"In a show way": Theater in 1893 Kansas City

Grand theaterExcept during the summer months, when theaters closed and people went on outings to the parks, live drama – usually put on by touring companies -- was the favored entertainment for middle class Kansas Citians in 1893. There were three main venues for drama in Kansas City: the Grand, Gillis, and Coates. The Auditorium was used mainly for musical events.  

The Ninth Street theater burned down in January in a conflagration that, according to the Times, endangered the entire west side of the city.[1] The city was engaged in a dispute with the National Waterworks Company over water pressure to fire hydrants; the Journal suggested that firemen’s efforts to save the theater were “crippled” by the low pressure.[2] Its owner promised it would be rebuilt in time for the new season later in the year, although probably the African-American community would be pleased if it were never rebuilt. A court case in 1890 had pitted Abraham Judah, the theatre's owner at the time, against a black citizen, the former claiming he could deny African Americans entrance to the theatre.The judge upheld Judah's claim, to the intense resentment of the editors of the American Citizen against the judge, who "disgraces his ermine,"  and against Judah:

"Just how a man who is a Jew, a race that is ostracized in Europe ... can have the heart to humilate and ostracise other people we cannotunderstand," wrote the editors of the American Citizen, who went on to disparage the Ninth Street Theatre as "one of those 'one horse' show houses, where the barn stormers and burnt cork gentry genrally hold the boards, to a class of patrons whose intellectual and moral idea of drama does not, we apprehend, rise higher than the stalkers before the foot lights."In contrast, the Grand, Gillis, and Coates "opened to all people who have the means, respectability and proper deportment...."

Reflecting the effects of the depression, only one of the three surviving theaters was a “standard” theater, charging higher prices and offering first class touring companies: the Coates. The other two, the Grand and the Gillis, were popular price houses, ticket prices typically ranging from 25¢ to 75¢. “As a result,” reported the Journal, “many of the big companies which Kansas City would support well, and which the location and the importance of the city should attract, have gone by.”[3]Coates Opera House 1900

Gillis opera houseThe theaters were all said to be profitable, despite hard times: “the theatrical business is bad in almost every city of the country,”[4] found the Journal toward year’s end, but not as bad in Kansas City as most places. The city even had a thriving theatrical agency, serving actors and theater professionals who spent their summers in the city: “Kansas City is becoming quite a theatrical centre,” the agency manager told the Mail: “You would be surprised to learn how many actors and actresses make this city their headquarters until securing engagements.”[5]

Classical plays were offered from time to time, usually at the Coates. Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar played there in late February with Shakespearean actor Charles Hanford in the role of Antony[6]. The following week Polish actress Modjeska, regarded as the leading female interpreter of Shakespeare on the America stage,[7] appeared in performances of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII and Schiller’s Mary Stuart.  A prominent figure on the American stage for over a decade, she “is getting tedious,” declared the Times dramatic critic. “The public goes because it has an affection for Modjeska and when a player has won the public’s affection the decline of drawing force is gradual.”Modjeska

The critic was more enthusiastic about a coming attraction at the Coates, the Hanlon Brothers’ “Superba,” an eclectic pantomime that reflected, observes Mark Cosdon, “changing taste in American popular entertainment. With scantily clad chorines becoming ever more characteristic of the period’s theatrics, “Superba” offered choruses of female performers, said the Times,” along with scenic spectacles and “grotesque displays: dismembering devices, a guillotine, a haunted studio with furniture that moved on its  own, a trip through the St. Louis World’s Fair, rose chariots pulled by giant lobsters, fire spewing dragons, and revolving stages.”[8]

As a pantomime, reported the Times critic, “’Superba’ has not been equaled since the days of the famous Ravel brothers. There are two clowns, two harlequins, five young and pretty Italian girls as serpentine dancers….”[9]

More usual dramatic fare ran to melodrama, often incorporating elements of the spectacular and prurient. Though Ibsen’s Doll’s House had been published almost fifteen years earlier – Modjeska herself had appeared as Nora – and Bernard’s Shaw’s defense of Ibsen, The Quintessence of Ibsenism in 1891, it is apparent from Kansas City’s playbills that, as Modjeska later remarked of her poorly received U.S. performance of Nora, “The public was not yet ripe for Ibsen,”[10] or for the new drama coming from Europe. Of course, Americans were not alone in their response to Ibsen: 1893 was the height of the “Ibsen wars.” When The Master Builder opened in London, the Times reported that even “Ibsen faddists, who are sure that the play contains some mighty symbolism, seem disposed to give up the attempt to unravel its meaning, while ordinary mortals openly scoff at it as drivel.”[11]

Modjeska’s point about the theater-going public in the U.S. is supported by comments of the Times critic on a performance at the Coates of The Crust of Society, adapted from Alexandre Dumas’ (fils) comedy Le Demi-monde, in which a courtesan attempts to conceal her sexual past from a suitor. The critic wrote that the “unconventional frankness of Dumas’ theme” had been entirely missed by a public consisting half of “American women … so guarded by their want of knowledge that the free descriptions of demi-monde … intrigue in this play do not get to their consciousness at all” and half of those who “judge the descriptions merely according to artistic value.”

