Bowery Theatre

Cigarette trading card featuring the Bowery Theatre, New York City

The Bowery Theatre was a playhouse in the Bowery neighborhood of New York City. Although it was founded by rich families to compete with the upscale Park Theatre, the Bowery saw its most successful period under the populist, pro-American management of Thomas Hamblin in the 1830s and 1840s. By the 1850s, the theatre came to cater to immigrant groups such as the Irish, Germans, and Chinese. It burnt down 5 times in 17 years, a fire in 1929 destroying it for good. Although the theatre's name changed several times (Thalia Theatre, Fay's Bowery Theatre, etc.), it was generally referred to as the "Bowery Theatre".


Founding and early management

By the mid-1820s, wealthy settler families in the new ward that was made fashionable by the opening of Lafayette Street, parallel to the Bowery, wanted easy access to fashionable high-class European drama, then only available at the Park Theatre. Under the leadership of Henry Astor, they formed the New York Association and bought the land where Astor's Bull's Head tavern stood,[1] facing the neighborhood and occupying the area between Elizabeth, Canal, and Hester streets. They hired architects Ithiel Town and John Trimble to design the new venue. Some notable investors included Samuel Laurence Gouverneur, son-in-law to President James Monroe, and James Alexander Hamilton, son of Alexander Hamilton.[2]

The new playhouse, with its Neoclassical design[3], was more opulent than the Park, and it seated 3,500 people, making it the biggest theatre in the United States at the time.[4] Frances Trollope compared it to the Park Theatre as "superior in beauty; it is indeed as pretty a theatre as I ever entered, perfect as to size and proportion, elegantly decorated, and the scenery and machinery equal to any in London…."[5]

The Bowery Theatre opened on 22 October 1826 under the name New York Theatre, with the play The Road to Ruin, under the management of Charles A. Gilfert. New York Mayor Philip Hone spoke at the opening ceremony, imploring the theatre's intended upper-class audience: "It is therefore incumbent upon those whose standing in society enables them to control the opinions and direct the judgment of others, to encourage, by their countenance and support, a well-regulated theatre".[6] Its first few seasons were devoted to ballet, opera, and high drama. The theatre was by this time quite fashionable, and the northward expansion of Manhattan gave the theatre access to a large patronage. The theatre burnt out in 1828, but was rebuilt behind the same facade and reopened under the name Bowery Theatre.[7] Gilfert's understanding of advertising was keen, but in 1829, the owners fired him.

Hamblin's tenure

The owners hired Thomas Hamblin and James H. Hackett in August 1830 to manage the theatre. A month later, Hackett left Hamblin in complete control. After the Bowery burnt down later that year, Hamblin rebuilt. He then took the theatre in a decidedly different direction for what would be its most innovative and successful period.

American theatres stratified in the Jacksonian Era, and the Bowery emerged as the home of American nativists and populist causes, placing it in direct contrast to the Park Theatre's cultivated image of traditional European high culture. This was partially the result of an anti-British theatre riot at the Park; Hamblin renamed the playhouse "the American Theatre, Bowery" in reaction. Hamblin hired unknown American actors and playwrights and allowed them to play for long runs of up to a month. Before 1843, early blackface performers such as George Washington Dixon and Thomas D. Rice played there frequently, and acts such as J. B. Booth, Edwin Forrest, Louisa Lane Drew, and Frank Chanfrau also gained renown on the Bowery's stage. George L. Fox and his pantomime became the most popular act at the Bowery until after the Civil War. Bowery productions also debuted or popularized a number of new character types, including the Bowery B'hoy, the Yankee, the Frontiersman, and the blackface Negro.

The pro-Americanism of the Bowery's audience came to a head during the Farren Riots of 1834. Farren,[8] the Bowery's British-born stage manager, had reportedly made anti-American comments and fired an American actor. Protesters reacted by attacking the homes, businesses, and churches of abolitionists and blacks in New York City and then storming the theatre on 9 July. Farren apologized for his comments, and George Washington Dixon sang popular songs to quell the rioters.

