do you get when a theatre is constructed by a brilliant man driven by
an ambition to control the entire theatrical business in the southeast,
driven also to mount theatrical productions only to his own lofty
standards, & who has money enough from previous theatrical
management & other successful commercial enterprise to do things
the way he wants?
James Caldwell firmly established theatrical productions in English in New Orleans, was successful enough to then build the first permanent theatre for English productions in New Orleans (the American Theatre), established touring theatrical companies of the highest quality based from his theatre, & then retired in 1833 from his successful theatrical management career to concentrate on his civic projects which included establishing municipal gas works in New Orleans.
On November 30, 1835, he returned to show buisiness in a big way with the opening of his St. Charles Theatre.
Composition was not enough; Caldwell wanted scale, too. The $350,000 theatre was enormous & extravagant. Located on St.Charles Street between Poydras & Gravier, it extended almost to Camp Street. Its front was 130 feet wide, & the facade included a balustrade decorated with statues of Apollo & the muses. Inside, the auditorium featured 4,000 seats, 47 boxes draped in crimson, blue & yellow silk, and gilded columns flanking what was probably the largest stage in the country -- ninety by ninety-five feet.
The opening night program included overtures from the 29 piece orchestra, the plays The School for Scandal and The Spoiled Child, and an orchestral interlude of the overture to Der Freischütz.
The theatre was opened before its interior decoration was completed, & the local newspaper felt that "The house is at present cold & cheerless." At the opening of the theatre's second season, both of those problems were remedied by the installation of the St. Charles Theatre's most famous feature: an enormous chandelier 12 feet high & 30 feet in circumference of 23,000 crystal prisms illuminated by 176 gas jets.
Caldwell assembled for the St. Charles Theatre a stock company of many of the best actors in the United States & based touring companies derived from this company to tour theatres all over the southeast. Quite often, his stock actors played supporting roles, as Caldwell's programming was based on the "star system": attracting the biggest theatrical stars in the country with high salaries & wide exposure in shows at the St. Charles & touring the rest of his circuit for limited runs in each theatre.
The St. Charles Theatre was referred to as "The Temple of the Drama", and became a center of amusements for all of New Orleans. Starring actors were constant; productions were popular and ran from the drama's classics of tragedy & comedy, to melodrama & farces, to opera, and to variety acts such as horse shows, acrobats, jugglers, singers & comics.
On March 13, 1842, a coffin factory behind the theatre caught fire. The fire spread to the theatre, and New Orleans' beloved St. Charles Theatre burned to the ground.
gazed in mute amazement of the terrific sight until the colossal statue
of Tragedy, which adorned the front of the building caught on fire, and
the mask of her dramatic sister, Comedy, was likewise in flames....From
the extended arms of Tragedy the fire glowed with surprising effect.
When the blaze died away, after having consumed the outer painting, her
hands were a coal of fire, red as Lady Macbeth's after dipping hers in
the blood of Duncan; whilst the face of Comedy was as Lady Teazle when
discovered in the apartments of Joseph Surface. They were the last
mementos of the exquisite and sublime representations we had witnessed
in the Temple, and when they fell from their pedestals, we turned with
a moist eye and heaving bosom; we had witnessed the last scene of the
St. Charles. The curtain had fallen to rise no more, and the glory of
the drama has vanished forever.
In 1899, the second theatre burned.
The new theatre was leased to the Keith-Orpheum Circuit and opened its doors as "The Orpheum".
As the Orpheum, the theatre was New Orleans' premier house for "high-class vaudeville", hosting the biggest stars on the Orpheum circuit in the heyday of variety entertainment. One item on the bill, often the last item on the program to function as a "chaser", was George Spoor's "Kinodrome" - various changing topical motion picture shorts. With the addition of motion pictures, the theatre that always occupied the place of the St. Charles hosted the entire trend of popular theatrical entertainment: from repertory companies, to starring vehicles, to variety shows, then to movies.
1924, a new Orpheum Theatre by architects G. Albert Lansburgh &
Samual Stone was built about 3 blocks north for the vaudeville circuit.
The Saenger organization continued to operate the St. Charles Theatre as a house for live theatre & first-run movies. It was home to one of the last holdouts of stock theatrical companies in New Orleans.
In 1932, the theatre was given a renovation by its original builder. The Original Dixieland Jazz Band was featured in the performance at its reopening
The theater had difficulty finding its footing for programming in the 1940s, shifting back & forth from movies to stage productions, and by the early 1950s it primarily was used as a rehearsal space for the New Orleans Philharmonic Symphony. At one point after its years of "legitimate" theatre, it became a burlesque house, the Casino de Paree.
In 1965, the St. Charles Theatre was sold, to be razed to
accommodate a parking lot.
Copyright © 1999 - 2003, William Hooper.
The New Orleans Orpheum Theatre , Lansburgh & Stone's second Orpheum theatre for New Orleans is still going strong as the home of the New Orleans Symphony, & hosts a wide variety of popular concert acts