Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Bowery Theatre Fires

April 26, 1845, New York Daily Tribune, page 2, Tremendous Fire! - Bowery Theatre Burnt for the Fourth Time!,

A few minutes after six o'clock, last evening, a fire broke cut in the carpenter's room attached to the Bowery Theater, which instantly communicated to the Theatre itself, and in three quarters of an hour that fine edifice was a complete ruin, with nothing but the high walls and the massive columns standing. The inside of the building--scenery, furniture, wardrobe, machinery, &c. &c. was entirely destroyed, and several of the performers, we understand, lost private dresses and properties to considerable amounts. The evening's performances were to have been for the benefit of Mr. Davenport, and the actors and actresses were all in the building just commencing to dress for the duties of the night. We are happy to state that, so far as could be ascertained by the strictest enquiry possible under the circumstances, every person in the Theatre escaped in safety, although several of them with narrow risks of life and limb.

The scene in front, at the height of the conflagration, was magnificently fearful and sublime. The Bowery, which is the broadest thoroughfare in the city, was densely packed with a crowd extending on either side of the Theatre for a great distance, and numbering from fifteen to twenty thousand, while the roofs of the adjoining buildings, illuminated with an intense glare of red light, were literally covered down to the very eaves, with spectators. On the roofs adjoining and in the immediate vicinity of the Theatre hundreds of firemen were busy performing their dauntless and heroic deeds and seeming to be absolutely insensible as well as impervious to the scorching heat of the flames or the danger of their position. As the flames burst out at the front windows and wreathed around the entablature resting on the lofty columns, the Saloon, with its rows of decanters, pictures, sofas, &c. was splendidly illuminated, and presented a magnificent appearance. The sky glowed like a red-hot dome of iron, and cast broad reflections of lurid light all over the city, while the air sparkled like a star-shower with the burning cinders, which flew in every direction, and were many of them carried by the fire-breeze, which immediately sprung up, flying over the roofs as far as Broadway.

In the street below an indescribable tumult roared and raged on every side. At first the people rushed to the doors, burst them in and completely jammed up the lobbies--why, no one thought or could tell. The firemen shouted to them to come back, and endeavored to introduce their hose over the heads of the crowd, to see what could be done within.but they here effected little. The crowd obstinately maintained their places until the heavy entablature and tympanum--now all in bright flame--feIl to the ground, breaking into fiery fragments and enclosing them with a wall of fire in front while the burning theatre itself was at their backs! This state of things immediately warmed up their imaginations, and a general rush (happily successful) through the fallen and burning mass to the street ensued, amid the deafening shouts of the multitude.

The roof now gave way, and the tall flag-staffs on the building struck to the red flag of the conflagration, and all fell in with a stunning crash. The fire then sought the neighboring buildings, on either side, and the following were more or less injured, before the progress of the flames was arrested:
Bowery, North of Theater--No. 50, Theater Hotel--badly burnt; No. 52, Coffee House kept by N. Cort.

South Side--"Straw's House," No. 41; G. Westbrook's Tin-Pan Alley and Coffee House, No. 42; St. Charles Hotel, No. 40--all badly damaged.

Elizabeth Street--Back of Theater--Two small dwelling houses, and three or four buildings in the intermediate area, the particulars about which could not be learned.
In the Theatre nothing was saved, and we learn that there was no insurance on any part of the property or building. It is believed that Mr. Hamblin had no interest in the Theatre, it having passed, by a recent decree in Chancery, into the hands of James R. Whiting, Esq.--but the particular nature of the trust is unknown to us. We are informed, also, that the ground cannot, according to the terms of the lease, again he occupied for the purpose of erecting a Theater.

This is the fourth time the Bowery Theatre has been burnt. First, in 1828, when it took fire about the same time in the evening, (6 o'clock) and was owned by Mr. Hamblin, who was partially insured. So vigorous were that gentleman's measures that in 60 days the Theatre was rebuilt and in full operation. It again burnt down, we believe, in 1836  (October 4, 1836)---was rebuilt, and again destroyed in the winter of 1837-8--the last two fires without insurance.

