James Hubert McVicker.

The theatre; its early days in Chicago. A paper read before the Chicago Historical Society, February 19, 1884 online

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friends, and it will be noted none of the names
are found on both lists, which fact may be re-
ceived as evidence that there was a feeling in
the community on the subject; perhaps from
the fear of fire. Here is a list of the early
-friends of the early drama in Chicago :

H. L. Rucker, John Calhotm,

J. W. Stroder, J. B. F. Russell,

B. S. Morris, F. Peyters,


S. Abell,

I. Curtis,

R. Z. Hamilton,

E. D. Taylor,

Nathan Allen,

Mark Skinner,

Julius Wadworth,

H. Loomis,

T. R. Hubbard,

\V. A. McClure,

S. T. Otis,

J.-M. Smith,

A. Garrett,

J. B. Hussely,

G. A. Beaumont,

C. H. Blair,

G. Hungerford,

Charles Walton,

\V. Mason,

A. V. Nickerbocker,

Thomas Hoyne,
I. Allen,
Geo. Kerchival,
A. A. Humphrey,
N. B. Judd,
H. G. Loomis,
Thomas J. Durkin,
Jos. A. Cox,
Clifford S. Phillips,
R. P. Woodworth,

F. Faxton,
\V. H. Davis,
E. S. Kimberly,
P. Nichols,

E. Maniere,
Wm. Wright,
Thomas Davis,
S. S. Bradley,
Frederick Bailey,

G. Glass,


J. Jay Stuart, D. W. C. Allen,

Hiram Pierson, C. T. Stanton,

H. O. Stone.

A similar number of more honored citizens
cannot be selected from the inhabitants of
Chicago in 1838. Their influence in all city
matters was not lessened by the broad and
liberal policy they pursued.

Mr. McKinzie replied in a befitting manner,
assuring the gentlemen their kindness had
" fallen upon a heart that is like the wave to
receive, and the marble to retain the impres-

Those in the employ of Mr. McKinzie ten-
dered their services on the occasion of the
benefit, expressing the hope that prosperity
might " ever attend the establisher of the
drama in the ' far west." This was signed by
Wm. Leicester, G. C. Germon and T. Sankey,
for the Company. The benefit took place



October 18, 1838, and Bulwer's play of the
" Lady of Lyons," then new, was given with
this cast :
Claude Melnotte, - - - - Mr. Wm. Leicester.

Beauseant, - - - - - - - Mr. Wm. Warren.

Glavis, - - - - - - - Mr. G. C. Gormon.

Col. Dumas, - Mr. T. Sankey.

Deschappelles, - - - Mr. J. Wright.

Gaspar, - - - - - Mr. C. Burke.

Officer, - Mr. Watts.

Pauline, - Mrs. Ingersol.

Madame Deschappelles, - - - Mrs. Jefferson.
Widow Melnotte, - Mrs. McKinzie.

After the play Master Jefferson sang the
comic song of " Lord Lovell and Lady Nancy,"
and Mr. Germon gave Chicago, for the first
time, " The Hunters of Kentucky." The per-
formance concluded with the " Two Friends,"
a very pretty drama. The curtain rose at
seven precisely. In those days and nights


fashion had not seized the city, and all things
were done earlier than now. Over forty-five
years have passed since this performance was
given, and four of those who took part in the
" Lady of Lyons," are still living; six are
acting in a better world.

The fire of 1871 was so destructive of news-
paper files and other documents relating to
the early days of our city that I have been un-
able to fix the exact day of the opening of the
season of 1838, or of its close ; it has escaped
even the memory of those who took part in it.
It is safe, however, to assume that it com-
menced about the middle of May, and was
drawing to a close when this benefit was given
to the manager.

