Just A Stage - A Theatrical History of Albany, New York

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These days, theater-minded residents of the Capital Region seldom have far to go or long to wait to feed their hunger for the stage.
From professional offerings at Capital Repertory Theatre or nearby in the Berkshires or Saratoga to an extensive slate of community and college theater, the area is brimming with productions throughout the year.
But consider the plight of culture-starved Albany residents of an earlier day.
The no-nonsense Dutch, as the popular image would depict them, apparently never even contemplated undertaking such frivolity as a stage play, and even a century-and-a-half after the stodgy Netherlanders had relinquished control of the region to the British, the very idea of such a performance could be an inflammatory one.
It was in 1769-or about 130 years after settlement of the area began-that the first play was staged in Albany, when a group of British army officers with time on their hands during a lull in the French and Indian wars mounted a production of Beau's Stratagem.
In a move that went so far as to anticipate the wholesome, small town antics enshrined in the twentieth century's Andy Hardy movies, the officers rented a barn and put on their show.
And, as would be the case for years to come, not everyone was amused or thought the play to be harmless entertainment.
The Reverend Theodorus Frelinghuysen, for example, delivered a scathing denunciation of the soldiers from his pulpit in the Dutch Reformed Church.
For once, however, Frelinghuysen had little success in persuading his charges to safeguard their gravely-imperiled morals.
Instead, he awoke on Monday morning to a curiously formed message that seemed to say it all.
At his doorstep, someone had placed a staff, a pair of shoes, a loaf of bread and a sum of money-in what the pastor recognized as a strong suggestion that he find another flock.
Frelinghuysen returned to Holland shortly thereafter.
Nine years later, the first professional company appeared in town, with the colonial governor's permission.
For that engagement, "a company of comedians from New York"- the Hallam Brothers-presented their production of Venice Preserved three times a week for the month of July 1769, apparently without arousing controversy.
Another company that arrived in Albany a full sixteen years later did meet with strenuous resistance.
On December 14, 1785, a traveling troupe of actors opened in the city (using the hospital as their theater) with performances of Cross Purposes and Catharine and Petrucchio.
The evening's entertainment was further supplemented by a Dance a la Polonaise and the reading of a Eulogy on Freemasonry.
Tickets-boxes, $1 and gallery, 50-cents-were sold at the popular Lewis's Tavern on the corner of Washington and Swan.
But the Albany citizenry, which had seemingly taken the earlier visit by the Hallam Brothers in stride, still was not ready to look upon theater as even a harmless diversion, let alone as the enriching cultural experience its supporters promised.
An ad hoc citizens committee campaigned long and hard against the production-the Albany Gazette, the city's first newspaper, devoted an entire issue to the controversy-and it was only at the last minute that the Common Council permitted the show to go on, deciding by a vote of 6 to 4 they had no legal authority to stop it.
In the early years of the nineteenth century, there were at least occasional productions mounted in Albany.
The Old American Company performed at the aptly-named Thespian Hotel in 1808 and one Mr.
Hayman opened a production of The Poor Gentleman, a comedy, there on November 14, 1810, part of a bill that also included a farce called The Lying Valet.
Still, as late as 1812 the Common Council considered a proposal that would have resulted in an outright ban on all theatrical performances in the city.
Rather than take that step, however, the council's committee on law decided on January 12 of that year that "a well-regulated theater, supported by the respectable portion of society, so far from being contrary to good order and morality, must essentially contribute to correct the language, refine the taste, ameliorate the heart, and enlighten the understanding.
" It was a fortunate vote for drama lovers, because even before the council gave its okay the ground was broken for the construction of the Green Street Theatre.
Two months earlier, in the waning days of 1811, a proud young actor named John Bernard-"clearly the best low comedian that ever appeared in Albany,"-had announced his intention to establish a permanent professional theater.