We understand that Mr. Hamblin has just completed his arrangements for building a new Theatre on an extensive and costly site, on Broadway, adjoining the Tabernacle--the lot purchased and paid for, the plan agreed upon, and all other preliminaries settled. To avoid the delay and difficulty in getting the stock taken, Mr H. means to issue tickets to purchasers, in sums of $100 to $500, until he has in this way raised sufficient to go on with the enterprize.

We hope, now that the Bowery Theatre is again burned down without the slightest possibility of being rebuilt, that Canal-street will be immediately extended to the East River, or at least to the Bowery or East Broadway. The extension of this street has long been contemplated, and without it the Eastern section of the City can never have easy access to Broadway or the North River. Measures ought to be taken to carry out this desirable improvement forthwith.

1826, New York Theatre, by architect Ithiel Town,

Old Bowery Theatre, Bowery, N.Y, from Robert N. Dennis collection of stereoscopic views,

46 Bowery, New York, NY 10013
Architect (1845) John M. Trimble
Opened August 4, 1845
Demolished June 5, 1929 (Fire)

Bowery Theatre, Frank Leslie's Mag, 1856

Thalia Theater, 46-48 Bowery, west side, Atlantic Gardens adjoining on the north, May 25, 1904

Manhattan Insurance Maps
Publisher: [Perris & Browne]
Date Issued: 1857 -1862
Plate 13: Map bounded by Canal Street, Division Street, Chatham Square, Mulberry Street, Cross Street, Mott Street.

April 26, 1845,
Tremendous Fire! - Bowery Theatre Burnt for the Fourth Time!, New York Daily Tribune, :2

Fall 1999,, No. 44, Shipwrecked Spectators: Italy's Immigrants at the Movies in New York, 1906-1916, by Giorgio Bertellini,

Other names
New York Theatre (1826)
Bowery Theatre (1828)
Thalia Theatre (1879)
Fay's Bowery Theatre (1929)

Lithograph of Bowery Theatre, New York, by George Melksham Bourne
Bowery Theatre of 1828, from Bourne Views of New York (1830-31),_by_George_Melksham_Bourne.jpg

The Bowery Theatre was a playhouse in the Bowery neighborhood of New York City. Although it was founded by rich families to compete with the upscale Park Theatre, the Bowery saw its most successful period under the populist, pro-American management of Thomas Hamblin in the 1830s and 1840s. By the 1850s, the theatre came to cater to immigrant groups such as the Irish, Germans, andChinese. It burned down four times in 17 years, a fire in 1929 destroying it for good. Although the theatre's name changed several times (Thalia Theatre, Fay's Bowery Theatre, etc.), it was generally referred to as the "Bowery Theatre".

Founding and early management

By the mid-1820s, wealthy settler families in the new ward that was made fashionable by the opening ofLafayette Street, parallel to the Bowery, wanted easy access to fashionable high-class European drama, then only available at the Park Theatre. Under the leadership ofHenry Astor, they formed the New York Association and bought the land where Astor's Bull's Head Tavernstood,[1] facing the neighborhood and occupying the area between Elizabeth, Canal (then called Walker), and Bayard streets.[2] They hired architect Ithiel Town to design the new venue.

2 For map, see Perris, Plate 26. At NYPL, Image ID: 1270021

(Actually, Plate 13, on the 1857 -1862 Perris edition)

Publisher: [Perris & Browne]

Date Issued: 1857 -1862

Plate 13: Map bounded by Canal Street, Division Street, Chatham Square, Mulberry Street, Cross Street, Mott Street.