I find no dramatic performances were given
here during the winter of 1838-39, and the
next record is to be found in the daily
"American," of April lyth, 1839, which stated



that Mr. McKinzie has received a license
" to start his theatre again on the payment
of $75, provided no fireworks are allowed
in his theatrical exhibitions." The "Ameri-
can," aware of the divided sentiment existing
with the community on theatrical matters,
made evident by the two lists of names I
have given, straddled the fence on the subject,
thus :

" \Ve are aware that theatres are obnoxious
to a respectable and intelligent part of every
community, but they are permitted, and must
be permitted, on the ground of general expe-
diency, if for no other reason." This was an
editorial, and sounds like many written to-day.
Doubtless the editor thought he was giving
the theatre a favorable notice, and smoothing
the manager's way to success, while in reality
he was stabbing him in the back with ill-chosen
words, and cloino- more harm than had he



openly opposed the re-opening of the theatre.
His editorial was calculated to create the im-
pression that the respectable and intelligent
part of the community did not attend theatres,
and as all weak people in small places have a
terrible fear of " Mrs. Grundy," and .a strong
desire to be thought intelligent and respecta-
ble, doubtless many of this class hesitated to
lend their countenance to anything which the
editor could only approve on the ground of
expediency, they not understanding that the
expediency was simply the desire to carry
water on both shoulders. The editor was not
slow in finding out which was the strong side,
and his issue of May i3th contained the fol-
lowing :

" When theatres are conducted so as to
' shoot folly as it flies ' if they are not always
successful in their designs to ' raise the genius
and to mend the heart,' they still perform a


valuable service in a very pleasant way, and
people will, in spite of cynics and moralizers
to the contrary, lend them the light of their

During the summer of 1839 Mr. Jefferson,
who was an excellent painter as well as actor
and both gifts have descended to his son
Joseph returned to the city to prepare the
theatre for the Company, and the " American "
announced the opening for August 3ist, with
new scenery and decorations. The first per-
formance was Coleman's musical comedy of
" The Review, or the Wa^s of Windsor," and


the " Illustrious Stranger, or Buried Alive."
No cast was given in the advertisement, and
no bill is in existence, but from notices in the
" American " at different times we learn that
Mr. A. Sullivan and C. L. Green had joined
the Company, which remained about the same
as the previous season. Mr. Jefferson had


succeeded Mr. Isherwood as Mr. McKinzie's
partner in the management. The " American"
of September 3d contained the following:

" The Chicago Theatre, under the polishing
skill of Mr. Jefferson, appears in a new and
beautiful dress, newly and neatly painted and
provided with a complete change of fresh and
tasteful scenery. The appropriate motto, 'for
useful mirth and salutary woe; which looks
down over the drop curtain upon the audito-
rium, conveys an idea of the useful tendencies
of the legitimate drama." In a later issue
the editor read the ladies of the city a lecture
for not attending the theatre, forgetful that
the doubt he had thrown over its respectability
had much to do with their remaining away.
After assuring them that they were perfectly

safe in attending, he said :

" If the ladies are waiting for fashionable
precedents, we will inform them that at Spring-


field in this state the theatre was attended
generally by the beauty and fashion of the
fair sex and by the gentlemen of the place, of
all official positions from Judge of the Su-
preme Court down. This has been the case,
we believe, at St. Louis and in the East,"

September i4th, 1839, "Oliver Twist' 1 was
performed for the first time in Chicago, and
Wm. Warren was the Bill Sykes. The
" American " lauded his rendition of the char-
acter, and the editor's lecture to the ladies on
theatre going was beginning to have effect, for
on this occasion he writes : " The front seats
and boxes were lighted up with the beauty
and smiles of the fair sex."

" William Sykes " is not now a favorite with
the ladies, yet if Mr. Warren would act the
part in Boston, where his name will ever be a
household word, there would be a lively time
in securing seats, by both sexes.


On the 1 7th of September the "American "
tells us that " Master Jefferson sang a comic
song in which he won silver if not golden
opinions." Joseph remembers this agreeable
incident and alluded to it in his letter to me.

Frequent changes were necessary in those
days, as the number of patrons was not large,
and dramas, comedies, and tragedies of a '
standard character were given in rapid suc-
cession, the farce always winding up the per-
formance, and Master Jefferson was a favorite
with his comic songs between play and farce.
Most of the plays of those days and the farces
are now consigned to the shelves, like many
other good things, because they are old. Driv-
ing the farce from the stage was a misfortune
to the actor's art. They were the primaries in
which the rudiments of the profession were
impressed upon young artists, who now step
into important work without proper tuition.


September 23d, 1839, is set down as the time
of the first fairy spectacle in Chicago ; most
likely without the fairies, as they are always
hard to find in small communities, and when
found create a clatter among the village gos-
sips. This first spectacle was " Cherry and
Fairstar, or the Children of Cyprus." Con-
sidering the fact that the license was granted
for the season on condition that no fireworks
should be introduced, the management must
have violated the conditions or curtailed one
of the effects of this drama, a fiery dragon.

