Monday, August 29, 2016

The Lost Germania Theatre -- Fourth Avenue and 8th Street

The altered facade still smacked of a church building.  To the left is the 1891 Clinton Hall.  photograph from the collection of the New York Historical Society, Robert L. Bracklow Photograph Collection

In 1852 Bishop John Hughes established the Roman Catholic parish of St. Ann’s in the upscale Astor Place neighborhood.  At the corner of Fourth Avenue and Eighth Street stood the former Third Associated Reformed Presbyterian Church—an exquisite Georgian-style structure designed by John McComb, Jr. and completed in 1812.  The building originally stood on Murray Street, but was astonishingly moved uptown when the congregation relocated

photo by Ewing Galloway, original source unknown
Now the Presbyterian church moved uptown again, this time deciding to leave its building.  It was sold to the Catholic Church to become St. Ann’s Roman Catholic Church.  On April 23, 1852 an advertisement in The New York Herald read: “All persons desirous of securing seats in this church are invited to attend at the church, on Tuesday next, the 27th inst., at one o’clock, P. M.”

Although the majority of Manhattan’s wealthy citizens were Episcopalian, St. Ann’s Roman Catholic Church filled with fashionable parishioners.  In April 1865 the well-dressed worshipers would listen especially intently to the words of their pastor.

The New York Times reported “Rev. Dr. Preston read the circular of Archbishop McClosky, and delivered some remarks on the untimely death of Mr. Lincoln, in which he rebuked the spirit of the assassination and wickedness which prompted the murder, and which if allowed to prevail, would destroy the Republic.”

The Rev. Thomas Scott Preston was a fiery, opinionated preacher.  On March 20, 1870 he focused his sermon on “Catholic doubters and offending journalist;” saying that they were “erring, if not positively unclean.” 

And later that year, after the Italian Army stormed Rome and stripped the Pope of his temporal powers, Father Preston had much to say on the matter.  On November 27 The New York Herald reported “Last evening St. Ann’s Catholic church, Eighth street, was crowded with an attentive and respectable congregation, who assembled for the purpose of hearing the eloquent and gifted pastor, the Rev. Thomas Preston, deliver his promised lecture on the temporal power of the Popes.  Before the doors were opened crowds had collected outside, and in five minutes after ingress into the sacred edifice had been allowed there was not a single vacant seat.”

The priest began his lengthy speech saying that all assembled were aware of “the circumstances in which the Holy Father was placed, and the fact that he had been deprived of his temporal power.”  Father Preston was convinced that a higher power would correct the situation.  “How long God would allow him to be deprived of it nobody knew; but at this time the faith, love and devotion of the entire Catholic world should rally around the standard of St. Peter.”

At the time that Father Preston was discoursing on Papal powers, the parish was busy contemplating a move to East 12th Street.  On month earlier The New York Times commended “The old church, in Eight-street opposite Lafayette-place, has, for some time past, been much too small to accommodate the rapidly-increasing congregation which worships in it, and it was therefore decided to build a larger and more pretentious [church] in Twelfth-street, near Fourth-avenue.”

The new church was dedicated on New Year’s Day, 1871.  The previous day the Catholic Church had petitioned the Supreme Court for “an order granting leave to sell St. Ann’s Church…together with the parsonage and school-house adjoining.”  The petition pointed out that dry goods mogul Alexander Turney Stewart had agreed to buy the property—paying $75,000 in cash of the $125,000 selling price.

Alterations were made to the building and Stewart used it for the manufacture of bedding.  Nine years later the Stewart Estate leased the building to theater manager Jacob Aberle.  The once exclusive residential neighborhood had changed much and was now part of the northward moving entertainment district. 

On September 9, 1879 The New York Herald announced “The old church edifice on Eighth street, between Fourth avenue and Broadway…after having suffered many changes in the past few years, has finally been remodeled into a theatre, and under the management of Mr. Joe Aberle it was opened to the public last night, when an elaborate programme was presented.  In seating capacity, at least, this new house is a prominent rival of all the other east side variety theatres.”

To create his Tivoli Theatre, Aberle had lopped off the steeple and transformed the façade from Georgian to Spanish Colonial—a toned down version of Spanish Baroque.  The building still retained a churchy appearance, nonetheless.  Two days after opening night Aberle placed an advertisement in The New York Herald applauding the “overwhelming success of this New and Grand Theatre.  The Greatest Attractions in the World.  American’s Best Star Artists.”

For New Year’s Eve that year Aberle staged a special attraction, a “modern drama” entitled The Poor of New York.  The New York Herald wrote “It is based upon scene in New York during the financial crisis of 1837-38 and is a story of fraud and its victims, with the usual accompaniments of wealth, luxury, destitution and misery.”   Jacob Aberle was no doubt especially excited about the staging of this new play, because it would be the debut of Miss Laura Aberle as an actress.