Equipped with a sizeable bankroll provided by New York City investors, a full measure of self-confidence, and considerable charm, Bernard simultaneously undertook to build the theater and to win the support of the community.
Within a year he had done both and the Green Street Theatre was in business, opening its doors for the first time on January 18, 1813.
The long-awaited theater enjoyed a fair amount of success for its first few years in operation, but by 1818 the enterprise had fallen on hard times and the building was sold.
For the next few decades, it was to serve as a theater only occasionally (sometimes under its original name, sometimes as the Barry Theatre or the Gaiety).
For much of its existence, the structure, which had been purchased by the Baptist Society, served as a religious meeting-place.
During the 1850s and 1860s, there were repeated attempts to restore the old building for its intended purpose, but these all ended in failure.
Twice, in 1852 and again in 1853, that failure was so complete that the sheriff seized the company's props and scenery, and finally the structure itself, to satisfy the debts of one resident company or the other.
In the fall of 1865, the Green Street Theatre closed its doors for good.
In short order, it was converted into a pork packing plant (a fact reported without irony by writers of the time) but even that endeavor was abandoned in short order when the building's rear wall collapsed.
But if its end was to be an inglorious one, the Green Street Theatre had long since gained a place in Albany history.
From the moment when Solomon Southwick, a newspaper publisher and one of the city's most intriguing figures in his own right, stepped onto the stage in 1813 to introduce John Bernard's company and their plays The West Indian and Fortune's Frolic to a full house, the course of Albany's cultural life had been changed irrevocably.
In the decades to come, dozens of theatrical troupes featuring, in sum, nearly all of the most accomplished performers of the day would grace the stages of not only the Green Street Theatre but the Academy of Music on South Pearl Street, the North Pearl Street Circus and others.
The nineteenth century theatrical bill of fare here was to include at least its share of low and light comedy offerings and Albanians were to show a marked preference for circuses (really part modern circus and part variety show), but there was also much serious work to be seen.
Such Shakespearian stars as Edmund Kean and Edwin Booth played Albany and at least one distinguished classical actor made his debut in the city.
Edwin Forrest, who was to win acclaim on the stages of New York and London, first appeared in a Shakespeare play-as Marc Antony in Julius Caesar-at the Pearl Street Theatre, "bringing down the house" and greatly annoying the production's Brutus, who felt that he had been upstaged by the upstart actor.
For his part, Edmund Kean made his Albany debut as Richard III at the grandly named Academy of Music, which opened on South Pearl Street in 1825.
A contemporary of his in Albany theater would later write that Kean had previously been "hissed off the stage in Boston, where the theatre was nearly destroyed by a mob," but here "he was greeted by an overflowing crowd [so large] that many retired through fear of suffocation.
" Edwin Booth's brother, John Wilkes Booth, also played Albany.
In fact, the young actor's career was interrupted briefly here when he accidentally fell upon what should have been a stage prop knife during a rehearsal on April 12, 1861.
(The wound, a serious one, was one of two such injuries the famed actor-"the youngest tragedian in the world" and a matinee idol of his day-suffered in Albany; the other occurred during a fight with a woman, in a battle that was fueled by alcohol.
) Ironically, Booth's engagement in Albany (he was playing the role of Duke Pescara in The Apostate at the Gayety Theatre) coincided with that of the president he was to assassinate four years later.
Abraham Lincoln visited the city in February 1861, on his multi-city journey from Springfield, Illinois, to Washington, D.
C.
, where he was inaugurated the following month.
(The train trip would be repeated, somberly and in reverse, following Lincoln's assassination in 1865.
) On February 18, 1861-the same day, as it happened, on which Jefferson Davis was sworn in as president of the Confederate States of America-Albany Mayor George Thacher, a Democrat, met Lincoln's train and accompanied him to the New York State Capitol, where the president-elect would deliver his one and only Albany speech.
The mayor and Lincoln rode together in a carriage that took them right past Stanwix Hall, where Booth was lodging at the time.
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