St. Charles Theatre

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St. Charles Street 
New Orleans, Louisiana 


  Click for a closer look at an engraving of the first St. Charles Theatre from Histoire des Antilles by Élias Regnault

What 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?

The St. Charles Theatre: the most important theatre in the southeast, one of the most luxurious theatres in the world, & the strategic center of one of the most energetic, bitter, & entertaining struggles for control of power in the theatre business.

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.
Caldwell, a successful performer as well as manager, went for visual impact with his productions, & his St. Charles Theatre was to be his biggest production ever. The theatre was designed by Antonio Mondelli, Caldwell's scenic artist from the American 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.

We 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.
-- New Orleans Bee, March 14, 1842, quoted in Nelle Smither's A History of the English Theatre in New Orleans



  February 10, 1843 bill for the St. Charles Theatre  

In a swift & surprising maneuver, Caldwell's rivals in the battle for control of the southeastern theatrical business secured the site. In 1843, a new St. Charles Theatre was constructed on the site for the theatrical partnership of Noah Ludlow & Sol Smith.

The facade may have been less impressive, but the theatre behind it was nearly the same size as the first, & almost as extravagant in its decoration.

The new theatre became the center of Ludlow & Smith's Mobile-New Orleans-St. Louis circuit. Shows continued with strong stock companies & the biggest touring stars: Junius Brutus Booth, Edwin Booth, Charlotte Cushman, Jenny Lind, Fanny Ellsler, Edmund Kean, George MacReady, & others.

Ludlow & Smith operated the theatre until their retirement in 1853. In 1853, actor-manager Ben DeBar began his term of management of the St. Charles. Eight very successful years folowed, until the theatre closed in April 1861 due to the Civil War. The theatre remained closed through the war, not opening again until January 1864.

  January 29, 1851 bill for the St. Charles Theatre  
  The St. Charles Theatre in 1873  

The new St. Charles Theatre's first season when reopening in 1864 had as one of its stars another member of the famous Booth family. Making his first appearance in New Orleans, John Wilkes Booth opened March 14, 1864 in Richard III, & appeared in several more plays until his departure on March 26. He was recalled by Ed Curtis, who lived at the house in which Booth stayed, to have not been particularly interested in the cause of the South, but spent much of his time in New Orleans drinking & spending late hours at the Phoenix Bowling Alley.

Usually, even in his cups, he was an affable, considerate, courteous companion; but sometimes,when he had imbibed more than his custom, his mind was haunted by strange ideas -- particularly, the notion that he was the victim of conspiracies. -- Ed Curtis




Click for a closer look at the second St. Charles Theatre and the Comus parade
Mardi Gras: Tuesday night, March 5, 1867.
The Comus parade passes in front of the second St. Charles Theatre.



  Click for a closer look at the first Orpheum Theatre, New Orleans ca. 1902

Click for a look at a plan of the auditorium of the first Orpheum Theatre, New Orleans

Click for a look at the interior of the first Orpheum Theatre, New Orleans



In 1899, the second theatre burned.
It was rebuilt in 1902, by Dr. George K. Pratt. The third theatre on the site was designed by Favrot & Livaudis, and constructed at a cost of $150,000.

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.





The theatre was added to the Saenger chain during the company's expansion in the 1920's.

  Click for a closer look at St. Charles Avenue & Saenger's Orpheum  



  Theatrical program for Saenger's St. Charles Theatre



In 1924, a new Orpheum Theatre by architects G. Albert Lansburgh & Samual Stone was built about 3 blocks north for the vaudeville circuit.
The original Orpheum theatre on St. Charles Street returned to the name that the two previous theatres at its location had -- "The St. Charles Theatre".

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.


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  Click for a closer look at the St. Charles Theatre in 1965  

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.

The vacant lot seen to the left of the St. Charles Theatre in this late photograph was previously the site of the Liberty Theatre.




Copyright © 1999 - 2003, William Hooper.

Other information:


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

Casino de Paree, a photograph from the Frank Gordon Collection held by Bergeron Photography in New Orleans



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