Iconic photos of a changing city, and commentary on our Collections & Exhibitions from the crew at MCNY.org
The week between Christmas and New Year is traditionally the busiest time of the year for theater on Broadway, and this year was no exception. According to The Broadway League, the national trade association for Broadway, grosses for the last week of 2016 totaled over 49.7 million dollars. Nearly 360,000 people flocked to 29 different musicals, plays, and performances currently running in the Times Square Theater District. Keep in mind, these numbers do not take into account the dozens of Off-Broadway and Off-off Broadway performances going on across all boroughs. My point is, a lot of people went to the theater and they had a lot of choice about what to see. But what if there was only one choice, only one theatre? This week we travel back in time to the end of the 18th century when the only permanent playhouse in the city was a building on John Street known as simply as the Theatre. (The red “X” I digitally added to the map below marks the building’s location.)
One of the oldest objects in the Museum’s Theater Collection is a theatrical broadside advertising a performance of The Merchant of Venice for Wednesday, November 30, 1785 at what we now call the John Street Theatre.
Built in 1767 by a troupe of players led by British actor-manager David Douglass, the theatre on John Street was not the first playhouse in New York, but it was the only theatre that survived the American Revolutionary War. Douglass and his American Company performed there until 1774 when the Continental Association created by the America’s first Continental Congress banned the performance of plays. The American Company left to tour the West Indies, and the theatre was used by British soldiers to put on amateur theatricals. Professional theater returned to New York in 1785 when the American Company – now called the Old American Company – began performing again in the playhouse on John Street.
In 1792, the Old American Company got a new star when a young emigre named John Hodgkinson joined the troupe. Hodgkinson made his American debut in Philadelphia in the play The West Indian. (The broadside above shows him in the same role at John Street.) Incredibly popular with the New York public, Hodgkinson took over control of the Old American Company and performances at the John Street Theatre.
As New York City continued to grow so did the demand for theater. Though entertainments were happening in taverns and pleasure gardens around the city, the wealthy of New York looked to expand stage performance beyond the theatre on John Street which was beginning to look a little run down. Construction began on a playhouse on Park Row in 1795. Hodgkinson and company moved to Park Theatre when it finally opened in 1798, and the building on John Street was demolished later that year. The site is now occupied by a French restaurant and a Duane Reade pharmacy.
For the first decades of the 19th century, the Park Theatre served as home for high culture in New York until its eventual and inevitable decline. For more on evolution of 18th century New York, visit New York at Its Core now on view at the Museum. Broadsides included in this post were conserved in 2016 thanks to a generous grant from the New York State Program for the Conservation and Preservation of Library Research Materials.