Hamblin defied conventions of theatre as high culture by booking productions that appealed to working-class patrons and by advertising them extensively according to Gilfert's model. Animal acts, blackface minstrel shows, and melodrama enjoyed the most frequent billings, and hybrid forms, such as melodramas about dogs saving their human masters, became unprecedented successes. Spectacular productions with advanced visual effects, including water and fire, featured prominently. Hamblin also innovated by using gas lighting in lieu of candles and kerosene lamps. The Bowery Theatre earned the nickname "The Slaughterhouse" for its low-class offerings, and terms like "Bowery melodrama" and "Bowery actors" were coined to characterize the new type of theatre.[9]

In the spring of 1834, Hamblin began buying shares in the theatre from the New York Association; he had enough to control the enterprise completely within 18 months. By the time the Bowery burnt again in September 1836, it was the most popular playhouse in New York City,[10] despite steep increases in competition (the Bowery Amphitheatre was right across the street). Visual spectacle had become such an integral part of its appeal that Hamblin claimed $5000 in wardrobe losses from the fire.[11] Hamblin bought out the remaining shares in the theatre and rented the site to W. E. Dinneford and Thomas Flynn, who rebuilt. When this interim Bowery burnt down in February 1838, Hamblin replaced it with a bigger and more opulent structure, which opened in May 1839.

Through Hamblin's actions, working-class theatre emerged as a form in its own right, and melodrama became the most popular form of American theatre. Low-class patrons such as Bowery b'hoys and g'hals predominated in the audience. The Spirit of the Times described the Bowery's patrons:

By reasonable computation there were about 300 persons on the stage and wings alone—soldiers in fatigue dresses—officers with side arms—a few jolly tars, and a number of "apple-munching urchins." The scene was indescribably ludicrous. Booth played [Richard III] in his best style, and was really anxious to make a hit, but the confusion incidental to such a crowd on the stage, occasioned constant and most humorous interruptions. It was every thing or any thing, but a tragedy. In the scene with Lady Anne, a scene so much admired for its address, the gallery spectators amused themselves by throwing pennies and silver pieces on the stage, which occasioned an immense scramble among the boys, and they frequently ran between King Richard and Lady Anne, to snatch a stray copper. In the tent scene, so solemn and so impressive, several curious amateurs went up to the table, took up the crown, poised the heavy sword, and examined all the regalia with great care, while Richard was in agony from the terrible dream; and when the scene changed, discovering the ghosts of King Henry, Lady Anne and children, it was difficult to select them from the crowd who thrust their faces and persons among the Royal shadows.

The Battle of Bosworth Field capped the climax—the audience mingled with the soldiers and raced across the stage, to the shouts of the people, the roll of the drums and the bellowing of the trumpets; and when the fight between Richard and Richmond came on, they made a ring round the combattants to see fair play, and kept them at if for nearly a quarter of an hour by "Shrewsberry clock."[12]

Some sources even suggest that patrons engaged in sexual behavior in the lobbies and boxes.[13] Understandably, Hamblin was careful to remain in this crowd's good graces. For example, he regularly offered use of the Bowery Theatre for the annual firemen's ball. Only the Chatham Garden Theatre boasted a rowdier audience.[14]

Interior of Bowery Theatre, 1856

Profits were harder to come by in the 1840s, as more playhouses sprung up in New York. Hamblin staged more effects-driven melodrama and later increased bookings of circus acts, minstrel shows, and other variety entertainments. The Bowery burnt down once more in April 1845. This time, Hamblin had fire insurance, and he rebuilt with an eye toward appealing to a more upscale patronage and to staging more spectacular melodrama. The theatre now seated 4,000 and with a stage 126 feet square, secured its place as one of the largest playhouses in the world.[4] Hamblin left the management to A. W. Jackson, though Jackson and later managers largely upheld Hamblin's emphasis on melodrama and visual splendor. Hamblin died in January 1853, and the theatre remained in his family until 1867.

Later management

Bowery Theatre, 1887
Thalia Theatre prior to its destruction in 1929

By the middle of the 19th century, immigrant groups, notably the Irish, began populating the Bowery neighborhood. They came to form a significant portion of the Bowery's audience, mostly in the low-price gallery section. In order to cater to them, the theatre offered plays by James Pilgrim and other Irish playwrights. Meanwhile, the Bowery emerged as the theatrical center for New York's Lower East Side.

Germans Gustav Amberg, Heinrich Conried, and Mathilde Cottrelly converted the Bowery into the Thalia Theatre in 1879, offering primarily German theatre during their ownership. In 1891, Yiddish theatre became the predominate attraction. Italian vaudeville succeeded this, followed by Chinese vaudeville. "Fay's Bowery Theatre" burnt down on 5 June 1929 under Chinese management and was never rebuilt.