The Dumas play, he writes, “is out of our line,” and “will not last long…”:

American conventionalities do not tolerate promiscuous discussion of this theme, and that if they do not it is far better for American women to stick to the conventionalities which are the laws we have built for ourselves out of our natures and beliefs. Prudishness is a magnificent possession for any womanhood, and when it is natural and healthy every man on earth worships it…. the topic of this play was not within the circle prescribed by American conventionality.

Americans are “sensation loving,” the critic observes, “Everything is welcome – for a season. We go to see a tall elephant, a Spanish dancer, a high soprano and a cabinet trick. One stirs our real being no more than the other and we drop all of them heartlessly.”[12]

Such were the plays, or spectacles, that appeared on Kansas City stages, plays like “The Fire Patrol,” described as introducing “a rapidly driven fire patrol” and a “ponderous quartz crusher, under which the hero is placed with intent to kill,” or “Life in the Rockies,” depicting life in the far West and including a “sensational fire scene, some incidental features, including a crinoline dance and a drum majors’ drill.”[13] The play “A Fair Rebel” was set during the Civil War and featured revolving views of a Confederate prison, with “a vivid illustration of the escape of Union prisoners through the famous underground passage….”[14]

The ScoutThe “Old West,” though still within the memory of many citizens, was already a half-mythic setting for spectacles like those offered by Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show at the Columbian Exposition. “The Scout,” at the Grand theatre featured cow roping, rifle shooting on horseback at full gallop, and a battle between Indians and cowboys on horseback in “the largest tank ever built in a theatre – fifteen feet wide, forty feet long and ten feet deep,”[15]. The show’s owner was said to have spent $20,000 preparing it for the new season, purchasing a 250 foot round top tent with a stage “of sufficient size to give room for the appearance of 120 people at one time, including sixty Indians and forty cowboys.”[16]

Another ‘old west’ spectacle-drama was “The Girl I Left behind Me,” which played at the Coates in November. Set at a military post during an Indian uprising, it portrays the usual love triangle of a woman pursued by two men, one villainous, the other heroic. The high point of the play depicts an attack by Indians on the post. The plots of such plays were so commonplace and, in a sense, secondary to the spectacle – the Daily Journal wrote that the play’s “dramatic strength” lay in its depiction of military life[17] – that local papers often summarized the entire plot before the play opened.

The StowawayIn February, the Gillis presented “The Smuggler,” which included a fight between “a revenue cutter and a smuggling craft, the burning of a ship in midocean, a new and novel prison scene, etc.,”[18] while ads for “The Stowaway” touted an “Actual Safe-blowing by reformed cracksmen” in Act II,[19] saying nothing about the play’s theme or narrative.

But perhaps no 1893 melodrama offered more to the sensation-loving than “The Soudan” at the Grand: “ThrillingSoudan ad and faultless,” trumpeted its newspaper ad. "Battle of the desert city! And the return of the victorious army to Trafalgar square…. 300 people in its production.”[20]  

Spectacle was the main attraction. Its plot, dealing with the adventures of an English captain who leaves England to fight for the empire after suspecting his wife of infidelity, later discovering her innocence and discrediting his enemies,[21] offered “nothing significantly original,” commented the Journal, “many of the lines are commonplace.”[22] It subscribed to the conventions of the form: “various sorts of wicked people… and several specimens of the unvarying type of hopelessly stupid but marvelously good people, whom the scheming wicked ones always impose upon with great ease in melodrama,”  observed the Star’s critic.

Though the scenery showed “the effects of long usage,” suggesting that Kansas City was in the later part of the play’s run, the stagjng was admired by the critics. In the battle scene, which incorporated members of the local Third regiment, soldiers “swarm over the city wall as if they were 10,000 strong, and there is a continuous clatter of Winchesters, a wild rout of the Egyptians and a quarter of a minute of quite convincing war.” [23] All eighteen scenes were “elaborately set, and the changes were made last night with remarkable quickness and absence of confusion,”[24] reported the Journal’s critic.

