By FRANK RIZZO, email@example.com
The Hartford Courant
7:05 AM EST, February 9, 2014
The Puritans just didn't have much fun.
Until late in the 18th century, there wasn't much in the way of public entertainment for The Hartford Courant to cover, and certainly nothing in the way of theater.
Oh, there was the time just before the Revolution when Yale men put on a play, shocking the community by playing the female roles and wearing dresses.
But if anyone dared to put on a professional show, which was rare, they were careful to stress its wholesomeness.
Witness the first theater ad in The Courant that appeared in 1795, carefully pointing out the producers' intention to uplift: "They beg leave to offer their assurances that everything in their power will be studied that they may tend to render the entertainments a source of moral instruction as well as amusement."
Still, there was little life on the wicked stage for nearly the first 100 years of The Courant's existence, save for a short four-year period in the 1790s when English actors came to Hartford's New Theatre on Bachelor Street (later renamed Temple Street).
One of the first Hartford shows was a tour stop by the Old American Company that played the comedy "The Dramatist; or Stop Him Who Can" with English actor John Hodgkinson.
Those who spent four bits for a gallery seat in the plain hall not only got a play but beneath dripping candle chandeliers and candled footlights, the epic (and smoky) evening could also include a pantomime (such as "The Elopement or Harlequin's Frolic" ), "a glee," a comic opera (such as "The Prize" —- written by the author of "No Song, No Supper"), then an "epilogue," concluding just before midnight by "a flying Leap through a Barrel of FLAMING FIRE," as The Courant described in an advertisement.
During the New Theatre's short period of operation, more than 200 shows were presented, many of them operas or musicals. Even Shakespeare got the musical touch: 27 songs were added to "A Midsummer Night's Dream." "The Tempest" had 32, reported The Courant.
But the curtain came down in 1800 when the legislature banned "theatrical shows and entertainments" and "painted vanities." The New Theatre became a Sunday school.
If the state's citizens wanted to go to the theater, they'd have to travel to New York or Philadelphia because for the next half century, no theater would be presented in Hartford.
We pause here for a moment of silence.
Here Comes 'Tom'
Through public pressure, theater returned in 1853 when the curtain rose again at Hartford's American Hall on Market Street. Two years later "Uncle Tom's Cabin," based on the wildly popular and influential novel about slavery by Hartford's Harriet Beecher Stowe, was brought to Hartford.
Archaic and wordy advertisements of shows touring the states provided most of the information about the shows of the day, including a steady stream of minstrel shows, magicians, ventriloquists, dramatic readings, temperance dramas, bagpipers, Swiss bell ringers and curiosities including "Siamese twins, wild Australian children, a two-headed girl and lectures by the 19th wife of Brigham Young."
P.T. Barnum was developing his own kind of show biz, first in New York and later on his 224 acres in Bridgeport in mid 19th-century America. Barnum was branding himself — like a Walt Disney of his day — as the developer of wholesome family entertainment. Before that going out to a show was often rough and tumble and largely a male experience, and Barnum was the first to recognize and exploit the family market.
Barnum was also mastering the art of social media in his day — orchestrating promotions from elaborate parades to something as simple as having his field hands bring elephants out to advertise his show whenever the railroad passed by. The Courant reported on his flamboyant career and travels, as well as those of his stars, including Jenny Lind and Tom Thumb (Charles Sherwood Stratton), who had a home on the Thimble Islands in Branford.
The Booths Played Here, Too
In the second half of the 19th century, more theaters emerged in Hartford to meet the growing demand of the emerging middle class. And more significant shows and players, too. Allyn Hall, located in the hotel of the same name, seated 1,400 people. (On Oct. 20, 1863, John Wilkes Booth came to town. It was the last Connecticut appearance for Booth, who assassinated President Abraham Lincoln in 1865. "The voice and attitude and gesture of the artist invested the stage," The Courant wrote in one of its rare critical descriptions.)
Other stages included Market Street's New National Theater, which presented vaudeville acts. On Main Street there was the Peoples' Theater and Roberts Opera House. (Edwin Booth, the more famous acting brother of John Wilkes Booth, broke the Roberts' box office record with a tally of $3,011 when he played "Hamlet" for two nights in the 1870s, before it became Proctor's Opera House.)
New Haven was slower to embrace stage shows. There wasn't a theater in the Elm City until the 1870s, first with the Music Hall that later became the Grand Opera, but for decades music was to be its prime focus, not drama. New Haven wouldn't have its legitimate gem —- and identity —- until the Shubert Theater opened in 1914.
The jewel in Hartford's theatrical crown was Parsons Theater, located at the junction of Prospect Street and American (Central) Row. For more than three decades beginning in the 1890s, it not only presented touring shows but, like the Shubert, New York-bound shows, too. Between the two theaters, the easy-access state was soon seen as the best place to try out shows.