Some notable investors included Samuel Laurence Gouverneur, son-in-law to President James Monroe, and James Alexander Hamilton, son of Alexander Hamilton.[3]

3 As I Remember: Recollections of American Society During the Nineteenth Century, by Marian Campbell Gouverneur, (New York and London: D. Appleton and Company, 1911)

The new playhouse, with its Neoclassical design,[4] was more opulent than the Park, and it seated 3,500 people, making it the biggest theatre in the United States at the time.[5] Frances Trollope compared it to the Park Theatre as "superior in beauty; it is indeed as pretty a theatre as I ever entered, perfect as to size and proportion, elegantly decorated, and the scenery and machinery equal to any in London...."[6]

6 Trollope, Fanny (1832). Domestic Manners of the Americans.

Vanity Fair - Mrs. Trollope's America

Full etext at Project Gutenberg

The Bowery Theatre opened on 22 October 1826 under the name New York Theatre, with the comedy The Road to Ruin, by Thomas Holcroft, under the management of Charles A. Gilfert. New York Mayor Philip Hone spoke at the opening ceremony, imploring the theatre's intended upper-class audience: "It is therefore incumbent upon those whose standing in society enables them to control the opinions and direct the judgment of others, to encourage, by their countenance and support, a well-regulated theatre."[7] Its first few seasons were devoted to ballet,opera, and high drama. The theatre was by this time quite fashionable, and the northward expansion of Manhattan gave the theatre access to a large patronage. The theatre burnt out in 1828, but was rebuilt behind the same facade and reopened under the name Bowery Theatre.[8]Gilfert's understanding of advertising was keen, but in 1829 the owners fired him.

June 19, 1887, New York Times, Booth at the Old Bowery: Commodore Tooker’s Recollections, by Joseph H. Tooker,

Tooker owns three prints of the various versions of the Bowery theatre and describes the first as follows: "The first is 'a sketch of the New York Theatre, afterward the Bowery, erected 1826.' It is of a handsome structure, with but two Corinthian pillars, flanked by two square-sided columns, with Roman Dorics, and are hardly palpable enough as pillars to be so designated. On either side is a plain, flat frontage with two large windows, one above the other, and a small square dead light above these. There is also a low down-stairs pit entrance on each side. The main steps are six in number and lead to a portico door that appears to be half as high as the theatre. The upper front has a fine, impressive finish, being a pediment with plain, solid cornices, supported by a row of molding that architects call triglyphs. There is no Catharine wheel, cinquefoil, or other window in the pediment, and so all that space seems bare. On the north side of the theatre is a two-story, dormer-window, cellar, dwelling house, with peaked roof, of course. The house on the south side is so very small that it looks like a coupon attached to the big building. Well, that is the first, or two-column, old Bowery."

A contemporary engraving suggests alterations may have been made to the facade also. In his reminiscences published in The New York Times of 1887, Commodore Tooker describes the building as follows: Tooker, Joseph H. "Booth at the Old Bowery: Commodore Tooker's Recollections," The New York Times, June 19, 1887. "The next representation is an engraving taken from Morris & Willis's New-York Mirror of 1828. (G.P. Morris, Nathaniel P. Willis.) The design was by A. J. Davis and the engraving by Rawdon, Wright & Co., renowned in their day. A fire must have intervened, as this structure has six columns – six Corinthian columns, with Doric capitals. The upper part is a pediment with plain cornices, the support being 11 triglyphs, with a row of as many rings below as further ornamentation. The portico seems to be very spacious and is enclosed by iron railings running in front of the first two columns on either side. There are seven steps leading to the portico and there are four doors. Two pit entrances running below the sidewalk. The main building seems to be of blocks of stone. Mr. Sera was the architect. He was a scenic artist of note in his day. His example was the Temple of Minerva at Athens. This picture is of singular merit as a specimen of the engraver's art. The clouds hovering above the theatre are superbly drawn and engraved. I value this picture very highly." In his description of an earlier print (see above) Hooker describes the first building as having only two columns.

Hamblin's tenure

The owners hired Thomas Hamblin and James H. Hackett in August 1830 to manage the theatre. A month later, Hackett left Hamblin in complete control. After the Bowery burned down later that year, Hamblin rebuilt. He then took the theatre in a decidedly different direction for what would be its most innovative and successful period.

