155 YEARS AGO (1864)
At the Winter Garden Theatre in New York City, during a performance that also includes his brothers, John Wilkes Booth and Junius Brutus Booth Jr., Edwin Booth announces that a small fire has broken out in the LaFarge House Hotel. The blaze later turns out to be part of a Confederate plot to burn down New York. While not involved in this plot, John Wilkes will go on to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln less than six months later.
135 YEARS AGO (1884)
Playwright and prominent abolitionist William Wells Brown dies in Chelsea, Mass. Brown, who is considered the first African American playwright and the first Black person from the U.S. to publish a novel (titled Clotel), wrote the melodrama Escape; or, A Leap for Freedom, about two slaves who secretly marry. At abolitionist meetings, Brown was known to read aloud from his writings in lieu of presenting a typical lecture.
100 YEARS AGO (1919)
African American actor, director, and producer Ellen Stewart is born in Chicago. Stewart, who will found La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club in New York in 1961, and will in 1992 be inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame, the first Off-Off-Broadway producer to receive that honor. In 2018, seven years after her death, La MaMa will be the second Manhattan company to receive the regional theatre Tony, after Signature Theatre in 2014.
50 YEARS AGO (1969)
In Memphis, Tenn., Circuit Playhouse Inc.—which in 1975 will become the parent organization of the city’s Playhouse on the Square—is born near the University of Memphis, in a rental space that had previously been used as a residence and a ballet academy. The new venue is run by a young troupe of actors fresh out of high school, and their first production will be a rock version of The Fantasticks.
25 YEARS AGO (1994)
Terrence McNally’s Love! Valour! Compassion! opens Off-Broadway at Manhattan Theatre Club. With Nathan Lane in the role of Buzz, the play follows eight men who meet and become friends over a summer in a vacation home. Important for its portrayal of the late 20th-century gay community, the play is also notable for its zingy one-liners and unapologetic depiction of male nudity. Its Broadway transfer the following year will garner a Best Play Tony.
20 YEARS AGO (1999)
Ben-Hur: The Musical opens at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Fla. The budget of $8.5 million provides for theme-park spectacle, featuring nearly 70 performers, a live camel and goat, animatronic horses, a giant ship, and a wall of fire. The St. Petersburg Times calls it “a glorified church pageant.” Two months into its planned four-year run, the show will close and its production company will file for bankruptcy.