AMERICAN THEATER | This Month in Theater History


Program for the opening of the Orpheum Theater in San Francisco. (Photo courtesy of Jack Tillmany, “San Francisco Theatres”)

June 1862 (160 years ago)

Adah Menken as Mazeppa. (Image courtesy of Rodney Higginbotham, Theater Ephemera, Northeastern University)

After performing his outrageous production of Mazeppa in Europe for many years, Adah Isaacs Menken finally brought his show to New York. The melodrama, loosely based on Lord Byron’s poem, was a breech role for Menken, who played the titular character Ivan Mazeppa, a page punished by Polish King John II Casmir Vasa for having an affair with a countess while being stripped, tied to a horse, and sent to his death. Different productions had attached a dummy to a live horse, which was slowly led out of the theater by a trainer. However, Menken insisted on performing the stunt by herself, wearing a flesh-colored body stocking and strapped to a live horse that raced through the audience during the show’s finale. The show, widely promoted on printed postcards, spread Menken’s fame far and wide, adding to the intrigue she had managed to create for many years in the public eye. Menken, an accomplished performer and manipulative mistress of her public image, wanted her exquisite poetry to be remembered more than her equestrian performance, but that was not the case. As critic George Clinton Odell notes in his review of the New York production of Mazeppa: “The fame of this audacious enterprise has come down to the present day and will no doubt continue.”

June 1887 (135 years ago)

Poster for the Alhambra Players production of “The Tempter” from the New York Amsterdam News.

German immigrant impresario Gustav Walter, who had arrived in the United States in 1865 and had already built and managed many theaters, opened his biggest project to date: the Orpheum at 115 O’Farrell Street in San Francisco. The June 30 opening was a grand affair that featured a Hungarian orchestra and a roster of variety acts, and the new theater became the launch pad for what would be called the Orpheum Circuit of vaudeville venues built by Walter and his eventual partner Morris Meyerfeld. The couple took Orpheum theaters to Los Angeles, Sacramento, and then Kansas City, Missouri, before Walter succumbed to appendicitis in 1898. The Orpheum circuit continued to grow after Walter’s death and became one of the world’s leading vaudeville theater chains. make and break the careers of many performers. The first Orpheum theater was destroyed in the April 1906 earthquake and fire that ravaged much of the theater district. It was rebuilt in 1909.

June 1927 (95 years ago)

Just a month after the All Star Colored Civic Repertory Company was established, a new joint-stock company at the Alhambra Theater in Harlem, the theater closed due to financial problems. The Repertory Company, under the direction of Evelyn Ellis, had declared its intention to become “one of the most outstanding colorful theaters in the country”, and they performed three shows during their brief existence. The closing of the theater was quickly followed by the abrupt dissolution of the company. All was not lost, however, as in July of that year the theater reopened under new management and the All Star Colored Civic Repertory Company transformed into Alhambra Players, adding a host of new talent to its roster. . The Alhambra Players remained active in theatre, producing many productions until the theater turned into a cinema in 1931.

June 1987 (35 years ago)

Larry Kramer arrested at a White Hose protest in 1987. (Photo courtesy of HBO)

Demanding that the Ronald Regan administration take action to combat the AIDS pandemic, the new HIV/AIDS activist organization ACT UP joined other protesters in Washington, DC on June 1 at a a sit-in in front of the White House. Author and playwright Larry Kramer had helped launch the organization in March 1987 after becoming frustrated with what he saw as the half-hearted activism of other gay AIDS organizations. Much of that frustration had been expressed on the Public Theater stage in 1985 with the premiere of Kramer’s daring drama, The normal heart, who strongly criticized the apathy of the government, the media and homosexual organizations in the face of the unprecedented AIDS crisis. ACT UP quickly became one of the most visible international activist organizations, staging dramatic, often theatrical, walking-dead protests across the world demanding action to save lives. Kramer remained one of ACT UP’s most visible figures, and during the June 1 protest in Washington, he was publicly arrested by police – the first arrest by many for the irascible playwright and activist, who died in May 2020 at the age of 84. .

June 2007 (15 years ago)

“The Gospel to Colone” from the Ebony Repertory Theatre. (Photo by Craig Schwartz)

In Los Angeles, Israel Hicks and Wren T. Brown created the Ebony Repertory Theater as a resident company of the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center. Hicks, an accomplished theater director and one of the first to direct the plays in the Pittsburgh August 10 Wilson cycle, teamed up with actor and director Brown to create what they called ” world-class professional theater rooted in the experience of the African Diaspora”. The Ebony Repertory Theater remains one of the only African-American Equity theater companies in Los Angeles and is the winner of multiple Ovation, NAACP, and Los Angeles Drama Critics awards, currently under the direction of Brown and Gayle Hooks.

June 2012 (10 years ago)

On June 7, 2012, Stormé DeLarverie was honored by Brooklyn Pride, Inc., for her “fearlessness and bravery” in the fight for gay rights. Stormé began a theatrical career at a young age, jumping on horseback at the Ringling Circus. In 1955, she joined the Jewel Box Revue as emcee and performed in men’s drag. DeLarverie sang in the show as a baritone. The Jewel Box Revue, an integrated and staunchly queer vaudeville company, toured the black theater circuit across the United States. On June 28, 1969, the self-described butch lesbian, along with various other patrons, resisted police at the Stonewall Inn in New York’s Greenwich Village, at a pivotal time for gay rights in the United States. DeLarverie died in Brooklyn on May 24, 2014.

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