In Old Washington (Theaters & Circuses)
By James Croggon, The Evening Star, date unknown
When the area of the city of Washington, as planned in the squares and streets for the capital, went under municipal control, in 1802, the population was less than 5,000. One of the first acts ofthe city council looked to the amusements of the people by providing for a license fee for theatricals and other entertainments. This fee was $5 for each performance, but no buildings were erected for such amusements until 1804. Then a theater was built at the corner of 11th and C streets northwest, and for sixteen years, until 1820, when it was burned, it was "The Theater." In the first ward, or the West End, the Town Hall, over the west market, and O'Neil's Franklin House were used for such purposes. On the Avenue between 14th and 15th streets the Washington Hotel, kept by McLeod and others, and Strothers' hotel, known as the Mansion House, and between 6th and 7th streets Keowin's, afterward Davis & Brown's, and on Capitol Hill Long's and Queen's were used for amusement purposes.
With the burning of the theater in the spring of 1820 the drama was left without a home, but not for long. Before the close of that year Warren & Wood interested some citizens in the building of a theater, and the result was the erection of a large brick building on he souh side of Louisiana avenue between 4 1/2 and 6th streets. This building was enlarged in 1828, when it became the American Theaer, under the management of the father of Joseph Jefferson, who was a child here. In the company were Mrs. Chapman and other stars. About 1835, when the National Theater was erected, the Louisiana avenue building was abandoned as a theater, but used for assembly rooms, balls, concerts and parties for several years. During he civil war it became a famous place of amusement under the name of he Cantebury. The evening performances were attended by large numbers of soldiers and sailors. Col. William E. Sinn was the manager, and among the performers were Julius Mortimer, Kate Pennoyer, Agnes Robertson and others who subsequently became stars on the dramatic stage. It was a company from this theater that perished at sea on the way to New Orleans during the war. Subsequently he Canterbury Theater was burned and the ground has since been vacant.
The fire at 11th and C streets in March, 1820, left only the walls of the old theater standing. The ground with the ruins was bought by the Carusis in 1822, and a larger building projected. It is related that the walls were so difficult to remove that the entire east wall was left standing. In taking down the other portion of the building the walls fell in solid chunks. Here was constructed what was known as the Assembly Rooms, or Carusi's saloon, and it was the leading place for heatrical performances, balls, concerts, fairs and other entertainments. William Henry Harrison's inaugural ball was held here, and in the 40s the city post office was located on the ground floor. Music and dancing were taught here by the Carusis, and their May balls and concerts drew large crowds.
About 1820 a circus without horses performed at the corner of 13th and F streets, and in the same year the building on ground now covered by Havenner's Bakery were converted by Mr. West into an exhibition hall for circuses, and this building stood many years.
Occasional entertainmens were given in hotels. The license fee and other expenses were out of proportion to the size of the audiences. The usual admission charge was $1. At that time there was much talent among the citizens which often assisted artists from out of town. There were no flying machines then, but the balloon was regarded with as much interest as are the airships today. One or more of these made ascensions near Lafayette Square, and those who formed the circle about the balloon were charged a quarter. A newly invented velocipede, the forerunner of the bicycle, was shown at the circus for 25 cents a head, and people were allowed to ride if they could, the falls from the machine making the fun for the spectators.
Works of art attracted some, and at the brick Capitol, corner 1st and A streets northeast, were to be found paintings of Vanderlyn, Trumbull and Chapman, and busts of Cordelli. Among the busts was that of Decatur. An admission fee of 50 cents was charged. A painting o fthe Treat of Ghen, by Mrs. Plantou, was exhibited at Mrs. Williams', on 13th street north of Pennsylvania avenue, and atracted visitors at a quarter a head. On the ground now occupied by the Pulaski statue was the Rotunda of Ars, Paintings, Statues, Curiosities, etc., 25 cents admission being charged.
Strother's assembly room sin the Mansion Hotel, on the site of the New Willard, were the scene of some entertainments. Mrs. Burke of the Philadeolphia Theater had a benefit here, assisted by Mrs. French, Mr. Brennan, Mr. Braham in vocal numbers, and F.H. Wagler, Mr. Reeve and Mr. Arny of this city on piano, violin and flute. Later Mr. Kean and Mrs. Allen appeared here. Miss Caroline and Master E. Clark gave several concerts, as did Mr. Gilles and his pupil, Master Gegan, Mr. Charles, ventriloquist, with sleight-of-hand tricks, performed here and at other hotels.
The Washington Hotel was also the scene of entertainments, and February 22, 1820, the birthnigh ball took place here. Commodore Decatur, who fell in a duel just one month after, headed the list of managers, and the affair was attended by the elite of Washington. A unique entertainment was that of Mr. Cartright, who performed on musical glasses and exhibited his phantasmagoria at the Central Academy, on 10th street above F. He was some weeks in Washington, exhibiting at various hotels in Carroll row, on the site of the library, Crawford's Hoel, in Georgetown, etc.
In the concerts Scottish airs and Irish melodies, with some English ballads and patriotic songs, were heard. "Robin Adair," "Love's HYoung Dream," "Roy's Wife," "Love Among the Roses," "Last Rose of Summer," "Kelvin Grove," "Tara's Harp" and "Black-eyed Susan" were frequently heard, as well as bird duets and echo songs, which, with excerpts from the "Cabinet," "Caliph of Bagdad" and other operas now obsolete, regaled by musical critics. Patriotism was stirred by such songs as "Come Strike the Bold Anthem, the War Dogs are Howling" or "American Star," "Hail Columbia" had become familiar and "The Star Spangled banner" was growing in popularity. "Huzza, Columbia Forever," "America," "Commerce and freedom," "Perry's Victory," "North Point" and "Hunters of Kentucky" were favorites, but "The Star Spangled Banner" and "Hail Columbia" have alone survived. Comic songs were occasionally heard at these concerts, more frequently at West's circus on C street. "The Irish Schoolmaster," "Betsy Baker," "Paul Pry" and "Barney, Leave the Girls Alone" were among the songs in which the fashions and the customs of the time were ridiculed.
That music was not without its lovers was indicated by the fact that the business of some was the manufacture and trade in instruments, as well as teaching their use. Jacob Hilbus was an ogan builder at the corner of Pennsylvania avenue and 11th street, preceding the firm of hlbus & Hitz. F.A. Wagler, on H street west of 17th, was a dealer in imported pianos. The Carusi family not only managed assembly rooms and taught music and dancing, but dealt in musical instruments. Jonas Keller, on 11th street north of the Avenue, was in business as a repairer of musical instruments, while at William Cooper's book store on Pennsylvania avenue between 9th and 10th streets could be found smaller instruments and music books, and Henry Gegan of Baltimore, of the European store on Pennsylvania avenue between 14th and 15th streets, imported music.
Cotillon parties were common, as well as private parties. On the lower floor of the city assembly rooms Lewis Carusi had many pupils.
Prof. L. Generes had a dancing school over Kinchy's confectionery store on the south side of the Avenue beween 10th and 11th streets. Vincent Massi had classes in dancing at the southwest corner of 12th and D streets, before moving to the Avenue near 9th street, and he also taught at the navy yard. There were other private dancing classes scattered through the city. At that period dancing was of a stately and dignified character and very different from the present style, as the "two-step" was unknown.