Effie EllslerIf most dramatic productions played less emphasis on spectacle, the picturesque was almost always present:  elaborate scene setting was the norm. Typical was Doris, by Robert Drouet, staged at the Grand in May with Effie Ellsler, a well-known actress whose career would span over four decades from the 90’s era stage to the talkies: she became known as the “oldest living actress in the world.”

In 1893, however, she was still known mainly for her performance in Hazel Kirke, “that play of mawkish sentimentality,” as the New York Times would describe it in less sentimental times.[25] Drouet’s play had attracted “wide-spread and favorable comment,” reported the Kansas CityTimes, and Miss Ellsler appeared to have “another original creation to add to her long role of successes.”

The mise–en–scenes in Doris added much to the atmosphere. As the Times summarized them, the first act opens with a “pretty exterior,” where the “simple-minded old rector sits dozing at his table.” The sound of choir boys singing an anthem “gives an effect that is pastoral and beautiful to the scene.” In the second act, Doris’s wealthy suitor marries her, disregarding slanderous village gossip about her. When he is almost poisoned, suspicion falls on Doris until the true plotters – his stepmother and her son – are revealed. Doris is innocent, as everyone, including the old rector and the audience, knew her to be.[26]

Charles Gardner, in his Fatherland, appearing at the Grand in February, used the Tyrol in his native Germany as the setting for his play, allowing for picturesque scenes of mountain homes and a representation of the Sangerfest in Munich.[27] Apart from the fact that the heroine is American and the hero Tyrolean, the plot – a villain with designs on a winsome widow competes with the wholesome hero for her affections[28] – is indistinguishable from scores of other plays.

The dramatic critic of the Times, identified as “Jaggers,” took issue with those who lament “the present moribund state of drama.” Anyone who believes dramatic art is dead,” writes the Times critic, “is either a hooting pessimist or he has never seen “Wang.”[29] He has never seen the animals fed in “The Lion Tamer,” nor observed that tragic look of resignation on the face of the Brazilian ox in “The White Squadron…. The drama is all right. It is only those who don’t know art when they see it that are lamenting the good old days.” That none of the plays cited as examples of good contemporary drama appeared in Kansas City in 1893 may have been an indirect way of commenting on the limitations of Kansas City audiences, though the examples point also to the limitations of ”Jaggers’” theory of dramatic art.

For example, in the same article he argues for the “persistence of race characteristics” as “the one certain and indelibly colored thread in history,” using this dubious premise to argue for the persistence of farce in British comedy and of “burnt cork” minstrel shows in American drama “because the comicality of the negro is a familiar feature in our American States.” His point is that American dramatic tastes are predominantly English: “The negro,” he asserts, “has not touched the national character at all. If there is any changing to be done from the contact with him, he must do it.”

The “powerful law of race persistence” assures that American tastes will continue to be those of the British, although “our tastes [are] more under the direction of propriety…. We are not out of the woods yet, but we have set our standard of social propriety far ahead of anything in the past of any nation.”

Thus, perhaps, the reaction of the critic to a performance of Emile Zola’s Thérèse Raquin in October, with Lillian Lewis in the title role. Miss Lewis had done her best to publicize the play by calling in a reporter – “Jaggers” himself, probably -- before the performance to claim that her husband and manager had forbade her from playing Thérèse. It is a “grand play,” she said, “and just suits me. All the company like it. But I have to undress in one scene and Mr. Marston says he doesn’t like that…. Marston is jealous. Yes, he is jealous of Emile Zola.” Actors are “devilish sly,”[30] commented the reporter on Lewis’s publicity stunt; Lewis appeared as Thérèse, “despite the opposition, or alleged opposition, of her husband and manager….” 

The prospect of seeing Miss Lewis undress was apparently not enough to retain the attention of the audience as “horrors began to thicken to an unprecedented density” and a dozen “including several who would have been taken for men of iron,” headed for the exits in the third act: “The moral tone of the play is not so bad as the physical,” commented the critic, presumably “Jaggers”:

Zola’s realism may be artistic, but it is awfully repellent when placed upon the stage. The idea of an intelligent woman being linked to a sickly, half idiot, while secretly in love with a robust young artist, is the first incongruity, but is mild as compared with some of the complications which follow…. Zola’s work is artistic, but his theme and his materials are not agreeable. His characters are of the common people, and every detail is made to conform to lowly life.[31]

