Professional Theaters Spread Throughout America

The establishment of professional theaters and theater companies in the United States was the first step in the development of a national American theater. At first, these theaters were dominated by European repertoires, but as the American theater-going audience expanded, American plays, operas, and minstrel shows became standard fare.

Summary of Event

By the early nineteenth century, the two premier theater sites in the United States were Philadelphia Philadelphia;theater and New York. New York City;theater The former had largely abandoned its Quaker Quakers;and theater[Theater] objections to drama by the time of the Revolutionary War American Revolution (1775-1783);and theater[Theater] , while the latter’s Dutch origins fostered a tolerant, cosmopolitan atmosphere compared to New England cities such as Boston, Boston;theater which had no playhouse until 1794. As the nation grew and transportation improved, the number of theaters rapidly expanded. Professional dramatic productions had reached the West Coast by 1850. Theater;American
[kw]Professional Theaters Spread Throughout America (c. 1801-1850)
[kw]Theaters Spread Throughout America, Professional (c. 1801-1850)
[kw]Spread Throughout America, Professional Theaters (c. 1801-1850)
[kw]America, Professional Theaters Spread Throughout (c. 1801-1850)
[g]United States;c. 1801-1850: Professional Theaters Spread Throughout America[0060]
[c]Theater;c. 1801-1850: Professional Theaters Spread Throughout America[0060]
Booth, Edwin
Dunlap, William
Emmett, Dan
Forrest, Edwin
Wignell, Thomas
Reinagle, Alexander

Through the 1830’s, Philadelphia was a major theater and publishing center. Its finest playhouse was the Chestnut Street Theatre. Built in 1794 by British composer Alexander Reinagle and actor-manager Thomas Wignell, the Chestnut Street Theatre was the first American theater to be lit by gas Gas lighting
Lighting;gas (starting in 1816). Rebuilt after an 1820 fire, Fires;theaters it remained a popular site for melodramas, Italian operas Opera in English translation, comedies, and plays of William Shakespeare. Shakespeare, William
[p]Shakespeare, William;in nineteenth century theater[Nineteenth century theater] It was finally razed in 1855. Wignell and Reinagle also constructed and managed the Holliday Street Theatre in Baltimore, which operated, despite an 1873 fire Fires;theaters , until 1917, when the building was demolished. “The Star Spangled Banner” was first sung in the Holliday Street Theatre in 1813.

Philadelphia’s second playhouse, the Walnut Street Theatre, was built in 1809 as an indoor circus. It is one of America’s few federal-style theaters. The opulent Academy of Music, another of the city’s surviving nineteenth century landmarks, opened in 1857. Modeled on Milan’s La Scala Milan;La Scala , the Academy of Music was designed to host receptions, balls, concerts, and public lectures, as well as opera Opera and plays.

New York City’s Park Theatre opened in 1798 under the leadership of actor John Hodgkinson and playwright William Dunlap Dunlap, William . The quality of its productions, sixty of which were adapted or written by Dunlap, foreshadowed the city’s future preeminence in American drama. The Park Theatre seated about two thousand people. Like the Chestnut Street Theatre, it burned in 1820, but within two years it had been rebuilt. In 1825-1826, the New Park Theatre hosted America’s first season of Italian opera, including works by Gioacchino Rossini and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

The New Park Theatre soon had numerous rivals, many of which would be destroyed by fire Fires;theaters . The Bowery Theatre burned and was rebuilt five times; remarkably, its 1845 building survived until a final conflagration in 1929. Probably the nineteenth century’s worst theater fire occurred on December 26, 1811, at Virginia’s Richmond Theatre. An accident with a lamp during a performance led to a panic and the deaths of seventy-two patrons. A theater tragedy of a different sort, which revealed the hostility that still existed between the United States and Great Britain, was New York’s Astor Place Riot Astor Place Riots (1849)
New York City;Astor Place Riots . Built in 1847 as a temple of high culture, the Astor Place Opera House was soon converted to a theater. In May, 1849, a long-standing feud between British actor William Macready and his American rival Edwin Forrest Forrest, Edwin led to a violent confrontation between an anti-British mob and the New York militia. Shots were fired, twenty-one people were killed, and thirty-six were wounded.

