December 1811 (210 years ago)
In one of the worst theatre fires in U.S. history, 72 people died in the Richmond Theatre on the evening of Dec. 26. Among the victims were the sitting Governor of Virginia, George William Smith, and a U.S. Senator, Abraham B. Venable. It started when a lit candle on a stage chandelier was hoisted above the stage before it had been put out by a stagehand. During a pantomime performance called The Bleeding Nun, the flame brushed against a hemp backdrop, igniting it and eventually all of the backdrops hanging in the fly house. Over 600 people were in attendance at the performance; to escape flames and smoke they either had to pass through a single aisle, a narrow, angular staircase, or jump from windows. The speed of the fire and the lack of adequate audience egress are blamed for the high number of deaths.
Gilbert Hunt, an enslaved blacksmith, is credited with saving almost a dozen people from the blaze. A Richmond doctor who attended the performance lowered people one at a time out a three-story window as far as he could until they dropped into Hunt’s arms below. By some accounts, the doctor jumped out the window as well and Hunt dragged him to safety and tended to his broken bones. Some Richmond citizens advocated for Hunt to receive his freedom in return for his heroism. Hunt did die a free man, but only after he bought his own freedom.
Monumental Episcopal Church, designed by American architect Robert Mills, was later erected on the theatre site to commemorate the lives lost in the fire. Poet and writer Edgar Allan Poe’s foster parents, John and Frances Allan, were prominent members of Monumental Church. Poe’s birth mother, actress Elizabeth “Eliza” Arnold Hopkins Poe, had regularly performed on the Richmond Theatre stage, but died of an illness a few weeks before the tragic fire. Edgar Allen Poe, just shy of 2 years old at the time of the Richmond Theatre fire, was raised in the Allans’ flat just three blocks south of the venue. In her book The Richmond Theater Fire: Early America’s First Great Disaster, Meredith Henne Baker speculates that the sudden loss of his mother and the “sensory impressions of the dark days that soon descended upon Richmond” influenced Poe’s macabre writing.
December 1841 (180 years ago)
P.T. Barnum bought a five-story building on the corner of Broadway and Ann streets in New York City that housed a natural history collection known as Scudder’s American Museum. Renaming it Barnum’s American Museum, he opened it the following month with the aim of attracting families to exhibits and performances he considered both edifying and entertaining. He wanted to redeem the seedy reputation of theatre by rebranding the auditorium as a “lecture room” where one could be entertained while also receiving instruction and “moral uplift.” The blend of museum, zoo, freak show, and performance venue became a cultural phenomenon, and at its peak attracted 15,000 visitors a day.
Though it survived an attempt by the Confederate Army of Manhattan to burn it down in 1864, the museum did burn to the ground the following year in a horrific fire. All humans survived but many animals perished in the fire. Barnum claimed that if he ever built another museum it would be fire-proof. In response to an editorial in The Nation that criticized Barnum’s version of a museum, Barnum defended himself, writing, “I know my Museum was not so refined or classic or scientifically arranged as the foreign governmental institutions, for mine had to support my family…” He also took offense at the idea that he permitted “vulgar sensation dramas,” writing that, “No vulgar word or gesture, and not a profane expression, was ever allowed on my stage! Even in Shakespeare’s plays…”
Barnum, while making a tidy profit, saw his museum as a public good that he made available to anyone who paid the 25-cent admission price. Famously, the final attraction was labeled “This Way to the Egress,” a Latinate term that led many attendees to believe they were to see something spectacular, when in fact they were being ushered onto the street.
December 1911 (110 years ago)
“The Texas Tornado” Margo Jones, was born on Dec. 12 in Livingston, Texas. She was a director and producer trained in Texas and California, influenced by travels to European theatres, and forged in the Houston arm of the Federal Theatre Project. Her travels and experience led her to believe there was a need for a national American theatre that was decentralized to challenge the assumed primacy of commercial Broadway theatre. She is credited with launching the American regional theatre movement, a network of professional nonprofit theatres at a time when professional theatre was virtually non-existent outside New York. Jones worked on Broadway as the co-director of the original production of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie. Williams, who formed a strong friendship with Jones, described her as a “combination of Joan of Arc, Gene Autry, and nitroglycerine.” Following that commercial and critical success, Jones founded Theatre ‘47 in Dallas, where she developed a regular practice of using arena staging or theatre-in-the-round, with the practical advantage of spending less for scenery typically used in proscenium staging. While she directed and produced several classics with a resident company of professional actors, she also championed new plays and was a powerful influence on several playwrights including William Inge, Tennessee Williams, Jerome Lawrence, and Robert Edwin Lee.
December 1956 (65 years ago)
The picture above (Getty Images), taken in December of 1956, shows Stephen Sondheim (left), the young lyricist, discussing the upcoming rehearsal schedule for West Side Story with conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein (center) and choreographer Jerome Robbins (right). The subsequent Broadway opening at the Winter Garden Theatre in September of 1957 was Sondheim’s professional Broadway debut.
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