March 1995

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Popular Entertainment

in Early Rochester


Robert G. Koch

In 1828 the following editorial appeared in a Rochesterville newspaper. "It is really astonishing to think that the trustees of so respectable a village as Rochester, should permit such a disorderly place as the theater. We express ourselves thus plainly from our knowledge that the respectable part of this community has long since decidedly disapprobated the theater, and we do sincerely hope that our village trustees will, hereafter, when an application for license is presented by any playing company, act more in accordance with the wishes of the sober, reflecting and moral part of our citizens."

George Ellwood cites this comment in a publication of the Rochester Historical Society and adds, "Along in the period between 1825 and 1840, the papers would not notice the theater at all and were far from sure that concerts were quite proper, while their columns fairly teemed with lottery advertisements, all sorts of alluring schemes, with daily drawings at the wheel of fortune."

The theater however survived with a decidedly mixed bag of offerings to compete with other popular entertainments at taverns and other irregular venues. For example, in 1821, the Eagle Tavern offered 34 wax figures, two mechanical organs, and "the Temple of Industry, a grand mechanical panorama, consisting of 26 moving figures, each working at their different occupations. Also elegant views." Another establishment featured some minerals, fossils, skeletons and shells, some Indian curiosities, and a gallery of wax figures, which were often reused. Joan of Arc was metamorphized into the Empress of France and then Jenny Lind. Judas Iscariot did duty as the Duke of Wellington, Dr. Parkman and Shylock.

Shows featuring horses were popular. One included a man "somersetting" from a trampoline "over seven real horses and conclud[ing] by going through a balloon on fire sixteen feet high!"

Other offerings featured natural history. One live animal show in 1828 included lions, a tiger and leopard, a jackal, a llama, wolves, monkeys, baboons and an ape. It was into this mix of entertainment that Sam Patch made his historic leaps at the Genesee falls in 1829.

Despite editorial disapproval theater persisted. The proprietor of the recos-tumed wax figure exhibitions added a small theater, seating 300 to 400 people. In the 1840s one "band of players…gave, in one week, 'The Roof Scrambler,' 'Slasher & Crasher,' 'The Bandit Chief,' 'Mabel's Curse,' 'The Drunkard's Doom' and 'Hamlet.'" It's not known how this clientele took to "Hamlet" but in 1825 the insertion of "Othello" into a repertory of "Love and Madness," "The Weathercock," "The Honeymoon" and "Fortune's Frolick," necessitated the manager's stopping the play to lecture the unruly ones in the pit. In general through these decades theatrical offerings ran heavily to melodrama, romance, regal and patriotic offerings with an obligatory sprinkling of Shakespeare, frequently in a truncated version. Sometimes all were on a single bill. One such included "Richard III," "Valentine and Orson," the farce of "Frank Fox Phipps," and the play of "Sam Patch," four plays—five hours at least—and all for fifty cents.

In 1840 a veteran theater manager from Buffalo launched a theater here that featured visiting stars and a resident stock company. "About this time…plays were coming into vogue calling for elaborate scenic display, spectacular plays, so called. To meet this demand [he] brought here…a very talented scene-painter from the Drury Lane, London." One such offering, "Faustus," was particularly memorable. The manager had taken a five year lease on the theater, but "after a time, the popular opposition to the drama seem[ed] to have broken out afresh." He challenged the clergy to debate him on the merits of the theater, proceeds going to charity, but had no takers. After three years, he closed.

Another brave soul, known as Isaac Merritt, a former machinist in Oswego, also tried, but after a short season "left town heavily in debt for rent and other expenses. This man was Isaac Merritt Singer, afterward the inventor and manufacturer of the Singer sewing machine…"

While these pioneers faltered, Ellwood observes that "the opening of the railroads made traveling easier and cheaper, the young city was growing rapidly and possibly with more of leisure, the appetite for amusement was sharpened and consequently better patronage was assured. Negro minstrelsy was just struggling into existence and panoramas, dioramas, etc. illustrating a variety of subjects, history, travel and allegory, were finding a place in the popular taste." The temperance revival was at its height and is reflected in offerings, which must be unimpeachably moral. The lecture era was also dawning, and the Athenæum, one of the roots of the Rochester Institute of Technology, was formed. Music, as an earlier piece in this series detailed, continued to find an audience, and one of increasing sophistication, especially as the influx of German immigrants increased. But the arm of temperance reached even into some musical concerts, in the form of songs like, "The Dutchman's Account of His Intemperate Son."

Moral exhibitions featured didactic works like "The Reformed Drunkard" that depicted "the career of the drunkard from the fashionable wine-cup to the alms-house…" One such multiple offering included some astronomy and astrology, along with the required downward spiral of the drunkard, a large number of scriptural views and comical diagrams, and promised that "a good band will be in attendance. Tickets, one shilling [about 121/2 cents], to be had at the Morton House bar."

© 1995, Robert G. Koch
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