In short, the play – like “The Crust of Society” and “Camille” -- was too French to be agreeable to a Kansas City audience, with its standard of “social propriety” and “race persistent” attachment to farces like “The Mighty Dollar,” by Benjamin Woolf, a satire on Washington wheeler-dealers, and “Larry the Lord,” in which an English lord masquerades as the footman of a beautiful American widow while his valet plays his master’s role.[32]

Mrs. WJ Florence in The Mighty DollarKansas City audiences liked the light and familiar: the well-known touring company or well-established play; the famous actress, like Modjeska, or Mrs. W.J. Florence, who reprised the role of Mrs. General Gilflory in “The Mighty Dollar” that she had been playing for almost twenty years[33]; the famous prize fighter taking a novelty turn on the stage. Three prizefighters, John L. Sullivan, James J. Corbett, and lightweight champion Jack McAuliffe appeared in sports-oriented melodramas.

Corbett appeared in “Gentleman Jack,” pitting a noble college athlete against a villainous rival for the affections of the same girl, the rivalry culminating, naturally, in a boxing match. Prizefighting not having the best reputation, the Times story on the play concludes: “Assurances are given that everything in the entire play is of a refined nature.”[34]

John L. Sullivan played a wealthyJohn L. Sullivan broker who protects a college man from villains in “The Man from Boston; the play also ends with a prize fight. Reported the Daily Journal, “There is nothing to the play itself except that it gives Sullivan a chance to show himself…,” but Sullivan himself was defensive in the face of the greater interest of reporters in events in the boxing world than in his dramatic efforts: he “considers himself an actor now,” reported the Daily Journal, and offered the opinion that “What the people want nowadays is a play at which they can take off their coats and collars, and just laugh from the time the curtain goes up until it goes down. They don’t want to follow any plot.”[35]

Jack McAuliffe, who earned his nickname “The Napoleon of the Ring” for remaining undefeated throughout his career, acted in “The King of the Turf,” a racing drama which includes a prizefight set at a representation of the Coney Island Athletic Club.[36]

Owen NugentAmong the many plays staged during the year, only one was by a homegrown playwright: “The Broken Pledge,” by Owen Nugent, known as the “King of the Jointists.” Nugent wrote the play, adapted from a story by William Carleton,[37] while in jail for selling liquor in Wyandotte County. “[Anyone] who has seen “Ten Nights in a Bar Room” or any of the thousand Irish melodramas that are now on the boards will find nothing especially preposterous in the recent rum seller’s drama,” sniffed the Star, but the playwright himself was of interest: “a full-blooded Irishman, the father of fifteen other thoroughbreds,” who can quote Shakespeare by the page and ran a prosperous “joint” in the back of blacksmith shop “full of unsuspected doors through which the jointist and his patrons were wont to fly. The county attorney himself conducted a raid one day and found the shop empty, save for a primitive slate. On this he found the names of all the other county and city officers with the number of drinks they owed for checked off in blocks of five.”[38]

Nugent’s play premiered in August at Dunning’s Opera House in Kansas City, Kansas, with Nugent in the lead role of Art McGuire, and members of his family in various roles.  “Considerable local interest is being manifested” in the play, reported the Times, which predicted a large audience.[39] Later in the year, Nugent produced a second play, also at Dunning’s Opera House:  “The Seven Clerks, or The Denouncer.” It attracted a large audience, according to the Times.[40]

New Ninth Street Opera HouseAlso toward the end of the year the rebuilt Ninth Street Opera house reopened: “the finest amusement palace in the West” the Journal called it, featuring “five luxuriously appointed star rooms on the stage, with hot and cold water in each,” scenery comprising seventy-five sets, and “the acme of perfect incandescent lighting” powered by an in-house generator. [41]

Among the early productions at the luxurious new facility was “The Silver King,” by English playwright Henry Arthur Jones; the plot, needless to say, involved hero and villainous rival competing for the affections of a woman, Nellie. The hero, Wilfred Denver, is inveigled by his rival to lose all at the races. When the rival is killed by thieves, the blame falls on Wilfred, who flees to America, gets rich in silver mining and returns to England where he identifies the real murderers and is reconciled with Nellie.

The death knell of playhouses like the new Ninth StreetSilver king Opera House and productions like “The Silver King” had been sounded, however, before the ashes of the old Ninth Street Opera House had cooled. The Journal carried a brief item in January that Thomas Edison had “completed his arrangements for showing his kinetograph at the world’s fair.”

