245 YEARS AGO (1771)
Future U.S. president George Washington spends four evenings at the theatre during his stay in Annapolis, Md., a favorite oasis from his time in the military. His annual trip to the city for racing season is a profitable one: He uses his winnings to treat friends to shows by the American Company in its brand-new, 600-seat brick playhouse.
185 YEARS AGO (1831)
Robert Montgomery Bird’s The Gladiator premieres at the Park Theatre in New York City. Written for Edwin Forrest, the play tells the story of the gladiator Spartacus leading a slave rebellion against the tyrannical Romans. The piece has unique American resonances: A month earlier, Nat Turner led a rebellion of enslaved and free blacks in Southampton County, Va.
180 YEARS AGO (1836)
While on the campaign trail during his first White House bid, William Henry Harrison attends shows at both of Philadelphia’s theatres. Harrison, who will go on to win the presidency in 1840, begins the evening by taking in melodrama and Jacobean comedy at the Walnut Street Theatre. Then, midperformance, he heads to the Chestnut Street Theatre for some more light fare.
150 YEARS AGO (1866)
The Black Crook, a spectacle about an alchemist and sorcerer named Hertzog, opens at Niblo’s Garden in NYC. With special effects and an aerial ballet, the production becomes the first Broadway show to run more than a year. Many historians will identify the play as the first American musical, owing to its unique combination of music, dance, and narrative. At least two other musicals will be based on the show: The Girl in Pink Tights on Broadway in 1954 and And the Curtain Rises in 2011 at Virginia’s Signature Theatre.
140 YEARS AGO (1876)
The Bella Union, a saloon and theatre, opens its doors in Deadwood, S.D. Fictionalized versions of the establishment will later appear in the HBO series named after the town and, as the Golden Garter, in the 1953 musical film Calamity Jane.
135 YEARS AGO (1881)
Future director, producer, and playwright B. Iden Payne, who will spend the last portion of his career teaching at the University of Texas at Austin, is born this month in Newcastle-on-Tyne, England. Among his students will be Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, who will dedicate their musical The Fantasticks to Payne and base the character of the Old Actor on him. Beginning in the 1970s, the B. Iden Payne Awards will recognize excellence in Austin theatre, with the first ceremony honoring Payne himself.
120 YEARS AGO (1896)
After the destruction by fire of five theatres between 1889 and 1893 in Columbus, Ohio, local audiences get their first peek at the Great Southern Fireproof Hotel and Opera House. The Southern Theatre opens this month, while the hotel will wait till next summer. The theatre will go on to host the Barrymores and Sarah Bernhardt, plus an early staging of Peter Pan with Maude Adams.
40 YEARS AGO (1976)
A school presentation of The Hairy Falsetto marks the beginning of St. Paul, Minn.’s Penumbra Theatre. The company, whose first official staging will be Eden in November, is founded by Lou Bellamy to give the Twin Cities a theatrical forum for African-American voices. Playwright August Wilson will take up residence at Penumbra, where he’ll pen 3 of his 10 Century Cycle plays.
25 YEARS AGO (1991)
Following the inaugural season of Shepherdstown, W.Va.’s Contemporary American Theater Festival in July, the organization decides this month to double the number of works staged, from two to four, in its second year. As a result, in 1992 the festival will implement a rotating repertory model and produce its first world premiere, Still Waters by Lynn Martin.