Title: The Theatre; Its Early Days in Chicago: A Paper Read Before the Chicago Historical Society, February 19, 1884 By James Hubert McVicker
Location: Google Books Date Published: 1884
James McVicker (1822-1896) was one of Chicago’s foremost theatrical managers. At the time of his death, the McVicker’s Theater was the oldest in the city, although it had burned to the ground twice. The first McVicker’s Theater (located on Madison near Dearborn) was built in 1857 and burned in the Great Fire of 1871. The former actor was undeterred and rebuilt his theater on a grander scale.
In this excerpt, McVicker relates the story of theater in Chicago’s earliest days.
Doubtless there are now living in Chicago those who were present at the first theatrical performance given in the city, but dates are seldom in ” our memory locked,” and hence I have found it impossible to fix the exact time, yet for all purposes of history it will be sufficiently marked.
The original of this first application for a theatrical license, together with others covering a period of nine years from 1837, were found in the only vault belonging to the city, which withstood the flames of October 9, 1871, and are the only authentic records bearing on the subject of the early amusements of the city which I have been able to avail myself of. Among these applications is one asking for a permit to erect a ” show of flying horses,” and that the application should be in keeping with the show, it is addressed to the M-A-R-E of Chicago. No response from his Honor is on record.
The first public entertainment, of any kind, to which an admission fee was charged, and of which any record can be found, took place on Monday, February 24, 1834, but a few months after the Pottawatomies had consented to give up their land to the white man. On the 18th day of that month the Democrat contained this advertisement: ” Ladies and gentlemen are most respectfully informed that Mr. Barnes, professor de tours amusants, has arrived in town and will give an exhibition at the house of Mr. D. Graves, on Monday evening next.” This entertainment was given in two parts : the first being feats of the Fire King; the second a display of ventriloquism and legerdemain, which Mr. Barnes said were original and ” too numerous to mention.” The performance commenced at early candle light and the admission to it was fifty cents. While the classic tragedian would not admit that this entertainment was in any way connected with his art, and might claim that it should not be blended with a history of the drama, it must nevertheless be accepted as a starting point, even if his professional pride receives a snub. The second recorded performance was given June 11, 1834, when another ventriloquist, Mr. Kenworthy, according to the Democrat, delighted the inhabitants. On the 1gth of June of the same year a concert was given by Mr. C. Blisse. Entertainments, shows and circuses preceded dramatic performance, of which the first mention bears date May 29, 1837, when Messrs. Dean and McKinney applied to the Council for a license to “open a theatre in some suitable building for the term of one or more months as the business may answer.” The authorities were asked to make the license payable weekly, but the request was denied and the Council named $100 as the amount, which sum must have dismayed the applicants, for they abandoned Chicago, and no dramatic performance took place under their management.
In this vault was found the following application, which is undoubtedly the first in reply to which a license was issued :
“Chicago, October 17, 1837. The subscribers respectfully petition the Honorable the Mayor and Council of the city of Chicago for a license to perform plays in said city. They respectfully represent that this establishment is intended to afford instruction as well as amusement; that they are encouraged and patronized by the leading portion of the inhabitants of the city, who are interested in their success; that they propose to remain here during the winter and that they make no calculation to receive more money in the city than what they shall expend during their stay and therefore they trust that in offering a rate for license these facts may be taken into consideration. Isherwood & McKinzie, the petitioners, request this license for six months, if agreeable to the Board.” The Council fixed the rate at $125.00 for the year, which amount the petitioners paid, while protesting that it was unjust to ask so much.
The first home of the overtaxed drama was the historic Sauganash Hotel located on the southeast corner of Lake and Market. During September, 1837, its proprietor, John Murphy, had vacated it, to move into his new house on the west side of the river and Isherwood & McKinzie converted the dining room of the Sauganash into a temple where Thalia, Melpomene and Terpsichore found their first Chicago home. The room was provided with rough seats for about two hundred persons. The floor was level, and a few common chairs were placed in front for ladies and their escorts. Mr. Isherwood, one of the managers, is still living; and, until within the past five or six years, occupied the position of scenic artist of Wallack’s Theatre, New York. He painted the first scenery known to Chicago. I wrote him with the hope of reaching some exact dates, but as he has only memory to rely upon, I learned nothing but what I had obtained from others ; though he replied in a very interesting letter, ending thus :
“In concluding this rambling, epistle, I could almost say with King Lear ‘ you do me wrong to take me from the grave.’ I am eighty years of age, and, with best wishes, remain yours truly, H. Isherwood.”
Photo Credit: New York Public Library Digital Gallery, Digital ID 99215; Photographer, Fred D. Foss