Bowery Theatre of 1845, shown in 1856

American theatres stratified in the Jacksonian Era, and the Bowery emerged as the home of American nativists and populist causes, placing it in direct contrast to the Park Theatre's cultivated image of traditional European high culture. This was partially the result of an anti-British theatre riot at the Park; Hamblin renamed the playhouse "the American Theatre, Bowery" in reaction. Hamblin hired unknown American actors and playwrights and allowed them to play for long runs of up to a month. Before 1843, earlyblackface performers such as George Washington Dixon and Thomas D. Rice played there frequently, and acts such as J. B. Booth, Edwin Forrest, Louisa Lane Drew, and Frank Chanfrau also gained renown on the Bowery's stage. George L. Fox and his pantomime became the most popular act at the Bowery until after the Civil War. Bowery productions also debuted or popularized a number of new character types, including the Bowery B'hoy, theYankee, the Frontiersman, and the blackface Negro.

The pro-Americanism of the Bowery's audience came to a head during theFarren Riots of 1834. Farren,[9] the Bowery's British-born stage manager, had reportedly made anti-American comments and fired an American actor. Protesters reacted by attacking the homes, businesses, and churches of abolitionists and blacks in New York City and then storming the theatre on 9 July. Farren apologized for his comments, and George Washington Dixon sang popular songs to quell the rioters.

Hamblin defied conventions of theatre as high culture by booking productions that appealed toworking-class patrons and by advertising them extensively according to Gilfert's model. Animal acts, blackface minstrel shows, andmelodrama enjoyed the most frequent billings, and hybrid forms, such as melodramas about dogs saving their human masters, became unprecedented successes. Spectacular productions with advanced visual effects, including water and fire, featured prominently. Hamblin also innovated by using gas lighting in lieu of candles and kerosene lamps. The Bowery Theatre earned the nickname "The Slaughterhouse" for its low-class offerings, and terms like "Bowery melodrama" and "Bowery actors" were coined to characterize the new type of theatre.[10]

In the spring of 1834, Hamblin began buying shares in the theatre from the New York Association; he had enough to control the enterprise completely within 18 months. By the time the Bowery burned again in September 1836, it was the most popular playhouse in New York City,[11] despite steep increases in competition (the Bowery Amphitheatre was right across the street). Visual spectacle had become such an integral part of its appeal that Hamblin claimed $5,000 in wardrobe losses from the fire.[12]Hamblin bought out the remaining shares in the theatre and rented the site to W. E. Dinneford and Thomas Flynn, who rebuilt. When this interim Bowery burned down in February 1838, Hamblin replaced it with a bigger and more opulent structure, which opened in May 1839.

Through Hamblin's actions, working-class theatre emerged as a form in its own right, and melodrama became the most popular form of American theatre. Low-class patrons such as Bowery b'hoys and g'halspredominated in the audience. The Spirit of the Times described the Bowery's patrons:

Thalia Theatre prior to its destruction in 1929

"By reasonable computation there were about 300 persons on the stage and wings alone-—soldiers in fatigue dresses—officers with side arms-—a few jolly tars, and a number of 'apple-munching urchins.' The scene was indescribably ludicrous. Booth played [Richard III] in his best style, and was really anxious to make a hit, but the confusion incidental to such a crowd on the stage, occasioned constant and most humorous interruptions. It was every thing or any thing, but a tragedy. In the scene with Lady Anne, a scene so much admired for its address, the gallery spectators amused themselves by throwing pennies and silver pieces on the stage, which occasioned an immense scramble among the boys, and they frequently ran between King Richard and Lady Anne, to snatch a stray copper. In the tent scene, so solemn and so impressive, several curious amateurs went up to the table, took up the crown, poised the heavy sword, and examined all the regalia with great care, while Richard was in agony from the terrible dream; and when the scene changed, discovering the ghosts of King Henry, Lady Anne and children, it was difficult to select them from the crowd who thrust their faces and persons among the Royal shadows.The Battle of Bosworth Field capped the climax—the audience mingled with the soldiers and raced across the stage, to the shouts of the people, the roll of the drums and the bellowing of the trumpets; and when the fight between Richard and Richmond came on, they made a ring round the combattants to see fair play, and kept them at if for nearly a quarter of an hour by "Shrewsberry clock."[13]