To digress, let me say " Cherry and Fair-
star" was the attraction the first night I en-
tered a theatre, and it was its fire effect which
riveted it upon my memory, together with the
circumstances under which I saw it at the
Park Theatre, New York, I should think about
1833. I was started in life under Presbyterian
auspices, drifting into Episcopalianism ; my


mother sympathized with all the prejudices
that existed at that time against theatres and
actors, and was lavish in her advice that I
should avoid them, which doubtless made me
a little more anxious to find out how bad they
really were. One evening, having saved my
pennies for the occasion, I slipped out of the
house, and joined a companion a few years
older than myself, and we stole away to the
Park Theatre. There were two plays that
night, one a Roman tragedy, the name of
which I never remembered, the other " Cherry
and Fairstar." During the tragedy there were
so many people killed that every word I had
ever heard as to what terrible people actors
were seemed to return to me and forced
themselves into belief. To me, during that
tragedy, they were indeed wicked. In" Cherry
and Fairstar " I saw vice pursuing virtue ;
was in a fever of excitement, and only kept



quiet by my companion who was somewhat
older, and was constantly telling me it was
only a play. He had been there before. Of
course there was much to please both eye and
ear ; my sympathies being with Cherry and
Fairstar, I was ready to fight for them, but
when the fiery dragon came on the stage
and spurted fire from its mouth into the pit
where I was sitting, I thought of my disobedi-
ence to my mother, and starting up ran out of
the theatre thinking the devil was after me.
The devil was more dreaded by boys in
those days than now. I reached home, but
could not enter the house without my mother's
knowledge, and so was compelled to admit
how bad I was, ask forgiveness, receive it, and
join in her belief as to the wickedness of
actors, of whom she knew nothing, and the
sin of going to the theatre, where at that time
she had never been. Fiery dragons and Ro-


man murderers were the companions of my
slumbers that night, and I remained a good
boy until I migrated west. But this is per-
sonal, and no way connected with the early
stage of Chicago, and the production of the
same play, in which the fiery dragon did not
appear, and in fact he has never yet made his
appearance in any after production of the play
in this city.

This first spectacle evidently pleased, as it
was repeated several times, an unusual occur-
rence in those days, and the " American " again
called attention to the fact that ladies were
going to the theatre, as the prejudice against
their doing so was fast wearing away, not
being supported by facts ; those opposed to
theatres being the only ones able to present
indictments, with no evidence to sustain them.

During this season of 1839 Charles Kemble
Mason, quite an able actor, appeared as a star,



aided by Mrs. McCluer, a fine actress. They
presented a series of Shakespearean and
other standard works. Mr. Mason was the
Hamlet, Macbeth, Shylock and Romeo first
known to Chicago.

The season terminated November 2d, and
the company went east, and I find no record
of their return as a company, and certainly
this was the end of a management which had
done some good work.

Chicago was fortunate falling into such
hands as those who guided the early days of
the drama. Both managers and artists cre-
ated, with all not blinded by prejudice, an
impression favorable to their profession,
which has never been eradicated, and which
had done much toward removing the scales
from eyes which only gazed with the light of
tradition, .founded in darkness.

The seven years following the termination


of the season of 1839, tne city was left without
any dramatic company of repute at all in
keeping with those under the control of Isher-
wood, McKinzie and Jefferson, The cause of
this seven years' delay in that which had
been so auspiciously begun can only be theo-
rized upon. I would attribute it to the gen-
eral state of the country at that time, brought
about by the panic of 1837. My experience,
and I have seen some panics, is, that while
amusements do not feel any depressing effect
at first, it comes by degrees, and is slow in
leaving. It is a mistaken idea that people
seek amusements when depressed, but it is a
correct one that panics strike the first hard
blow at a few interests, and in time the entire
body politic is permeated with the disease.
Hence amusements are the last to feel the
blow, and the last to recover from it, receiving
their full share of its weight. Trifling and



low amusements always thrive best in times of
general depression, for the reason that they
are patronized by the unthinking classes who
never economize. And during panic times
emotional religion also sees its best days.