Performing at Parson's were legendary stars: Maude Adams, Joseph Jefferson ("Rip Van Winkle"), Hartford's own William Gillette ("Sherlock Holmes"), Minnie Maddern Fiske, John Barrymore ("Hamlet"), The Moscow Art Theater, the Diaghilev Ballet, Fanny Davenport, John Drew, Jane Cowl and Eva Le Gallienne, who performed in the state through the 1980s.
But the Depression took its toll and in 1933, "The Petrified Forest" with Leslie Howard and Humphrey Bogart, was Parsons' last premiere. And the last legitimate production was Walter Huston in "Dodsworth" in 1935. It was succeeded by burlesque acts but facing threats from the state's attorney, it was sold in 1936 to Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Co. and later torn down.
Theater for Tours
The building of the grand, 2,800-seat Bushnell Hall in 1930 filled a need for touring shows that could attract thousands, presenting culture and entertainment, beginning with Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra on its opening night. Playing there over the next 84 years: Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, Jascha Heifetz, Adm. Richard Byrd, Eleanor Roosevelt, Helen Keller, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Beverly Sills, Luciano Pavarotti, Jimi Hendrix and Tallulah Bankhead and Broadway tours from "Show Boat" to "The Phantom of the Opera" to "The Book of Mormon."
It's usefulness as a presenting house was echoed by the opulent Palace Theatre in Waterbury that opened as a movie and vaudeville house in the 1920s and was restored to vibrant life with a $30 million renovation in 2004. Through the years other presenting houses were saved and revived with the help of state money — the Garde Arts Center in New London, the Palace Theater in Stamford and the Warner Theatre in Torrington.
And burlesque? By the 1940s it was all but dead, relegated to nostalgia shows on the straw-hat circuit. But it had one fleeting mini-hurrah in 1972 at the Strand Theater on Main Street in Hartford. The Courant critic wrote: "The timing was off, the band missed its cues and the lighting was bad." The awfulness was so apparent that the manager told the disappointed audience, "We're going to get better, we're going to rehearse like hell." He promised a special stripper next time — "Maria Villa, who performs in various stages of undress with a boa constrictor!"
But elsewhere in the state first-class entertainment continued to grow, including the Ivoryton Playhouse that was built in 1912 but came into its own as a summer theater in the 1930s; Westport Country Playhouse, which Lawrence Langner started in the 1930s and Joanne Woodward saved in 2000; Ridgefield Playhouse; Wallingford's Oakdale Theatre; New Fairfield's Candlewood Playhouse; Lucille Lortel's White Barn Theatre in Westport; and the Aetna Theatre of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford.
Perhaps the most fondly remembered of them all was the American Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford that opened in the mid-1950s, with legendary directors John Houseman and Michael Kahn leading the theater for more than two decades.
Amateur theatricals in cities and towns were plentiful too, not the least of which were the celebrated Mark Twain Masquers.
There were also a host of other theaters sprinkled about the state in towns and at universities, most notably the Yale School of Drama.
In the 100 years since theater was allowed into the state, it was clear that Connecticut had developed enthusiastic and savvy audiences that loved the theater. But the best was yet to come.
New Wave of Regional Theater
In 1963, Hartford Stage opened its doors — and not far from where the 1790s New Theater once stood. This marked the state's participation in the most expansive decade in American theater history as not-for-profit — rather than commercial — regional theaters sprang up with the help of federal, foundation, corporate and community support.
Within a few years there were East Haddam's Goodspeed Opera House — reopened after 60 years, New Haven's Long Wharf Theatre and Waterford's Eugene O'Neill Theater Center, both opened in 1964, Yale Repertory Theatre in 1966 and National Theatre of the Deaf in 1967. They all originated work that would move to Broadway and beyond, winning praise, prizes and Tony Awards.
Other theaters weren't so lucky and closed, sometimes after short runs, others after long and distinguished ones: Hartford's Strand Theatre and Company One, Stamford's Hartman Theatre and Rich Forum, Westport's White Barn Theatre, New Haven's Poli (later Palace), to name a few.
Joining the theatrical community since the 1970s have been Hartford's TheaterWorks and Real Arts Ways; Waterbury's Seven Angels Theatre; Goodspeed's Norma Terris Theatre in Chester; West Hartford's Playhouse on Park; Connecticut Repertory Theatre at UConn in Storrs; and The Hartt School.
The Courant's coverage, too, expanded with this growing interest in arts and entertainment.
Though it began under the disapproving gaze of Puritans, Connecticut and The Courant have embraced theater over the centuries, making it an essential and vivid part of who we are.
The accounts sited in today’s series on the history of Connecticut’s theaters and actors were distilled from Courant news reports of the time, theaters’ archives, Internet research, interviews and previous articles written by Rizzo.
Copyright © 2014, The Hartford Courant