In its fourth incarnation, New York’s New York City;minstrel shows Bowery Theatre was the site of the first minstrel show Minstrel shows . In February, 1843, four white men led by Dan Emmett Emmett, Dan blackened their faces, sang in dialect, and danced Dance;and minstrelsy[Minstrelsy] in imitation of African American African Americans;and minstrel shows[Minstrelsy] dance. Minstrel shows quickly became theatrical favorites throughout the nation, remaining popular for more than a century. They marked a shift from variety acts to specialized shows. Minstrels also parodied classical operas Opera;parodies of and famous European musicians Music , such as the Swedish singer Jenny Lind Lind, Jenny and the Norwegian violist Ole Bull Bull, Ole .

Although acceptance of drama came later to Boston, Boston;theater its 1794 Federal Street Theatre was elegantly designed by noted architect Architecture;theaters Charles Bulfinch, and it seated nearly one thousand people. In 1827, a quarrel among its actors led to the founding of the Tremont Street Theatre; competition between the two houses ended with the closing of the older playhouse within two years. The Tremont Street Theatre lasted until 1843, when it was sold to a Baptist congregation. In 1849, the Boston Museum was the site of the first appearance of Edwin Booth Booth, Edwin , along with his father Junius, in Shakespeare’s Shakespeare, William
[p]Shakespeare, William;in nineteenth century theater[Nineteenth century theater]
Richard III (pr. c. 1592-1593, revised 1623).

Astor Place Opera House riots.

(C. A. Nichols & Company)

Even after the Louisiana Purchase (1803), New Orleans New Orleans;theater theaters continued to host French-language plays. Only by 1817 did the American Theatre, on the city’s Camp Street, begin presenting plays in English. At mid-century, four theaters were active in the city. A milestone in the cultural history of New Orleans was the 1835 completion of the elaborate St. Charles Theatre, which cost $350,000 and seated four thousand people. It burned in 1842 but was rebuilt within a year.

Although plays were given in a Washington, D.C. Washington, D.C.;theater , hotel as early as 1801—the same year a playhouse opened in Cincinnati, Ohio—the nation’s capital had no permanent theater until 1804. By 1835, the capital’s growing status led to the establishment of the Old Washington Theatre and the National Theatre. Ford’s Theatre was originally a Baptist church from 1834 to 1859. Following the merger of two congregations, the building in 1863 became a playhouse managed by John T. Ford Ford, John T. . After President Abraham Lincoln’s Lincoln, Abraham
[p]Lincoln, Abraham;assassination of assassination on April 14, 1865, the theater closed, and Ford’s attempt to reopen it in June was unsuccessful. After being used for offices and storage, the building became a museum in 1931. Ford’s Theatre was restored as a nineteenth century playhouse in 1967.

As America moved westward, plays were performed in Pittsburgh in 1808, Lexington, Kentucky, in 1810, and St. Louis in 1814, in a variety of buildings also used for other purposes. The St. Louis St. Louis, Missouri[Saint Louis, Missouri];theater Theatre, which opened in 1837, was the first playhouse west of the Mississippi. A second site, the Bates Theatre, opened in 1851 and burned in 1880. Chicago’s Chicago;theater Rialto Theatre began operations in 1838 and lasted two years; the Rice Theatre followed it in 1847. Like so many nineteenth century structures, the Rice Theatre burned in 1859. In common with their eastern counterparts, these theaters presented a mixture of melodramas, varieties, Shakespeare plays, Shakespeare, William
[p]Shakespeare, William;in nineteenth century theater[Nineteenth century theater] and minstrel shows.