The kinetograph, forerunner to the motion picture camera, prepared filmstrips for viewing through a device which created the illusion of movement: “Every gesture of a speaker may be photographed and at the same time his words may be recorded on the cylinder of a phonograph,” reported the Journal. “The two devices are then combined by throwing the photograph on a screen and starting the talking machine, and the observer sees and hears an exact reproduction of the speech. The deception is said to be most remarkable.” It is, said the Journal, “a very curious invention, but useful only in a show way.”[42] The moving image could be viewed by only one person at a time.

The first public showing of the kinetograph and accompanying kinetoscope occurred on May 9, 1893, not at the Chicago World’s Fair as originally planned but at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences. Within a year, kinetoscope parlors were opening around the country; within a year after that, the Lumiere brothers produced the first movie made for public projection to a paying audience, “Workers leaving the Lumiere factory.”

The film era had begun. Many of the grand old opera houses were soon converted to show silent films.


[1] “Theater fire.” Kansas City Times, January 19, 1893, p. 5.

[2] “A total loss.” Daily Journal, January 18, 1893, p. 1.

[3] “Dramatic and musical.” Daily Journal, May 21, 1893, p. 11.

[4] “Dramatic and musical.” Daily Journal, November 5, 1893, p. 11.

[5] “The actor’s headquarters.” Kansas City Mail, March 10, 1893, p. 8.

[6] “Next week at the theaters.” Kansas City Star, February 18, 1893, p. 6.

[7] Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helena_Modjeska

[8] Mark Cosdon, The Hanlon Brothers: From Daredevil Acrobatics to Spectacle Pantomime, 1833-1931. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2010, pp. 121-122.

[9] “Standards for the stage.” Kansas City Times, March 5, 1893, p. 20.

[10] Robert A. Schanke, Ibsen in America: A Century of Change. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1988, p. 9.

[11] “Before the footlights.” Kansas City Times, March 19, 1893, p. 13.

[12] “Standards for the stage.” Kansas City Times, March 5, 1893, p. 20.

[13] “The Fire Patrol.” Daily Journal, April 23, 1893, p. 11.

[14] “Next week at the theaters.” Kansas City Star, February 18, 1893, p. 6.

[15] “The Big Wild West Show.” Daily Journal, May 21, 1893, p. 11.

[16]"Opposition for Buffalo Bill." Kansas City Star, May 25, 1893, p. 7.

[17] “This week’s attractions.” Daily Journal, November 5, 1893, p. 11.

[18] “At the theaters.” Kansas City Star, February 18, 1893, p. 6.

[19] The Stowaway. Kansas City Star, November 4, 1893, p. 6.

[20] Ad for “The Soudan.” Daily Journal, August 27, 1893, p. 7.

[21] “Dramatic and musical.” Daily Journal, August 27, 1893, p. 7.

[22] “At the theaters.” Daily Journal, August 28, 1893, p. 4.

[23] “Successful theater opening.” Kansas City Star, August 26, 1893.

[24] “At the Theaters.” Daily Journal, August 28, 1893, p. 4.

[25] “Effie Ellsler’s birthday.” New York Times, November 29, 1914.

[26] Effie Ellsler’s Engagement.” Kansas City Times, April 30, 1893, p. 13.

[27] “At the theatres.” New York Dramatic Mirror, August 6, 1892, p. 2.

[28] “At the theaters.” Kansas City Star, February 27, 1893.

[29] “Wang,” a musical by Woolson Morse, was first staged in New York in 1891. Set in Siam, it mixed comic opera material with burlesque.( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wang_(musical))

[30]An ad for Miss Lewis.” Kansas City Times, October 17, 1893, p. 4.

[31] “The Players’ Column.” Kansas City Times, October 21, 1893, p. 4.

[32] “Before the Footlights.” Kansas City Times, March 19, 1893, p. 13.

[33] “Before the Footlights.” Kansas City Times, March 19, 1893, p. 13.

[34] ”Grand- Corbett in “Gentleman Jack.” Kansas City Times, March 5, 1893, p. 20.

[35] “Sullivan on the fight.” Daily Journal, October 23, 1893, p. 2.

[36] “Jack McAuliffe as an actor.” Kansas City Times, April 30, 1893, p. 1.

[37] William Carleton, Stories of the Irish. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/16019/16019-h/16019-h.htm

[38] “Owen Nugent and his play.” Kansas City Star, August 10, 1893, p. 6.

[39]The Broken Pledge.” Kansas City Times, August 27, 1893, p. 6.

[40] “Owen Nugent’s new play.” Kansas City Times, December 28, 1893, p. 3.

[41] “The new Ninth Street Opera House.” Daily Journal, September 17, 1893, p. 16.

[42] [News item] Daily Journal, January 31, 1893, p. 4.

September 19, 2012