June 1862 (160 years ago)
After performing her scandalous production of Mazeppa in Europe for many years, Adah Isaacs Menken finally brought her show to New York. The melodrama, loosely based on Lord Byron’s poem, was a breeches role for Menken, who played the titular character Ivan Mazeppa, a page punished by Poland’s King John II Casmir Vasa for carrying on an affair with a countess by being stripped, tied to a horse, and sent to his death. Different productions had tied a dummy to a live horse, which was slowly led out of the theatre by a trainer. However, Menken insisted on performing the stunt on her own, clothed in flesh-colored body stocking and strapped to a live horse that raced through the audience at the show’s finale. The spectacle, promoted widely on printed postcards, spread Menken’s fame far and wide, adding to the intrigue she had successfully crafted over many years in the public eye. Menken, a consummate performer and master manipulator of her public image, wished to be remembered more for her exquisite poetry than her equestrian performance, but this was not to be. As critic George Clinton Odell noted in his review of the New York production of Mazeppa: “The fame of this daring enterprise has come down to our own times and will doubtless go on.”
June 1887 (135 years ago)
The German immigrant impresario Gustav Walter, who had arrived in the U.S. in 1865 and built and managed numerous theatres already, opened his grandest project yet: the Orpheum on 115 O’Farrell Street in San Francisco. The June 30th opening was a grand affair that featured a Hungarian orchestra and a bill of variety acts, and the new theatre became the launchpad for what would be called the Orpheum circuit of vaudeville performance houses built by Walter and his eventual partner Morris Meyerfeld. The pair brought Orpheum theatres to Los Angeles, Sacramento, and then to Kansas City, Mo., before Walter succumbed to appendicitis in 1898. The Orpheum circuit continued to expand after Walter’s death and became one of the leading vaudeville theatre chains in the world, making and breaking the careers of numerous performers. The first Orpheum Theatre was destroyed in the April 1906 earthquake and fire that gutted much of the theater district. It was rebuilt in 1909.
June 1927 (95 years ago)
Only a month following the establishment of the All Star Colored Civic Repertory Company, a new stock company at Harlem’s Alhambra Theatre, the theatre shuttered due to financial problems. The Repertory Company, under the leadership of Evelyn Ellis, had stated its intention to become “one of the outstanding colored theatres of the country,” and they performed three shows in their brief existence. The theatre’s closure was followed quickly by the sudden dissolution of the company. All was not lost, however, as in July the same year the theatre reopened under new management, and the All Star Colored Civic Repertory Company reformed into the Alhambra Players, adding to its roster a bevy of new talent. The Alhambra Players remained active in the theatre, producing numerous productions until the theatre transitioned into a movie house in 1931.
June 1987 (35 years ago)
Demanding that Ronald Regan’s administration take action to address the AIDS pandemic, the newly formed HIV/AIDS activist organization ACT UP joined with other protesters in Washington, D.C., on June 1 at a sit-in demonstration in front of the White House. Author and playwright Larry Kramer had helped kickstart the organization in March of 1987 after becoming frustrated with what he felt was other gay organizations’ tepid AIDS activism. Much of that frustration had been expressed on the Public Theater’s stage in 1985 with the premiere of Kramer’s audacious drama, The Normal Heart, which sharply criticized the apathy of the government, the media, and gay organizations in the face of the unprecedented AIDS crisis. ACT UP swiftly became one of the most visible international activist organizations, performing dramatic, often theatrical protests such as die-ins across the world, demanding action to save lives. Kramer remained one of the most visible figures in ACT UP, and at the June 1 Washington protest, he was publicly arrested by the police—the first arrest of many for this irascible playwright and activist, who died in May 2020 at the age of 84.
June 2007 (15 years ago)
In Los Angeles, Israel Hicks and Wren T. Brown established the Ebony Repertory Theatre as the resident company of the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center. Hicks, an accomplished theatre director and one of the first to direct all 10 of August Wilson’s Pittsburg Cycle plays, joined with actor and director Brown to create what they called “a world-class professional theatre rooted in the experience of the African Diaspora.” The Ebony Repertory Theatre remains one of the only Equity African American theatre companies in Los Angeles, and is a multi-Ovation, NAACP, and Los Angeles Drama Critics award winner, currently under the leadership of Brown and Gayle Hooks.
June 2012 (10 years ago)
On June 7, 2012, Stormé DeLarverie was honored by Brooklyn Pride, Inc., for her “fearlessness and bravery” in the fight for gay rights. Stormé began a theatrical career at a young age, jumping horses in the Ringling Circus. In 1955, she joined the Jewel Box Revue as the emcee and performed in male drag. DeLarverie sang in the show as a baritone. The Jewel Box Revue, an integrated and decidedly queer vaudeville company, travelled the Black theatre circuit across the United States. On June 28, 1969, the self-described butch lesbian, along with various other patrons, resisted police at the Stonewall Inn in New York City’s Greenwich Village, in an early pivotal moment for gay rights in the United States. DeLarverie died in Brooklyn on May 24, 2014.
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