225 YEARS AGO (1790)
President George Washington signs the first U.S. copyright act, which strives to promote “the encouragement of learning, by securing the copies of maps, charts, and books, to the authors and proprietors of such copies, during the times therein mentioned.” More than a century later, organizations such as Dramatists Guild of America will devote themselves to protecting the rights of theatremakers.
150 YEARS AGO (1865)
The stage floor of the Nevada Theatre in Nevada City, Calif., is laid. A local paper writes, “When the new house is completed, we will have one of the best theatres in the State, but at the rate they are working, no performances will be given there this season.” In fact, the venue officially opens in September, and the first season includes performances by authors Mark Twain and Jack London. The playhouse will become one of the oldest theatre buildings in California.
140 YEARS AGO (1875)
Charlotte Cushman concludes her nearly 40-year acting career with a performance as Lady Macbeth at the Globe Theatre in Boston, the city in which she was born. Over the years she toured the U.S. and Europe in a variety of roles, including male characters such as Romeo in Romeo and Juliet.
110 YEARS AGO (1905)
A Pittsburgh, Pa.-bound Cleveland-Cincinnati Express train sideswipes a boxcar filled with explosives near Harrisburg. The crash leaves theatre producer Sam S. Shubert badly burned, and he dies the next day. As a tribute to their brother and business partner, Lee and J.J. Shubert will name many of their theatres after him.
[http://www3.gendisasters.com/pennsylvania/5179/harrisburg,-pa-express-train-hits-derailed-freight,-may-1905; New Era Illustrated Magazine; Pennsylvania Disasters]
100 YEARS AGO (1915)
Orson Welles is born in Kenosha, Wisc. He will be best known for his 1941 film Citizen Kane, but he’ll grow up in the theatre. When he turns 19, he’ll play Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet on Broadway. The following year, Welles will direct the fabled “Voodoo” Macbeth for the Federal Theatre Project’s Negro Theatre Unit. His work with FTP will lead to the controversial The Cradle Will Rock and the Mercury Theatre, which he’ll cofound with John Houseman. Before his death in 1985, Welles will also stage and star in Julius Caesar, Dr. Faustus and King Lear.
Also this year, a torpedo from a German U-Boat sinks the RMS Lusitania south of Ireland, killing more than 1,000 people, including New York theatre producer Charles Frohman. Frohman produced dozens of shows in the early 1900s, including the The Importance of Being Earnest’s second NYC staging and Sherlock Holmes’s Broadway debut.
80 YEARS AGO (1935)
The Old Globe Theatre (later rechristened simply the Old Globe) in San Diego, Calif., opens with a series of abridged renditions of Shakespeare’s plays performed in repertory. The venue, inspired by the Bard’s London playhouse and built for the California Pacific International Exposition, is expected to come down after the exposition. But the San Diego Community Theatre raises $10,000 to preserve and renovate the theatre, which will continue to produce plays well into the 21st century.
[Cambridge Guide to American Theatre; https://www.theoldglobe.org/history/timeline/1935-60.aspx]
75 YEARS AGO (1940)
After many requests to dramatize his recently published Native Son, about a poor young black man in Chicago, Richard Wright accepts a bid from the Mercury Theatre’s Orson Welles and John Houseman, but challenges them with the question, “Can such a book be done in a light that presents Bigger Thomas as a human being?” Wright and Paul Green’s initial draft will depart from this goal, but the version that will open on Broadway the following year will honor the original text.
[Becoming Something: The Story of Canada Lee; Richard Wright Encyclopedia]
65 YEARS AGO (1950)
Future lyricist and librettist Howard Ashman is born in Baltimore. He will write Little Shop of Horrors and Smile specifically for the stage, but after his death from AIDS in 1991 he will also be represented in theatres around the U.S. with adaptations of the animated Disney films Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid and Aladdin.
50 YEARS AGO (1965)
After launching in April the East-West Players (later renamed East West Players), the first Asian-American theatre company, takes the stage at the University of Judaism in Hollywood with a two-week run of Rashomon, Fay and Michael Kanin’s 1959 adaptation of stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa. Cast member and ensemble co-founder Mako will have a fruitful stage and screen career, including projects as varied as the musical Pacific Overtures and the TV series Avatar: The Last Airbender
[Asian American Culture on Stage; http://assets.cambridge.org/97805218/50513/excerpt/9780521850513_excerpt.htm]
40 YEARS AGO (1975)
Cap-a-Pie, María Irene Fornés’s Spanish-language play with music by José Raúl Bernardo, has its premiere at INTAR, the New York City company dedicated to Latino voices. Fornés directs the production, and will restage the piece in multiple venues, a practice she embraces throughout her career.
25 YEARS AGO (1990)
Atlanta Shakespeare Company, which was founded in 1984, moves into its new home, a custom-built Shakespeare Tavern—the only one of its kind in the U.S. and the sole Elizabethan-style theatre in the Southeast. The company offers The Tempest with the building not yet painted.
[Shakespeare Companies and Festivals; http://www.shakespearetavern.com/index.php?/about_us/history; http://www.shakespearetavern.com/index.php?/about_us/show/jeff_watkins1]