Friday, December 16, 2011

On this day, December 16, 1848, the prestigious Park Theatre closed

The Park Theatre, located just below the one-time fashionable Chatham Square,
was one of the nation's first contemporary professional theaters.

Opened on January 29, 1798, the Park Theatre was built to satisfy the city's Post-Revolution aristocracy and elevate New York City's status on the world stage as a culturally and commercially viable metropolis. Early planners set out to create a megalopolitan empire on par with European cities like Paris and London, attracting some of the wealthiest families of the era to Lower Manhattan -- and the Park became the crux of this Utopian-seeking high society.

The theatre offered world-class acts from around the globe and was the first to introduce professional Italian Opera to the country in November of 1825, Rossini's "Il Barbiere di Siviglia" (The Barber of Seville). The Park became the premiere playhouse for U.S. debuts of European superstars such as Norwegian violinist Ole Bull and Austrian ballerina, Fanny Elssler and was a breeding ground for pioneers of early American theatre as some of the most celebrated actors, singers, dancers, playwrights and producers of the 19th century earned their reputations at the Park.

Despite the high caliber of performers and pedigree of theatre-goers, the Park's function was wholly utilitarian and lacked any aesthetic beauty. It was described as "an unattractive auditorium, inadiquately illuminated, with many uncomfortable seats." by The Magazine of history with notes and queries, Volume 22.

The Bowery-Theatre, 46-48 Bowery
Population in Manhattan boomed from 49,401 in 1790 to 242,278 by 1830 and the Park found itself competing with more elegant theatres like its earliest rival, the 3000-seat Bowery Theatre, which opened as the first gas-lit playhouse in America in 1826 -- just a few blocks north of the Park.

By that time, New York City had changed dramatically. It went from Colonial backwater to cosmopolitan city in a matter of decades and the rapid change did not sit well with the entire population, as explained in The Bowery: A History of Grit, Graft and Grandeur:
As grand as (the Bowery Theatre) was, a new theater in Manhattan was not welcomed by everyone. Much of the conservative population was not adjusting well to the new cosmopolitan status of New York City and the hedonistic culture it bred. An 1826 Magazine of the Reformed Dutch Church article warned: “A theatre in this city was opened for the season on the Monday evening of last week. We do not mention this fact to give information;—we mention it to excite Christians to pray against the wide-spreading pestilence; to exhort Christian parents to keep their children from the vortex of destruction.”

The Christian Spectator commented: “The influence of the theater is bad, and only bad,” along with several more paragraphs of colorful passages like, “The theater cannot be reformed. We should just as soon think of reforming the devil himself.

However, it wasn’t theatrics per se that had conservatives up in arms, though they did complain of productions that were lowbrow, amoral and obscene. It was the alcohol, prostitution and gambling that went hand in hand with a night on the town in the 1820s and ’30s that really bothered them. For example, it was common practice for theaters to hire prostitutes from nearby Five Points to work the upper tiers of the auditorium, and liquor was served by waitresses of questionable morals who wore dresses that revealed their ankles.

Early Bowery Theatre ad
promising "Piracy Mutiny &
Murder," and "Fire Worshipers."

A working class had taken root in the city by the 1820s and less refined programming was introduced in an attempt to broaden theater's appeal beyond the upper classes. A recreation once reserved for the elite was now available to the masses and the Bowery Theatre capitalized on the culture shift.

While the Park continued to offer top-notch European artists, the Bowery promoted home-grown entertainment and stole some of the Park's thunder for a few years, however the Park remained a celebrated New York City treasure until its demise.

The original 1798 Park Theatre burned to the ground in 1820 but was rebuilt by 1821, only to suffer the same fate on December 16, 1848. Some hanging playbills were ignited by a nearby gas lamp and within an hour the structure was devastated. It was never rebuilt, ending half a century of cultural influence.

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