During these seven years the itinerants
which occasionally paid a visit were few and far
between, and only of little moment when here.
The quality is not to be wondered at when we
consider the population of the city was less
than 5,000. The great wonder is that so few
people were able to support the talent which
the early managers offered. But the salaries
of actors in those days were not twenty per
cent of those of the present time.

Circuses and shows occasionally made an
appearance, but the first dramatic venture
from 1839 to J ^4 2 was m ade by Mrs. Mary C.
Porter, who attempted to give performances
without a license, which brought her in con-


flict with the authorities, and on April 4th she
petitioned the Council to forgive her past sins
and grant her a license for the future. Her
prayer was doubtless granted, or quietly acqui-
esed in. No record of* the fact exists, but on
April gth a benefit performance was an-
nounced, when '"The Manager in Distress"
was presented, from which it may be inferred
that Mrs. Porter had enough of Chicago. She
was followed by a Mr. H. B. Nelson, Yankee
story teller and comedian, and company, who
remained but a few days, and on August 4th,
1842, a license was granted to Messrs. Lynn
and Powell for a season of one month at the
" Rialto."

In their application they alluded to the hard
times and lack of patronage, and prayed for a
small amount to be named as a license, and
the price was fixed at $15, and no record can
be found of the number of passes the Council



received for this generosity, This company
consisted of Mr. and Mrs. Powell, Mr. and
Mrs. Hastings, Mrs. Ramsey, Mr. Lynn, Mrs.
Graham, Mr. Sharpe and Mrs. Jackson, none
of whom ever achieved a lasting fame in their

August 3Oth, 1842, Dan. Marble appeared,
accompanied by Mrs. Silsbee, and sup-
ported by the company just mentioned.
" Black-eyed Susan " and the " Forest Rose,"
were the plays selected, and the " Democrat "
stated that the patronage afforded Mr. Marble
was discouragingly light, and added : " We
are aware that a considerable portion of our
community will not countenance a theatre, no
matter how talented its members." The edi-
tor could see no cause for lack of patronage
but the old one, dislike of the theatre; a string-
always ready to be harped upon.

Benjamin F. Taylor in recollection of those


days writes thus : " It was in that dirty old trap,
the ' Rialto,' I think, that I saw Dan. Marble
for the first time. The play was ' Black-eyed
Susan,' and Marble's admirable William
melted the house, as if it had been something
in a crucible. It was, in its way, the perfec-
tion and simplicity of nature. The audience
was a little mixed. There were the fellows
that in New York would have ' Killed for
Keiser,' the ' wake-me-up-when-Kirby-dies
stripe.' There was a small handful of half
breeds, a sprinkling of lieutenants from the
army, one or two worn-out paymasters. The
pit was full of sailors, with occasionally a
wharf rat ; but for fresh-water tars there was a
wonderful effusion of salt water. Even the
always conscious dress circle fluttered with
any number of white cambric mops, and when
the play took the right turn at last, the 'gods'
applauded until the spiders hovering in their


webs, and the mice in the walls, were whist.
Even the chaps that spent their time in the
interludes in bawling ' boots ' and ' supe' and
eating peanuts, mopped out the corner of
their eyes 'with their dirty knuckles, and had
the theatrical management furnished soap as
well as sorrow, some of them might have put
a better face on the matter. I can see the

central figures of that , dress circle to-day.
Hands that I think of have shriveled out of
the white kids they wore that night. The
blue dress coats and buff vests have been laid
aside for other and stranger wear. Yonder,
crowned with iron-gray Jacksonian hair, is the
stately form of Col. Kercheval. The man
near him, with large, luminous eyes, is Hon.
Giles Spring, owner of one of the finest judi-
cial minds that ever graced the state. Beyond
him is Doctor Maxwell, with a step as light as
that of a wisp of a girl, for all of his two hun-


dred and odd pounds of solid flesh. Close
by are E. W. Tracy, Geo. W. Meeker and
Doctor Stuart, and but why keep on calling
the dead men's roll ? Some of the beauty as
well as the manhood of the young city was
there, and brightened up the dull old place
like moonlight ; but what matters it? The foot
lights are out, the players departed, and the
air is full of dust withal. Down with the

During the fall of 1842, a theatre, so called,
was opened in what was known as the Chap-
man building, on the southeast corner of Wells
(now Fifth Avenue) and Randolph streets,
under the management of Mr. Hastings, a
member of the previous company, which had
doubtless succumbed to fate, and Mr. Hast-
ings was not long in following, as no record of
his continuance is made.

