Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Honeymoon Adventures, Part 1: The Theatres of New Orleans

"He took her to plays and annoyed her by whispering that God probably didn’t approve of such amusements, and to churches and, sotto voce, retailed funny obscenities and then reproved her for laughing." 
--Gone with the Wind, Chapter XLVIII

Rhett Butler is a consummate romantic. After all, what young bride doesn't want to spend her honeymoon going to plays and churches? Of course, I kid only slightly, as the aforementioned passage never fails to make me gleeful and starry-eyed, creating as it does such a charming glimpse into Rhett and Scarlett's time together on their honeymoon. So using this passage as our inspiration, we will be taking a look at where in New Orleans the Butlers actually could have bickered and flirted their way through enjoyed their Shakespearean dramas and worship services. Up first today will be a post on the theatres of New Orleans, to be followed by the churches of New Orleans.

Perhaps no surprise given its flair for the dramatic and the different, New Orleans featured a robust circle of theatres, which started to come of age from the 1830s onwards. Many survived the ravages of the Civil War to continue to serve as cultural landmarks for the city. Today, we'll examine five of the main theatres of New Orleans in the post-war period, all of which are displayed in the illustration below: the Academy of Music, the St. Charles Theatre, the National Theatre, the Opera House, and the Varieties Theatre. Much of my information for this post comes courtesy of three wonderful old books: the Illustrated Visitors' Guide to New Orleans (1879); Jewell's Crescent City Illustrated (1873); and Standard History of New Orleans, Louisiana (1900).  Alright, introductions aside, let's enter stage left and begin Act I...

Illustrated print of the "Theatres of New Orleans" from the book The Great South, published in 1875.
The Academy of Music Opened originally in 1853, the Academy of Music operated for only a one year as an actual music academy before it changed its tune and re-emerged as a theatre in 1854. From there, the now-misnamed theatre quickly endeared its way into the hearts of New Orleanians and visitors alike, becoming one of the most popular spots within the city for entertainment. Indeed, the Illustrated Guide to New Orleans (1879) describes the Academy in most glowing terms: "Its name is never mentioned by our citizens except with a smile and expections [sic] of pleasure, and especially is this so with ladies and children, to whom the 'Academy Matinees' are always enjoyable events."  

The Academy also held a unique spot in Civil War history: it was here that actor and lyricist Harry McCarthy first introduced "Bonnie Blue Flag" to New Orleans audiences during September 1861. Soon after, New Orleans printers republished the song in zeal, helping to spread use of the tune as an anthem for the Confederacy. Perhaps it was after hearing an encore performance of the tune at the Academy of Music that Scarlett was encouraged to belt out the song on her infamous ride through the streets of New Orleans in an open carriage?

St. Charles Theatre  Built in 1835 for a staggering $350,000, the St. Charles Theatre would have suited Scarlett's opulent taste perfectly and could have therefore served as an optimal play-viewing spot for the new Mr. and Mrs. Rhett Butler. Boasting one of the largest stages in the United States and seating for more than 4,700 guests, the St. Charles Theatre was as lavish as it was enormous, furnished with a 12 foot high chandelier, gilded columns flanking the stage, and stage boxes adorned in yellow, blue, and crimson silk. It was regarded as one of the best theatres in the country and featured a wide range of performances, from traditional drama and comedy selections to opera and to variety acts where jugglers, singers, and comics took to the stage. As one of the nation's premier theatres, the St. Charles played host to many of the most famous actors of the period, along with a truly infamous one. John Wilkes Booth performed in the St. Charles Theatre's opening production of Richard III on March 14, 1864, along with several other plays before he departed the city on March 26.

National Theatre  While the glitz and glamor of the St. Charles Theatre would have no doubt appealed to our young bride, I fear the same cannot be said about the National Theatre. For you see, the National Theatre was also known during the period as the German National Theatre--and featured quite a number of German plays. With this knowledge at hand, we can only speculate about whether Rhett, in one of his less tender moments, escorted Scarlett to the National, simply to annoy her and poke fun at her lack of cultural depth.

The Opera House  Established in 1859, the Opera House (also known as the Old French Opera) was, quite simply, the social mecca of New Orleans--the de rigueur place to see and be seen within the Crescent City. So surely the Butlers, flush with money, dressed to the nines, eager to thumb their nose at polite society, would have made their appearances at the Opera House on their honeymoon. Like its elegant cousin the St. Charles, the Opera House maintained a reputation for sophisticated glamor. The Illustrated Guide to New Orleans does not spare its praise in declaring it to be"one of the finest buildings of the sort in the United States... supplied with all the care and conveniences required in a first class Temple of the Muses." While opera naturally served as its main attraction, the Opera House also featured an eclectic mixture of entertainment, including plays, receptions, concerts, debuts and Carnival balls--so Rhett and Scarlett would have found many opportunities by which to entertain themselves in its posh confines. 

Varieties Theatre Last but certainly not least, our look at the theatres of New Orleans ends with the Varieties Theatre, described as "a gem of a theatre" by The Illustrated Guide to New Orleans. Built in 1849, the original theatre, known as The Gaiety, was destroyed by fire in 1854 and reopened the following year under its new name. In a similar vein to the Academy of Music, the Varieties Theatre also helped to popularize a well-known Southern tune. "Dixie Land" was first performed in New Orleans at the Varieties Theatre in the late 1850s, where it was greeted by enthusiastic applause and soon spread in popularity. Throughout the mid-Victorian period, the Varieties enjoyed a reputation as a well-respected theatre house, drawing major actors from around the nation and serving as "favorite place of amusement" within New Orleans. 

Thus, our dizzying look at the many and varied theatres of New Orleans now draws to a close. But before we draw the curtain and take our final bow, we invite you to check out the slideshow below, which showcases all of the theatres mentioned in our post. The images are drawn from Jewell's Crescent City Illustrated, a souvenir book of New Orleans published in 1873. 

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