By California;theater eastern standards, the Eagle Theater, Sacramento, California’s first playhouse (1849), was relatively primitive. Partly wood and canvas, it drew crowds of miners who applauded the melodramas performed there three times a week. In 1850 after a flood, the company moved to San Francisco San Francisco;theater , where the Jenny Lind Lind, Jenny Theatre, California’s second theater, opened in October of 1850. The singer nicknamed the Swedish Nightingale captured audiences’ hearts as she toured the eastern and midwestern United States between 1850 and 1852. Lind did not visit California, but such was her popularity that three of San Francisco’s theaters bore her name during that period.

Unlike Jenny Lind, Edwin Booth Booth, Edwin did perform in California during the early 1850’s. The Booths continued the tradition of family troupes. Three brothers—Junius Brutus, Edwin, and John Wilkes Booth, John Wilkes —became actors and occasionally acted together. John Wilkes Booth’s assassination Lincoln, Abraham
[p]Lincoln, Abraham;assassination of of Lincoln overshadowed the entire family. Edwin did not return to the stage until January, 1866. In 1869, he built Booth’s Theatre in New York, where his company specialized in performing Shakespeare’s plays as originally written, rather than “bowdlerized” “Bowdlerize”[Bowdlerize]
Shakespeare, William
[p]Shakespeare, William;censorship of
Shakespeare, William
[p]Shakespeare, William;in nineteenth century theater[Nineteenth century theater]
Censorship;and William Shakespeare[Shakespeare] versions. Edwin Booth elevated the quality of American theater and toured the United States and Europe until 1891.


As the United States grew, plays with American themes, melodramas, minstrel shows, and adaptations of American novels such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Stowe)[Uncle Toms Cabin (Stowe)];dramatic adaptation of (1852) vied with European operas Opera and Shakespearean Shakespeare, William plays for popularity in U.S. theaters. Variety helped playhouses compete in large cities, but by the 1850’s some venues began specializing in minstrel shows, melodramas, or broad comedies. An evening at the theater—including music before the curtains opened and an afterpiece—might last five hours. The range of choices ushered in a golden age of theater, which remained America’s main source of entertainment until it was largely replaced by motion pictures Motion pictures in the first two decades of the twentieth century and by television during the mid-twentieth century.

Further Reading

  • Bank, Rosemarie, K. Theatre Culture in America, 1825-1860. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Focuses on the evolution of performances in response to the changing tastes of nineteenth century American audiences.
  • Carson, William G. B. The Theatre on the Frontier: The Early Years of the St. Louis Stage. New York: Benjamin Blom, 1965. Primary emphasis is on St. Louis, but the book discusses other western theaters through 1839 as well.
  • Glazer, Irvin R. Philadelphia Theatres, A-Z: A Comprehensive Descriptive Record of 813 Theatres Constructed Since 1724. New York: Greenwood Press, 1986. Extensive description of Philadelphia’s performance sites, from playhouses to motion picture theaters.
  • Kamen, Henry A. Music in New Orleans: The Formative Years, 1791-1841. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1984. Discusses New Orleans’s unique blend of cultures, music, and antebellum theater.
  • Mahar, William J. Behind the Burnt Cork Mask: Early Blackface Minstrelsy and Antebellum American Culture. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999. Describes the rise of minstrelsy in both the North and the South and its relationship to other forms of theater in the United States.
  • Naylor, David, and Joan Dillon. American Theatres: Performance Halls of the Nineteenth Century. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1997. Focuses mainly on theaters that were still extant in the 1990’s, with numerous photographs and detailed descriptions of their performance spaces.
  • Richardson, Gary A. American Drama from the Colonial Period Through World War I. New York: Twayne, 1993. A concise history dealing mainly with nineteenth century theater, especially romantic plays and melodramas.
  • Young, William C. Documents of American Theatre History: Famous American Playhouses, 1716-1899. 2 vols. Chicago: American Library Association, 1973. Rich in detail; includes excerpts from diaries, letters, and newspapers, as well as more than two hundred illustrations.

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Edwin Booth; Charles Bulfinch; Edwin Forrest; Abraham Lincoln; Jenny Lind; Gioacchino Rossini. Theater;American