The “story of fraud and its victims” was especially appropriate, considering that less than a week later Aberle received a restraining order which prevented his giving any further presentations of the play.  “The proceeding is taken on behalf of Francis Mayo, who claims to be the owner of the piece,” explained the New-York Tribune on January 11, 1880.

It was just the first of problems for the theater owner.  On May 13, 1880 The New York Times reported “A number of unruly boys nightly congregate in the gallery of Aberle’s Tivoli Theatre, in Eighth-street near Fourth-avenue, and render themselves a nuisance to the more respectable portion of the audience by their antics.  They are extremely disorderly, and in guying the actors use the most obscene language.”

The evening before, the boys had been especially problematic.  John Reilly, 17-years old, “made himself conspicuous in the disturbance,” and lit a cigar in the balcony.  He refused to put it out when ordered to do so by the door keeper.  It was only after considerable wrangling that Police Officer Golle got Reilly out of the theater and onto the street.  But then, “the friends of the young ruffian assaulted the officer with a shower of stones, several of which struck him.”

Reilly broke free and ran off with the officer “in hot pursuit.”  The delinquent teen quickly discovered that assaulting a policeman in 19th century New York came with its costs.  “When the fugitive was brought back he was bleeding profusely from a wound on the right side of his head,” reported The Times.  The boy had to be taken to the station house on a stretcher.  He complained that Golle had whacked him on the side of the head with his club, knocking him down.

“The officer said that Reilly, while running across Fourth-avenue, stumbled and fell on the car-track, cutting his head.”

On New Year’s Day 1881 the theater was inspected by Fire Department Battalion Chief Bresnan.  The chief did not hold back in his assessment of the place.  The Times reported “Aberle’s Theatre…in the opinion of the Chief is a rookery that should be closed until it is so far rebuilt as to be in some measure safe.”  He called it “one of the filthiest places in the City, the galleries being, as he expressed it, ‘as dirty as the streets.’”

He was mainly concerned with the safety of the building—the number of exits, for example—and pointed out that the employees added to the problem.  “The employes about the theatre, he says, spend most of their earnings in the bar-room connected with and adjoining the theatre.  Being constantly more or less under the influence of liquor, he says, they should not be trusted in such important places, for in his opinion they would add to instead of preventing a panic in case of a fire.”

Aberle’s problems only increased when he staged The Boss; or, Waiting for Vengeance in February 1883.  One of the actresses was an eight-year old girl who went by various names including Lillie Atkins, Petite and May Atkinson.  In the audience on Tuesday night, February 6, was an officer of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

The New-York Tribune reported “He observed that the child seemed delicate, that she was poorly clad and that she was suffering.”  The girl appeared on stage three times during each performance, which did not conclude until around midnight.  The following day Aberle was informed that she must be removed from the cast.

An officer checked in on February 8 to make sure the order was being obeyed.  To his surprise (or not) the little girl took her place on stage exactly as before.  Not only was the girl’s father arrested, but so was Jacob Aberle.  He was held at $500 bail—a significant $12,000 in today’s dollars.

photograph by Byron Company from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Years later The New York Times recalled a humorous story which centered around a crooked ticket seller.  A patron wanted to see the play The Forty Thieves and passed a $10 bill to the cashier.  “Upon receiving $5 in return he returned the tickets, at the same time saying he did not want to go in and see the other thirty-nine thieves.”

Jacob Aberle sold the theater to actor John Thompson, deemed by The New York Times as “the eminent tragedian.”  When Thompson produced and appear in On Hand here, in what was now called the Eight-Street Theatre, the newspaper said it was “considered one of the most sublime creations ever produced.”

Thompson did not rely only on dramatic presentations to ensure success.  On October 24, 1884 the theater was the scene of the Jack Dempsey-Tom Henry boxing match.  The Times reported “Every grade of society was represented, from swell young men about town who wore evening dress, crush hats, and opera coats, down to dance hall bouncers and Bleecker-street ‘statues.’  All the evening cabs and carriages were driving up before the theatre, and men and women were crowding through the throng about the steps and taking their places in the boxes, while Bowery roughs and prize fighters from the dives were making efforts to pass in unobserved or begging admission from the doortender.”

The Eighth Street Theatre suffered scandal when actress Lillie Ellis committed suicide “in the saloon” of the theatre two weeks later.   According to testimony the following week, she was infatuated with a man named James Ryan.  On Wednesday night, November 12, 1884 the two apparently had words.  Ryan told Coroner Martin that he “was leaving the room when she shot herself.”  Another actress, Minnie Western, testified that Lillie was intoxicated and the matter was closed.

