What remains of New York’s first Theatre Alley

Theatre Alley doesn’t look like much today.

Construction gear blocks the narrow roadway, and the street sign marking this one-block stretch between Ann and Beekman Streets besides Park Row has disappeared.

But imagine it in the early 19th century, with actors and theater professionals hanging around before a show and carriages lining up to pick up theatergoers after the curtain call.

That’s when Theatre Alley was the center of the city’s small but popular—and very rowdy—Theater District.

The most celebrated playhouse was the Park Theatre, built in 1798. Theatre Alley ran along the Park’s back entrance—or “stage entrance” as The New York Times called it in a 1947 article.

The Park was “designed by several of the French architects who flocked to America after the French Revolution, suggesting that the theater, always popular, had also become prestigious,” wrote Howard Kissel in New York Theater Walks.

It wasn’t the city’s first theater. The New Theatre on Nassau Street and the John Street Theatre opened in the mid-18th century near the site of the Park.

They catered to rowdy audiences who cheered the dramas, farces, and musical comedies—when they weren’t calling out to the actors and consorting with prostitutes in the back rows.

But the Park aimed for a more genteel crowd. Styled like a London playhouse, it featured seating for 2,000 “and contained curved benches in the pit and three tiers of boxes and galleries,” stated The Cambridge Guide to American Theatre.

The Park hosted the top actors of the era, from Edmund Kean to Junius Booth, Edwin Forrest, and Fanny Kemble, a popular actress who made her stage debut there in 1832.

Of course, the Park’s stab at respectability didn’t exactly work out; New York working-class audiences were particularly unruly theater patrons. Audience members routinely talked through performances and tossed apples and nuts at those seated below them.

Then there was the spitting. British writer Frances Trollope visited and recalled in her published 1832 travel diary the “yet unrazored lips” she saw were “polluted with the grim tinge of the hateful tobacco, and heard, without ceasing, the incessant spitting, which of course is its consequence.”

Theatre Alley long outlived its namesake. The Park burned down in 1820, then was rebuilt in 1821. It went up in flames again in 1848. By then, the Theater District had long departed Park Row.

New York’s theater scene followed the growth of the city northward, centering around Astor Place in the 1840s before relocating to 14th Street and inching up Broadway to Longacre Square by the turn of the century.

There’s another theatre alley now: Shubert Alley, between Broadway and Eighth Avenue at 44th Street. The original Theatre Alley is now a small footnote in New York’s glorious theater history.

The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910, has more on the enormous popularity of the city’s theaters.

[Map: 1913 City of New York Independence Day Celebration Guide; third image: MCNY x2011.38.15; fourth and fifth images: NYPL Digital Collections]

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5 Responses to “What remains of New York’s first Theatre Alley”

  1. Dymoon Says:

    the only constant in life .. is change …

  2. Zoé Says:

    This is really fascinating Ephemeral. I never thought of theatres downtown. (Which seems weird to me now – that I never did). The patrons sound like those described at the Globe! (The original one – not the repro… Shakespeare plays in his day…).

    The spitting is still taking place now! …albeit not w/ tobacco. (Loathe spitting…).

    Where’s the Trilby for this one? I’m surprised that a boatload of theatre people didn’t have a *million* things to say in the thread.

  3. David H Lippman Says:

    There used to be a wonderful used book store named Mendoza’s Books next to it on Ann Street.

    That alley has been used on “Law and Order’ a lot.

  4. trilby1895 Says:

    How did I miss this when it first appeared in December? When I’m in the vicinity, I do stroll past and pause trying to imagine what it was like back in the day. If I had my druthers, as well as the unlimited power, I’d somehow ensure that not one single vestige of “Olde New York” were destroyed; property “developers”…and why are these destroyers referred to as “developers”…would be banned…oh, if only….

  5. A travel writer under the spell of 1820s New York | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] During her stay she visited the three major theaters and pronounced the Bowery Theatre (at left in 1826) “superior in its beauty” to the Park or the Chatham. […]

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