The Park On the Park

The second Park Theatre on Park Row, then known as Chatham Street, in 1830. At left is City Hall Park. Images courtesy of the New-York Historical Society.

Mar. 15, 2013

Although New York City today is unquestionably the nation’s center for serious drama, it gave few signs at first of becoming so. For at least its first century its inhabitants cared more for drinking than for watching anything like a play.

But by the end of the 18th-century New Yorkers seemed ready for something more ambitious, and the result was a playhouse that was at first called simply the New Theatre and then, because it faced the open area later named City Hall Park, the Park Theatre.

Designed by the French architect Marc Isambard Brunel, it was located at 21, 23 and 25 Park Row (then called Chatham Street) where J & R now stands, and cost a princely $130,000. The theater opened in 1798 and enjoyed a 50-year run that put New York solidly on course toward its eventual theatrical leadership role.

While the building’s exterior was rather plain the interior, seating some 2,000, was handsomely appointed. The first tier level even had a saloon.

The Park was not the city’s first actual playhouse. That honor goes to the John Street Theatre, which opened in 1767 a few blocks to the south. Although Pres­i­dent Washington is known to have at­tended a few performances there, its of­ferings were mainly lowbrow and it was poorly patronized. It quietly expired just as the Park was getting under way.

As it happened, the new house was well positioned to cater to the city’s upscale society who lived nearby. Offering dramas from Eng­land, dance, operas and the occasional circus acts at reasonable rates (a dollar for box seats, 50 cents for the pit or orchestra and 25 cents for seats higher up), the theater on a good night attracted a healthy sprinkling of classy New Yorkers.

Their like did not make up the whole house, however, for in the theater’s upper reaches and top balcony a totally different crowd predominated—hoodlums, uncouth youngsters and even prostitutes.

As the visiting English writer Frances Trollope noted after one otherwise splendid evening, “The piece was extremely well got up, and on this occasion we saw the Park Theatre to advantage, for it was filled with well-dressed company; but still we saw many ‘yet unrazored lips’ polluted with the grim tinge of hateful tobacco, and heard, without ceasing, the spitting, which is of course its consequence.”

Management tried to minimize such behavior. It offered a $50 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of “certain ill-disposed persons [who] have made a practice of throwing at the performers in the Orchestra and on the Stage.”

It had no effect. The writer Wash­ington Irving described how the “honest folks in the pit” milled about near the stage, noisily commenting on the play before them, while row­dy “gal­lery gods,” in­­cluding platoons of prostitutes, added to the general din by “stamping, hissing, roaring, whist­­­ling,” “groan­ing in cadence,” and flinging “apples, nuts & ginger-bread” at those below.

Edgar Allan Poe even found nonhuman perpetrators. “The well-trained company of rats at the Park Theatre understand, it is said, their cue perfectly…By long training they know precisely the time when the curtain rises, and the exact degree in which the audience is spellbound by what is going on. At the sound of the bell [signaling the start of the show] they sally out; scouring the pit for chance peanuts and orange-peel….”

But the theater thrived year after year, and its managers did what they could to discourage the competitors who arrived in increasing numbers.

In 1822 a West Indian entertainer named William Henry Brown rented rooms in a hotel next to the Park and began staging three performances a week, whereupon the Park’s manager hired ruffians who bought tickets to the show, cracked jokes loudly, threw crackers onto the stage and started a riot.

Thoroughly intimidated, Brown gave up.

As the years went on, however, the Park Theatre found its audience changing. The upper-class patrons were beginning to move uptown, and so the managers offered fewer serious plays.

In December 1848 the theater burned to the ground. By happenstance the controlling owner of the property was the family of John Jacob Astor, who had died the previous March. Noting that the well-to-do customers were now gone, the family opted not to rebuild the playhouse, erecting stores in its stead.

Up­town, playhouses of every sort were op­ening, and the theater district kept moving until it finally ended up near Times Square, where it remains today. But  downtown the Park Theatre is not totally forgotten. In back of its former site runs a narrow lane called Theater Alley, a re­minder of the days when this storied playhouse was one of the toasts of New York.