Monday, June 1, 2020

The Lost Brougham's Lyceum (Wallack's Theatre) - 483-485 Broadway

Illustration from Memories of Fifty Years by Wallack, Lester and Laurence Hutton, 1889 (copyright expired)

Born in Dublin in 1814, John Brougham was reared by an uncle.  He was sent to Dublin University to become a surgeon but, according to a biographer, "misfortune came upon his uncle, and so the youth was obliged to provide for himself."  Desperate and destitute other than his fine clothes, he accepted the offer of an actress friend, Madame Vestris, to appear on the stage.  He became successful not only as an actor, but as a playwright.

In 1842 Brougham arrived in New York City where he worked with several acting companies, wrote plays, and later managed Niblo's Theatre.  Then in 1850 he took the bold step of erecting and opening his own theater, the Brougham Lyceum at No. 485 Broadway, between Broome and Grand Streets.

Four stories tall, the main feature of the brick-faced structure was the full-width colonnade which sheltered theater-goers from the elements.   It opened on the evening of October 15, 1850 with Esmeralda starring Julia Gould. 

The venture promised to be a success.  On January 11, 1851 The Evening Post wrote "Brougham's Lyceum is crowded nightly; despite rain or muddy streets, for the doors open directly on Broadway, and there are no dark and dirty bye [sic] streets to travel to reach it.  Ladies step at once from a carriage or omnibus into a warm and comfortable hall, and thence pass to their seats without soiling even a satin slipper."

A turn of the century cigarette card remembered Brougham's Lyceum.

Ticket prices ranged from 25 cents for the family circle to an astonishing $5 for "orchestra stall seats."  The cost of those pricey seats would equal $173 today.

The balcony of Brougham's Lyceum is packed with people watching the Fourth of July parade in 1851.  (At the lower right men fire guns into the air, a common means of celebrating the Fourth for decades.)  Gleason's Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion, September 6, 1851 (copyright expired)
But circumstances out of Brougham's control caused attendance to drop off.  According to the 1886 Dictionary of National Biography, "the demolition of the building next to it made it appear to be unsafe, and the business gradually declined, leaving him burdened with debts."  

In Brougham's company at the time was the actor James William Wallack.  He purchased the property from Brougham following the 1851 season.  Before long he gave his son, John Lester Wallack "the onerous positions of stage-manager and leading man," according to theater historian Julian Magnus in 1896.

According to the 1893 The Memorial History of the City of New-York, "The hand of a master was visible in every production, and the taste, elegance, and propriety displayed about the whole establishment gave it a position of respectability never hitherto enjoyed in New-York, except at the Old Park Theatre."

Part of Wallack's immediate success had to do with a brilliant marketing idea.  New Yorkers had followed the messy divorce of world-famous actor Edwin Forrest and Catharine Forrest.  Word-for-word testimonies reprinted in newspapers told of infidelities on the parts of both, and of scandalous "musical parties" Catharine held in their elegant West 22nd Street home when Edwin was traveling.  

Although she had no experience, Wallack hired Catharine, who took the stage name of Mrs. Catharine Sinclair.  He announced in December 1851 that she would appear as Lady Teazle in Sheridan's The School for Scandal.  On December 12 the Daily Standard reported "We understand that Mrs. Forrest has been taking lessons, for some time past, privately...Her appearance will, no doubt, create great sensation in theatrical and other circles."

Indeed it did.  On opening night, February 2, 1852, 150 policemen were stationed around the theater.  Overall her performance was warmly received.  But, according to the New-York Daily Tribune the next morning, "The persons opposed to Mrs. Sinclair were chiefly in the upper tier, and when she appeared, there were some noisy demonstrations, and some apparent desire to raise a row.  But the Police promptly removed the noisiest; and after getting them to the street, kicked them homeward."

Catharine was an enormous draw.  Just over two weeks later, on February 20, the New-York Daily Tribune reported "Mrs. Sinclair has already earned $4,000 (so they say,) at Brougham's Lyceum.  That may be deemed a good test of the correctness of her judgment as to her future course."  (Her earnings in less than a month would equal $137,000 today.)

With the opening of the fall season of 1852 the name of the theatre was changed to Wallack's Lyceum.  Newspapers extolled Wallack's productions and his selection of actors.

On November 17, 1852 The New York Herald wrote "The success of the Lyceum, for the first few months after its re-opening, satisfied the most sanguine hopes of its manager, and was the best evidence of the talent, tact and liberality, with which its internal affairs were conducted."  It praised the debut of actress Laura Keene, saying "With such principals and auxiliaries it is not to be wondered that Wallack's Lyceum has become such a fashionable resort."  (Laura Keene, it will be remembered, was starring in Our American Cousin at Ford's Theatre 13 years later when President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.)

In its February 1854 issue Places of Public Amusement wrote, "Great attention is always paid to the production of pieces at this brilliant little house, and the costumes and scenery form an important part of the attraction.  English comedy and domestic dramas form the chief attractions at Wallack's, and the house is generally full."  The article noted "every thing offensive to the most delicate taste [is] carefully excluded from the stage."

In 1861 Wallack gave up the Lyceum and erected a massive new venue, Wallack's Theatre, at Broadway and 13th Street.  The former Lyceum became the Broadway Music Hall, a vaudeville theater.  Just some of the acts it presented on the evening August 24, 1861 were:

The Broadway Minstrels,
in a choice selection of Songs, Glees, Choruses, &c.
The Orrin Family,
In a beautiful display of Classic Gymnastics.
Signorita Galleti and Mons. Velarde in the beautiful Fairy Ballet of
The Fisherman's Dream or The Enchanted Lake
Billy Birch and Ben. Cotton, 
In their multifarious Negro Oddities

In 1867 the colonnade had been removed and businesses operated from the upper floors.  Julia Dean was appearing in The Woman in White.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
By 1867 the name was changed to the Broadway Theatre, which survived two more years.  By then the entertainment district had moved northward and the immediate neighborhood was being overtaken by commercial interests.  The theater was replaced by a modern loft building designed by Robert Mook, which survives.

photograph by the author

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