon" thus becomes, in point of fact, the work of the public mind...the public having insisted on rewriting the piece according to its own notions, interprets every word and incident in wholly unexpected lights; and, for aught we know, therefore, the "Octoroon" may prove after all to be a political treatise of great emphasis and significance, very much to the author's amazement. ["The New York Times", December 15, 1859, p. 4.]

The newly named Winter Garden Theatre eventually became home to a series of musical extravaganzas and burlesques: "Cinderella" with music by Charles Koppitz and a text by Charles Dawson Shanley on September 9, 1861, "The Wizard's Tempest" by Charles Gayler, on June 9, 1862, and "King Cotton" by Charles Chamberlain on June 21, 1862.

Enter Edwin Booth

The goal of staging "Julius Caesar" for just one night was to raise funds for the establishment of a statue of William Shakespeare designed by J. Q. A. Ward in the relatively new Central Park on the northern outskirts (then) of Manhattan. [The statue of Shakespeare now stands to the south of the main Promenade and east of Sheep's Meadow in Central Park.] Tickets went for sale for a (then) astounding price of five dollars. Considering the way history was to unfold, it is curious that it was Edwin Booth who played the role of Brutus, assassin of Julius Caesar, and the role of Marc Antony was played by John Wilkes Booth, while "lean and hungry" Cassius was given to the heavier built Junius Brutus Booth, Jr.. ["Julius Caesar", Act I, Scene ii, and Ruggles, 164.]

In the handbill promoting the production (right), it stated that there would appear, for one night only, "The Three Sons of the Great Booth." The three Booth brothers were then listed, from oldest to youngest, Junius, Edwin, and John, and beneath this, the Latin phrase that left no doubt that the entire production was dedicated to their father, the great tragedian Junius Brutus Booth: "Filii Patri Digno Digniores".

tried to burn the city to the ground, which included fires set in the Lafarge House, which abutted the rear of The Winter Garden Theatre. About a half hour into the performance, during the first scene of Act Two, when Brutus was pacing in his orchard, contemplating his pending assassination of Caesar, the clang and clatter of horse-drawn fire engines could be heard from the street outside. It seemed that there was a fire next door in the Lafarge House which threatened to engulf The Winter Garden Theatre. Before panic could consume the audience, Edwin stepped to the footlights to calm the audience. [Ruggles, 164.]

The brothers Booth play "Julius Caesar" as New York burns

The fire at the Lafarge House that almost spread to The Winter Garden Theatre had been set by sympathizers to the cause of the Confederacy with the intention of burning New York to the ground during these, the last months of the American Civil War. ["The New York Times", November 27, 1864.] At the Lafarge House, someone had set fires in the front parlor and had emptied a bottle of phosphorous on the furniture throughout a room on the third floor. [Ruggles, 165.]

In describing this "diabolical plot to burn the City of New York," which "The New York Times" called "one of the most fiendish and inhuman acts known in modern times," it was reported under a banner heading:


:When the alarm of fire was given at the Lafarge the excitement became very intense among the closely-packed mass of human beings in [the] Winter Garden Theatre adjoining the Lafarge, and but for the presence of mind of Mr. BOOTH, who addressed them from the stage of the theatre, telling them there was no danger, it is fearful to think what would have been the result. There was only the usual number of policemen and watchmen in attendance, and the panic was such for a few moments that it seemed as if all the audience believed the entire building was in flames, and just ready to fall upon their devoted heads. In addition to what Mr. BOOTH said from the stage, Judge McCLUNN rose in the dress circle, and in a few timely remarks admonished them all to remain quietly in their places, and at the same time tried to show them the danger which would attend a pell-mell rush for the doors, and especially the uselessness of it, inasmuch as the theatre part of the building was known to be on fire. The presence of a squad of policemen soon after so reassured the audience that with a few exceptions, they remained until the close of the performance. ["The New York Times", November 27, 1864.]

The city was saved, as was The Winter Garden Theatre.

The production of "Julius Caesar" proceeded. The production was the first - and only - time that the three sons of one of America's great tragedians, Junius Brutus Booth performed together on the same stage. The production raised $3,500 for the building of the statue of Shakespeare in Central Park, which stands there today. [Michale W. Kauffman. "American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies" (Randon House, New York: 2004) p. 149-150.]

Booth performs the "Hundred Nights "Hamlet"

played exactly 101 "Hamlets" in 1920.]

The "Hamlet" of Edwin Booth is well documented in reviews and diaries of those who saw the production. One review, appearing in "Harper's" shortly after the run of "the hundred nights "Hamlet" summarized what Edwin Booth had accomplished during this important portrayal - a production which, perhaps more than any other single production in American stage history, solidified one of the great roles in dramatic history with a single actor. As a critic from the era then wrote: "A really fine actor is as uncommon as a really great dramatic poet. Yet what Garrick was in Richard III or Edmund Kean in Shylock, we are sure Edwin Booth is in Hamlet." [George William Curtis. "Editor's Easy Chair." "Harper's", April, 1865, quoted in Charles H. Shattuck. "The Hamlet of Edwin Booth." (University of Illinois Press; Chicago, 1969. p. 60.]

The "Grand Revivals"

Booth followed his "Hamlet" marathon on March 23, 1865, with a series of what he called "Grand Revivals": a series of classical dramas sumptuously produced at the Winter Garden that began with a highly acclaimed production of "Othello", with Booth in the title role. [Kauffmann, p. 150.]

" that was considered one of the finest productions of that play during the nineteenth century. [William Winter. "Life and Art of Edwin Booth". MacMillan and Co., New York. 1893) p. 49.]

The final fire for a grand showplace

On Wednesday, March 25, 1867, a fire broke out under the stage which eventually burned the Winter Garden Theatre to the ground. ["Destruction by Fire of the Winter Garden Theatre. The Midnight Mission. Ordination of the Pastor of the First German Baptist Church. Funeral Discourse in Memory of Dr. Chauncey." "The New York Times", March 25, 1867, Wednesday.]

:A fire broke out about 8:40 o'clock on Saturday morning beneath the stage of the Winter Garden Theatre, resulting in the entire destruction of that establishment, and doing considerable damage to the Southern Hotel, formerly known as the Lafarge House. Although the Fire Department was promptly on hand, in an incredibly short space of time the flames had wrapped the entire interior of the Winter Garden in a sheet of fire, and the firemen were unable to work therein owing to the intense heat...By 9 o'clock the flames had reached their limit and the spectacle was one of peculiar grandeur and effect...At 9:15 the roof of theatre fell...The aggregate loss is roughly estimated at $250,000. Both the theatre and the hotel are owned by the Lafarge estate, as also the "stock" scenery and properties of the former...Messrs. EDWIN BOOTH and W. STUART also suffer severe losses. These gentlemen were the joint lessees and managers of the Winter Garden, and their extensive and valuable wardrobes, used in the recent Shakespearean revivals, as well as a large amount of new scenery and properties, were all destroyed by the flames. These articles were valued at $60,000 and uninsured...Mr. BOOTH is a heavy loser by the total destruction of his private wardrobe and many valuable presents. This wardrobe was considered to be the most extensive and valuable one in the possession of any single actor on this continent. ["The New York Times", March 25, 1867.]

Rather than rebuild the theater once again, Booth decided to erect his own theater twenty blocks uptown on newly fashionable West Twenty-Third Street on the corner of Sixth Avenue, to be called Booth's Theatre.

The site was then occupied by the Grand Central Hotel, and is today the location for the New York University School of Law's Mercer Street Residence.


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