Like Jacob Aberle, John Thompson found himself on the wrong end of the law.  He was arrested for serving liquor in the theater without a license; and also for “assaults and brawls at the place.”  But things got serious in 1885.

That year all of Paris was enthralled by the Can Can.  Lines of synchronized dancers kicked their legs high, revealing stockings and petticoats; and at one point in they bent over and brushed their skirts above their pantaloons.  Paris may have been ready for the Can Can, but New York society was not.

In the early morning hours of February 22 Police Captain John J. Brogan “made a descent” on the theater where, according to The Times, he “surprised about 120 persons of both sexes, who were taking part in or spectators of a degrading exhibition of the can-can.”

The raid revealed that the respected tragedian was running more than a theater.  “There were nine rooms and apartments near the stage termed actress’s dressing rooms.  The boxes were the scenes of orgies, and liquor was served in the theatre during variety performances.  At late hours the can-can was danced in the wine room, and each woman endeavored to be more indecent that the others.”

Nineteen women and 45 men were arrested.  Police searched the theater for Thompson, who was finally found trying to hide in a heap of coal in the cellar.  He insisted he was in the engine room “bathing a sore eye with warm water.”  He was held in $1,000 bail for running a disorderly house—the polite 19th century term for a brothel.  John Thompson’s Eighth Street Theatre was closed down.

The beleaguered theater was reopened as the New Eighth-Street Theatre by John F. Poole on August 3, 1886.  The Times noted “The first play will be ‘Shanema Lawn,' with Mr. W. J. Scanlan, a very interesting comedian, in the principal part.”

Poole faired only slightly better than his predecessors.  In 1889 the theater was raided for serving liquor without a license.  Within months it was under new management.  On April 26, 1890 The Evening World reported “The Boston Howard Athenaeum Company begin a week’s engagement at Harry Kennedy’s new Eighth Street Theatre.”

The vaudeville show format included “Little Ida Heath, a clever child artist in the lightning change line; Baggesen, the human corkscrew; Ella Wesner, the Wems Brothers and Coyne Sisters, Prof. Harry Parker and others.”

Kennedy’s managerial term, too, would be a short one.  When comedian Gus Bruno opened the season here in 1890, The Evening World tried to keep the tangled history of the theater straight.  “The Eighth Street Theatre, formerly Poole’s and Harry Kennedy’s was opened Saturday night by Gus Bruno, in a musical burlesque called 'A Queen Family.'”

And once again the notorious venue was shut down.  On June 15, 1891 The Evening World announced “The Eighth Street Theatre has been closed by order of Mayor Grant, who was notified Saturday that the theatre had been running since May 1 without a license.”

After serving as a boxing venue again for awhile, Adolf Philipp leased the theater in July 1893.  The Times reported “New-York is to have a German Harrigan’s.”  The article said that Philipp proposed “after renovating the house and making needed improvements, opening it with a German company of selected artists…The house will be known as the Germania Theatre and will be open about Sept. 16 at popular prices.”

Later the newspaper would remind its readers that the building “was at one time a church of considerable importance.  Although the exterior has been changed a little, there is still a distinct church effect noticeable in the architecture…It became a concert hall of fair reputation, then a dance hall of the Bowery type, and finally a dive of the most notorious character.  In these various roles it failed to pay, and the property was finally sold to a company of Germans who tried to make it at least a respectable place for light theatricals.”

A group of Germania Theatre stage hands pose for a photo in front of a stage set of a cut-away tenement.  photo by Byron Company from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Adolph Philipp, too, had some run ins with the law.  He was arrested on January 24, 1899 when he decided to resolve a problem with Gustav Amberg, who had leased the theater from him briefly, by punching him in the nose.  And a week later the theater was briefly closed when detectives felt that the “sacred concert” being staged on a Sunday night was in fact, an entertainment.

Actually, the detectives were right.  Jaegerblut was a German comedy; however Captain Cooney decided not to interfere.  “Besides,” explained The Times, “the players talked the Bavarian patois, and the detectives could not make out a word of it.”

Despite the minor problems, The New York Times noted on February 10, 1901 “the Germania Theatre has partly redeemed the building form its one-time unpleasant associations.”  But in April 1902 Adolf Philipp announced his intentions to construct a New Germania Theatre on East 14th Street which would be “built and ready to be opened by May, 1903.”

The theater's fate was already sealed when, on October 21, 1900, the New-York Tribune published this photo of the building "and the adjoining property which will be condemned for the rapid transit system."  (copyright expired)
Shortly after the Germania moved out, the entire block where the old theater stood was demolished to make way for the new subway.  The John Wanamaker Department Store's 1906 extension rose over the site of the old theater.

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