Those Old-Time Plays
By Lela Duff
At this particular time, when Ann Arbor has been considering the possibility of having a new theater, my readers may welcome a chance to inform themselves on theatrical performances in Ann Arbor’s younger days. The authority for most of today's column is a paper entitled “Early Theatre in Ann Arbor, 1835 - 1900,” read before the Washtenaw Historical Society in 1951 by Miss Alma Josenhans of Ann St.
During her long career in the Detroit Public Library, Miss Josenhans compiled a Theater History of Detroit of 20 typed volumes, and she has almost doubled this amount by pursuing her hobby in retirement.
Although a circus had bumped its way over corduroy roads to the 11-year-old village in 1835, it was nine years later that the first professional group of actors appeared to put on a play. Theaters were unknown in those days west of the cities of the Atlantic seaboard, various sorts of halls being made to serve the purpose, where companies set up their own scenery. So this first troupe performed in a hall in the little first Court House, built on the Ann St. side of the public square.
Later, ballrooms were used in lieu of theaters: one in the Franklin House, a rather large hotel on the site of John Allen’s first cabin, on the northwest 1 corner of Main and Huron; then the Exchange Hall in a hotel on the north end of the same block; then Hangsterfer’s, built in 1860 on the southwest corner of Main and Washington—a huge and elaborate dance hall over a bakery and confectionery shop. Finally in 1871 came the first i real theater, the Hill Opera House at Main and Ann, which afterward became the Whitney Theater.
It is with a wave of nostalgia that those of us past middle age remember the old Whitney, with its huge painted curtain on which 18th-Century French-looking ladies and gentlemen lolled at a picnic; its ornate frescoed arched ceiling with chandeliers; its curving balcony and gallery, and yes, even boxes with red velvet chairs. To think that the site of all this elegance, where the country’s most famous actors “trod the boards,” has now been cleared to make way for an addition to the jail!
It was customary in the early years for a company to give two or three performances while in town, one of the plays usually being by Shakespeare. The first bill, in 1844, teamed “Richard III” with “The Drunkard’s Warning,” a potent expression of the growing temperance movement of the day. “Richard III” seems to have been the favorite Shakespeare play of that decade, for within seven years it was the only one performed in Ann Arbor and was given here four times. It seems not to have appeared here again for over 100 years.
In the later decades of the 19th century our town saw many fine performances of Shakespeare, however, including “Hamlet,” “Twelfth Night,” “As You Like It,” “Macbeth,” “The Merchant of Venice,” and “Julius Caesar,” some of them several times.
First Minstrel Show
But to go back to the earlier years: The first minstrel show came to town in 1851, replete no doubt with interlocutor, end men, and buck-and-wing dancing. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” appeared here for the first time in 1854. Plays popular during the mid-Victorian era were often pretty sensational: “The Lady of Lyons,” “Lucretia Borgia,” “The Hunchback,” “Zilla the Hebrew Mother,” for instance.
Others presented here centered around famous characters of history or fiction. In 1904 Mrs. Fiske had a rather a bad time trying to introduce Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler.” She was so perturbed by the crackle of peanut shucks in the audience that she caused the curtain to be rung down for a time.
The brilliance of the stars who appeared in Ann Arbor during the 40 or 50 years prior to 1900 is indeed dazzling. Beginning with Garry Hough in 1844, the list includes Charlotte Crampton (“the little Siddons of the' West”), Edwin Forrest, Edwin Booth, Helena Modjeska, Robert Mantel, Maurice Barrymore, Lawrence Barrett, Adelaide Neilson, Fanny Janauschek, Minnie Maddern Fiske, Julia Marlowe, Jessie Bonstelle, Otis Skinner, Maude Adams, John Drew, and Lionel Barrymore — some of them coming here again and again.
During that half-century professional companies gave in Ann Arbor a total of 1,289 performances, with 40 or 50 a year in some years, allowing our townspeople to see and hear something like 9,000 players, every one of them at least good