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May 27, 2012

HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE: Early Terre Haute theater includes Billy Emerson

TERRE HAUTE — Traveling theater troupes performed in Terre Haute before the village was incorporated on Jan. 26, 1832.

A poster announcing that “A Company of Players” would perform Friday evening, April 30, 1930, “at Mr. Dole’s Ballroom, which has been commodiously fitted up for the purpose,” was published on April 29 by the “Western Register and Terre Haute Advertiser.”

“Mr. Dole’s Ballroom” was located in the Dole Hotel at the northeast corner of Third and Mulberry streets.

It was not a one-night stand. The “nights of performance” were “Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.”

The plays included a presentation of “The Weathercock,” a “laughable farce” in two acts, followed by “G. Colman’s witty afterpiece” called “The Review.” Both were common fare for traveling theater companies during the early 19th Century.

The players included the manager, Mr. Tryon, probably William Tryon, who first brought a troupe of actors to St. Louis in 1836. The others were Mr. and Mrs. Dyke, Mr. Taylor, Mr. Chaddoack and Mr. Vanderburgh.

“Mr. Dyke” was commonly known as “Daddy Dyke,” reputedly because he was “the father of 76 children.” Mrs. Dyke, though never referred to as “Mammy Dyke,” apparently was the most talented member of the troupe.

One critic in Nashville, Tenn., said: “Mrs. Dyke has a good voice but she fails in managing it and moderating its tones properly. She also has a good figure. But she rises on her toes and totters too much.”

It is possible that the Samuel Drake Dramatic Company performed in Terre Haute before 1830. Drake’s troupe — universally recognized as the first traveling theater group to perform west of the Alleghenies — appeared in Vincennes during 1820.

Drake’s company originally consisted of the elder Drake, sons, Sam Jr., Alexander and James; daughters Martha and Julia; 23-year old Frances Ann Denny; 19-year old Noah Ludlow; and James Douglas, who drowned while bathing in the Wabash River at Vincennes.

Miss Denny, the most talented member of the company, was not with the Drakes in 1820. She had embarked on a solo tour, making her acclaimed New York debut on April 20, 1820 after successful appearances in Quebec, Montreal and Boston.

She rejoined the Drakes in 1823 and married Alexander Drake. Though he died on stage in Cincinnati on Feb. 10, 1830, Frances was known for the rest of her stage life — even after her marriage in 1840 to Terre Haute poet-lawyer George W. Cutter  — as “Mrs. Drake, First Lady of American Stage” and “The Star of the West.”

Hotels, taverns, fraternal halls, pork houses, the Vigo County Courthouse, private residences and, later, Town Hall (north of Ohio St. on the east side of Third St.) hosted lectures, musical groups and theatrical performances before Terre Haute had its first “entertainment palace” in 1857.

Early Pork House at First and Mulberry streets was renovated to host legitimate theater before 1840. The Thespian Society of Terre Haute offered occasional amateur productions there. When the famous Jefferson family came to town in 1840 to present “Rip Van Winkle,” Early’s Pork House hosted the event.

On Feb. 14, 1852, Terre Haute already located (1) on the Wabash River, navigable eight months a year; (2) the National Road and (3) the Wabash & Erie Canal, when the  Terre Haute & Richmond Railroad made it maiden excursion to Indianapolis, providing another link to connect the eastern U.S. to the West, aiding touring theater troupes.

Small theaters were built in Carr’s Hall, at the southwest corner of Fourth and Ohio streets, and in Corinthian Hall, on the northwest corner of Third and Wabash, before the Civil War. Celebrated San Francisco minstrel Billy Birch and singer Susan Denin appeared at Carr’s Hall during its short existence.

On Dec. 15, 1864, Thomas Dowling opened an entertainment palace on the west side of Sixth Street between Wabash and Cherry. Dowling Hall boasted “the largest stage in Indiana.” As the resident trustee of the Wabash & Erie Canal, Dowling relocated the canal headquarters to the new structure, renting the structure on Ohio Street that had housed the former headquarters.

Almost immediately Terre Haute began to nurture a reputation as an entertainment mecca. In 1867, Terre Haute hosted the Indiana State Fair at the new agricultural association fairgrounds at Brown and Wabash avenues, adding to the city’s allure.

On March 20, 1869, a group of 40 investors headed by William Warren organized the Terre Haute Opera House Co. after a series of meetings. Stockholders chose to build an amphitheater  — as grand as any existing west of the Alleghenies — at the northeast corner of Fourth and Wabash, then known as “The Spinning Wheel Corner.”

Meanwhile, Frederick Douglass, suffragist Mary Livermore, magnetic but controversial Shakespearean actor Edwin Forrest and numerous other show business names performed at Dowling Hall. Yet few were as popular as legendary minstrel Billy Emerson.

Emerson brought “20 Star Performers” to Dowling Hall for three days on Feb. 27, 1870. One of the performers might have been Luke Schoolcraft, who opened the Academy of Music night club in the former St. Stephen’s Church on North Fifth Street a few months later. Schoolcraft stayed for about a year.

One theater expert declared: “Emerson is, without doubt, the best minstrel who ever lived!  Others could do things better than he could; for instance, he was never so funny as Billy Manning, he could never do work just like Billy Sweatnam, nor were his stump speeches as good as Billy Rice’s, or even Hughie Dougherty’s; but he still could do something of everything.

“As an end man and dancer, he never had a superior and few equals, and who will ever forget his beautiful natural, rich, pathetic tenor voice?”

“Emerson stands absolutely alone in his chosen profession,” another critic wrote. “Never before his advent had his equal been seen, nor will we ever see again.”

After the splendid Terre Haute Opera House opened on Dec. 19, 1870, the main challengers to Emerson appeared there, including Duprez & Benedict, Thatcher, Primrose & West, Cal Wagner, Col. Jack Haverly, Bert Williams and “The Dean of Minstrelsy,” Al G. Field.

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