September 14, 1842, " Othello " was acted

/ / '.V /<;. / A' L \ ' DA ) 'S IN CHIC A GO. 53

in Chapman's building, for the benefit of Mrs.
Powell, who appeared as " Desdemona," and
the " Democrat " suggested that she introduce
the song " Strike the Light Guitar," which she
sang with great effect. " Othello " was acted
on this occasion by a gentleman of the city,
at the time a tailor, and afterward known as
Mr. Geo. Ryer, a very excellent actor, and one
of good repute, now dead.

During the same fall a Thespian company
was formed and petitioned the Council to per-
mit them to give occasional dramatic perform-
ances without paying a license therefor. John
S. Potter, a man who is said to have started
more theatres and failed oftener than any
other man who lived in his day, asked for a
license to open a theatre August Qth, 1843.
Following him came the ''Learned Pi^ " in

o o

1844, ar >d then an effort was made to estab-
lish a Museum, and a free license asked for



of course, or to quote from the petition, 4t one
demanding no further compensation than the
necessary perquisites to the proper officer
granting the same." This request seems to
have been granted November 21 st, 1844, and
the Museum became a fixed fact, having a
legal existence. So numerous had the applica-
tions become from itinerants, for free or cheap
licenses, that the Council, in self defense I
presume, passed an ordinance in the fall of
1844, making $5 a performance a minimum
and $50 a maximum amount to be charged,
and empowered the Mayor to grant licenses at
these figures, according to his discretion.

The Commercial building, 73 Lake street,
became the home of the Museum in 1845.
Its manager, Henry Fuller, boasted of an ex-
tensive variety of geology, mineralogy, con-
chology and ornithology, and promised that
nothing should be introduced within its walls


not " in strict accordance with propriety, mo-
rality and religion." Admission 25 cents,
children half price.

Manager Fuller on the I5th of November
petitioned the Council to remove the license
tax, urging that a Museum was strictly "a
place of instruction." The Council was deaf
to his prayer, and the Museum -struggled on
till February, 1846, when Mr. Fuller made
another appeal, and after due deliberation the
Council granted his request, conditioned that
no transient entertainment or dramatic per-
formance should be allowed. This did not
meet the views of the manager, who replied he
would be under the necessity of closing the
Museum unless theatrical performances could
be given free of license. Since the advent
of Barnum, Museums have been looked upon
by the dramatic profession as the means to an
end, or a way " to beat the devil round the


stump," for the reason that certain good peo-
ple would attend the performance given in the
so-called lecture room of the Museum, who
would not enter the doors of a theatre. For
the same reason many theatres are called
opera houses. This last petition of Fuller's
was referred to a special committee of the
Council, which reported : " We feel that the
efforts of Messrs. Fuller and Seacomb to es-
tablish a Museum have not been properly ap-
preciated by the citizens, and that they have
not been afforded that encouragement and
patronage which the merits of the Museum

The committee recommended the following,
which was adopted :

" Resolved, That in the opinion of the Com-
mon Council, the Museum of Messrs. Fuller
and Seacomb is worthy of the support and
patronage of the citizens of Chicago and the


country generally, and that all persons having
natural or artificial curiosities be respectfully
invited to make contributions of the same to
the Museum."

This was a most liberal resolution, and
doubtless the only one of its kind to be found
in the records of the city. Mr. Fuller had
evidently captured the city fathers, for in ad-
dition to this laudatory resolution an order
was passed fixing the amount of license for six
months at the nominal figure of $5, and the
Museum, with dramatic attachments, was
vouched for by the government of the city, and
made an effort for a permanent existence, but
failed to succeed.

This is the history of the amusements of the
city from 1834 to 1846, briefly recorded. The
" Rialto," which had become known as the
"Theatre" building, was destroyed by fire
in February, 1847. ^ n tne spring of that year


John B. Rice, who had been connected with
managerial enterprises in the State of New
York, between Albany and Buffalo, visited
Chicago with a view of establishing himself in
the new city of the lakes, and the hope of
making it his home. Being favorably im-
pressed with the outlook for the future of the

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