Some sources even suggest that patrons engaged in sexual behavior in the lobbies and boxes.[14]Understandably, Hamblin was careful to remain in this crowd's good graces. For example, he regularly offered use of the Bowery Theatre for the annual firemen's ball. Only theChatham Garden Theatre boasted a rowdier audience.[15]

Profits were harder to come by in the 1840s, as more playhouses sprung up in New York. Hamblin staged more effects-driven melodrama and later increased bookings of circus acts, minstrel shows, and other variety entertainments. The Bowery burned down once more in April 1845.[16] This time, Hamblin had fire insurance, and he rebuilt with an eye toward appealing to a more upscale patronage and to staging more spectacular melodrama. The theatre now seated 4,000 and with a stage 126 feet (38 m) square, secured its place as one of the largest playhouses in the world.[5] The architect and builder of the new theatre was J. M. Trimble.[17]Hamblin left the management to A. W. Jackson, though Jackson and later managers largely upheld Hamblin's emphasis on melodrama and visual splendor. Hamblin died in January 1853, and the theatre remained in his family until 1867.

Successful plays of Hamblin's tenure included:
The Elephant of Siam and the Fire Fiend by Samuel Beazley, which featured the elephant Mademoiselle D'Jeck and ran for 18 consecutive performances in early 1831.[18]
Mazeppa, Or, The Wild Horse of Ukraine, which debuted on July 22, 1833 and had 43 consecutive performances, an astounding feat for its time.[18]
Putnam, the Iron Son of '76 by Nathaniel Bannister. This play debuted on November 2, 1844 and ran for 78 consecutive performances.[19][20]

Later management

By the middle of the 19th century, immigrant groups, notably the Irish, began populating the Bowery neighborhood. They came to form a significant portion of the Bowery's audience, mostly in the low-price gallery section. In order to cater to them, the theatre offered plays by James Pilgrim and other Irish playwrights. Meanwhile, the Bowery emerged as the theatrical center for New York's Lower East Side.

Germans Gustav Amberg, Heinrich Conried, and Mathilde Cottrellyconverted the Bowery into the Thalia Theatre in 1879, offering primarily German theatre during their ownership. In 1891, Yiddish theatrebecame the predominant attraction. Italian vaudeville succeeded this, followed by Chinese vaudeville. "Fay's Bowery Theatre" burned down on 5 June 1929 under Chinese management and was never rebuilt.

Shank, Theodore J. Theatre for the Majority: Its Influence on a Nineteenth Century American Theatre, Educational Theatre Journal, Vol. 11, No. 3 (Oct., 1959), pp. 188-199, at 196 (noting that Mazeppa had 43 performances; Elephant of Siam and the Water Witch in 1831 had 18 each)

The Cambridge Guide To Theatre, p. 76 (1995)

Ireland, Joseph, Records of the New York stage, from 1750 to 1860, pp. 417, 438

Bank, Rosemary K. (1997). Theatre Culture in America, 1825-1860. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Cockrell, Dale (1997). Demons of Disorder: Early Blackface Minstrels and Their World. Cambridge University Press.

Mahar, William J. (1999). Behind the Burnt Cork Mask: Early Blackface Minstrelsy and Antebellum American Popular Culture. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Nichols, Glen (1999). "Hamblin, Thomas Sowerby". American National Biography, Vol. 9. New York: Oxford University Press.

Perris, William Maps of the City of New York, Vol. 3. Perris & Browne, 1853

Praefcke, Andreas. "New York, NY: Bowery Theatre", Carthalia. Accessed 28 November 2005.

Trollope, Frances (1832). Domestic Manners of the Americans.

