210 YEARS AGO (1810)
Impresario P.T. Barnum is born in Bethel, Conn. Though he will be best known for helping create the Barnum and Bailey circus, he will be older than 60 when he establishes what he will bill “the Greatest Show on Earth.” Earlier he will try his hand at variety shows, but his Barnum’s Grand Scientific and Musical Theatre will never turn a profit. His theatrical innovations will include reserved seats and the first matinees. His life will later inspire the 1980 musical Barnum.
195 YEARS AGO (1825)
Charles W. Sanford, a land developer, opens the Lafayette Circus Theatre in Manhattan on Independence Day as the first American theatre dedicated to “hippodrama,” a European cultural phenomenon combining equestrian entertainment with melodrama. These horse dramas will draw rowdy crowds, and the theatre become notorious for rioting. The theatre will later be sold, and the new owners will drop “circus” from its name and remodel it to include an orchestra pit and elaborate stage rigging. (This Lafayette Theater is not to be confused with the more famous vaudeville Lafayette Theatre, which will open in Harlem almost a century later.)
105 YEARS AGO (1915)
The Provincetown Players in Massachusetts presents its first bill: Susan Glaspell and George Cram Cook’s Suppressed Desires and Constancy by Neith Boyce. The following year the company will give Eugene O’Neill his first production and produce in New York City during the winter. The original group will work together until 1923, but the name will be used by others into the 1930s.
85 YEARS AGO (1935)
Playwright, actor, and set designer William Henderson Graham is born. Billy Graham (who will be nicknamed “the Irreverent One”) will be known primarily for his work as a comics artist and the main artist of the original “Black Panther” series published by Marvel, but his talents will also include playwriting. His plays will include The Trial of Adam Clayton Powell Jr., The Dreams of Dr. King and the Memphis Mission, and Ghost Stories of the Blacksmith’s Curse, which will be developed and performed at places like the Frank Silvera Writer’s Workshop, the Negro Ensemble Company, and the New Federal Theatre.
45 YEARS AGO (1975)
The musical A Chorus Line transfers to Broadway’s Shubert Theatre following a successful run at the Public Theater. The show, which sells out quickly and will go on to win the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for drama, changes the commercial theatre landscape by introducing a development model involving workshops in NYC as opposed to out-of-town tryouts.
30 YEARS AGO (1990)
The Alice B. Theatre, a Seattle company devoted to LGBTQ work, holds its inaugural National Gay and Lesbian Theatre Festival. Among the performers are NYC’s Split Britches and San Francisco’s Theatre Rhinoceros. The event is part of the Goodwill Arts Festival, presented in conjunction with the Goodwill Games. As a result of the festival-within-the-festival, Washington’s governor declares July 1990 Gay and Lesbian Theatre month.