  1. ^ The Bowery Boys: "Bull's Head Tavern"; the old tavern was moved into the countryside, on the northwest corner of 3rd Avenue and 24th Street, where the new cattle market developed around it.
  2. ^ Marian Campbell Gouverneur (1911). As I remember: recollections of American society during the nineteenth century. D. Appleton and Company. p. 257. 
  3. ^ TOOKER, Joseph H., ‘Booth at the Old Bowery: Commodore Tooker’s Recollections’, New York Times, June 19, 1887. Tooker owns three prints of the various versions of the Bowery theatre and describes the first as follows: “The first is “ a sketch of the New York Theatre, afterward the Bowery, erected 1826.” It is of a handsome structure, with but two Corinthian pillars, flanked by two square-sided columns, with Roman Dorics, and are hardly palpable enough as pillars to be so designated. On either side is a plain, flat frontage with two large windows, one above the other, and a small square dead light above these. There is also a low down-stairs pit entrance on each side. The main steps are six in number and lead to a portico door that appears to be half as high as the theatre. The upper front has a fine, impressive finish, being a pediment with plain, solid cornices, supported by a row of molding that architects call triglyphs. There is no Catharine wheel, cinquefoil, or other window in the pediment, and so all that space seems bare. On the north side of the theatre is a two-story, dormer-window, cellar, dwelling house, with peaked roof, of course. The house on the south side is so very small that it looks like a coupon attached to the big building. Well, that is the first, or two-column, old Bowery.”
  4. ^ a b Wilmeth and Tice 42.
  5. ^ Trollope, Fanny (1832). Domestic Manners of the Americans.
  6. ^ Quoted in Cockrell, p. 29.
  7. ^ A contemporary engraving suggests alterations may have been made to the facade also. In his reminiscences published in The New York Times of 1887, Commodore Tooker describes the building as follows: TOOKER, Joseph H. "Booth at the Old Bowery: Commodore Tooker’s Recollections", The New York Times, June 19, 1887. “The next representation is an engraving taken from Morris & Willis’s New-York Mirror of 1828. (G.P. Morris, Nathaniel P. Willis.) The design was by A. J. Davis and the engraving by Rawdon, Wright & Co., renowned in their day. A fire must have intervened, as this structure has six columns – six Corinthian columns, with Doric capitals. The upper part is a pediment with plain cornices, the support being 11 triglyphs, with a row of as many rings below as further ornamentation. The portico seems to be very spacious and is enclosed by iron railings running in front of the first two columns on either side. There are seven steps leading to the portico and there are four doors. Two pit entrances running below the sidewalk. The main building seems to be of blocks of stone. Mr. Sera was the architect. He was a scenic artist of note in his day. His example was the Temple of Minerva at Athens. This picture is of singular merit as a specimen of the engraver’s art. The clouds hovering above the theatre are superbly drawn and engraved. I value this picture very highly.” In his description of an earlier print (see above) Hooker describes the first building as having only two columns.
  8. ^ Cockrell calls this individual George P. Farren. Wilmeth and Bigsby in The Cambridge History of American Theatre: Beginnings to 1870 call him William Farren.
  9. ^ Nichols 900.
  10. ^ Bank 116.
  11. ^ Bank 94.
  12. ^ Porter, William T. (1 December 1832). The Spirit of the Times. Quoted in Cockrell 31-2.
  13. ^ Mahar 278.
  14. ^ Trollope, Fanny (1832). Domestic Manners of the Americans.


  • Bank, Rosemary K. (1997). Theatre Culture in America, 1825-1860. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Cockrell, Dale (1997). Demons of Disorder: Early Blackface Minstrels and Their World. Cambridge University Press.
  • Mahar, William J. (1999). Behind the Burnt Cork Mask: Early Blackface Minstrelsy and Antebellum American Popular Culture. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
  • Nichols, Glen (1999). "Hamblin, Thomas Sowerby". American National Biography, Vol. 9. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Praefcke, Andreas. "New York, NY: Bowery Theatre", Carthalia. Accessed 28 November 2005.
  • Trollope, Frances (1832). Domestic Manners of the Americans.
  • Wilmeth, Don B., and Miller, Tice L., eds. (1996). Cambridge Guide to American Theatre. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Wilmeth, Don B., and Bigsby, C. W. E. (1998) The Cambridge History of American Theatre: Beginnings to 1870. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Wilmeth, Don B., and Bigsby, C. W. E. (1999) The Cambridge History of American Theatre: Volume II, 1870-1945. New York: Cambridge University Press.

External links

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