Wilmeth, Don B., and Miller, Tice L., eds. (1996). Cambridge Guide to American Theatre. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Wilmeth, Don B., and Bigsby, C. W. E. (1998) The Cambridge History of American Theatre: Beginnings to 1870. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Media related to Bowery Theatre at Wikimedia Commons,

Bowery Theatre at the IBDB database,

"In and Around the Bowery Theatre," Manhattan Unlocked website

(LOC) Library of Congress Digital Collections,

(NYPL) New York Public Library Digital Gallery (search on image ID number)

August 23, 1828, New-York Mirror, and Ladies Literary Gazette, Vol. 6 No. 7, pages 49-51, Public Buildings: The New Bowery Theatre, Online provider: HathiTrust.

October 4, 1836, Rutland Herald (From the N.Y. Advertiser), page 2, Destruction of the Bowery Theatre by Fire,

May 21, 1841, New-York Tribune, page 2, Remarks of the Tribune,


December 20, 1841, New-York Tribune, page 2, Report of the Trustees of the New-York Fire Department for 1841,

At the close of the last year, the Trustees in presenting their Annual Report, remarked, that owing to the depressed state of the times, it would require great exertions to enable them to meet the current expenses of the present year, and they now have the gratification to inform the public that the appeal has not been made in vain, and that the Friends and Members of the Department have again displayed a spirit of philanthropy a and liberality towards our Institution worthy of all praise, which has enabled the Trustees, by the blessing of a kind Providence, to meet the expenditures of the year, and also to add one thousand seven hundred and fifty dollars to the Permanent Fund.

In connexion with this happy result, they take pleasure in informing you that the honorable the Common Council has again contributed the Annual Donation, many benevolent individuals, and likewise many of the Fire Insurance Companies of this city, and "of the cities of Boston, and Hartford, who have agencies here, have generously given us donations, and also several Fire Companies of this city, which, with the benefit at the Bowery Theatre, and the proceeds of the 12th Annual Ball, have collectively been conducive in placing the financial affairs of the Department in its present prosperous condition.

April 26, 1845, New York Daily Tribune, page 2, Tremendous Fire! - Bowery Theatre Burnt for the Fourth Time!,
November 17, 1845, New York Daily Tribune, page 2, col. 5, bottom, Untitled paragraph,
The Architect and Builder of the present Bowery Theatre, Mr. J. M. Trimble, we understand lost a considerable sum of money by his contract for rebuilding, and the proprietors have agreed to give him a Benefit this evening, which we hope may remunerate him in part at least for his heavy losses. Mr. Trimble is not only a most ingenious mechanic, but is also a very deserving man.

The Miscellaneous reports, Cases Decided in the Courts of Record of the State of New York, Volume 39, (Albany: James B. Lyon, Publisher, 1903)
Adler v. Kramer, Supreme Court, Jan. 1903, page 643

As I Remember: Recollections of American Society During the Nineteenth Century, by Marian Campbell Gouverneur (New York and London: D. Appleton and Company, 1911)

February 4, 1921, New York Tribune, page 9, Italians Get Thalia Theater,
The old Thalia Theater, at 46-48 Bowery, has been leased by the Kramer estate to the Italian-American Company, a theatrical syndicate, for a term of years aggregating $150.000.

The Immigrant Press and Its Control, by Robert Ezra Park, (New York and London: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1922)
page 130 "Acierno's Thalia Theater, 46-48 Bowery," (Progresso Italo-Americano)

The immigrant press and its control - University Library
The character acting of these two companies, and of some of Adler's company, is not rivaled on the American stage. Acierno's Thalia Theater. 46-48 Bowery ...

November 8, 1920, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, page 14, To Remodel Old Thalia,


January 12, 1934,The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, page 27, Bowery Plot Sold,

Fall 1999,, No. 44, Shipwrecked Spectators: Italy's Immigrants at the Movies in New York, 1906-1916, by Giorgio Bertellini,

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