Showstoppers and Curtain Raisers: Columbus' First Six Theaters (1828 - 1871)
Updated: Aug 4, 2022
SOURCES: In Order of Appearance: Chronicling 135 years on America’s Most Celebrated Stage, F. Clason Kyle, 2006. Showboats to Softshoes: A Century of Musical Development in Columbus, Georgia from 1828 to 1928, Katherine H. Mahan, 1967. Eight Theaters In Columbus Since The City Came Into Existence by Hellen B. Keller, W.C. Woodall’s Industrial Index, 1959. Our Town: An Introduction to the History of Columbus, Georgia by Roger Harris, 1992.
Music had an integral place in the lives of people of the area centuries before the founding of Columbus. Spain, claiming territory as far north as the city limits of Columbus, sent missionaries and soldiers into the area around 1679. A garrison for soldiers, complete with parade grounds, was established around 1689, causing the Spanish flag to be flown over Georgia lands for two years. Remnants of Spanish occupation were found in the base of the site at Fort Mitchell, Alabama. While not actually occupied by the French, the site of Columbus was visited as early as 1714 by ministers of the French government. LaFayette, arriving in 1825 for a tour of the area was given a great ceremonial welcome. As LaFayette and his company crossed the river, the Native Americans began their songs and dances in honor of the general. Music centuries old was performed on the “square ground.” Ceremonial instruments included a water filled drum played with one stick, rattles, and flutes made from canes. After traditional all night singing by the women, the men started the ceremonial day long ball game.
In 1739, James Oglethorpe, founder of the Colony of Georgia, signed a treaty at Coweta Town. He represented King George II and Chekilli represented the Cowetas. Again, the Native Americans performed their ceremony and ball game in the honor of the visitor.
Many years later a large stone, Oglethorpe Boulder, was placed on Fifth Street in between Broadway and Front Avenue to commemorate the visit. It is on located at what is now called Founder's Garden at the south end of the Chattahoochee Promenade.
Protestant missionaries came to western Georgia before 1828 with their hymns and psalms. These hymns were sung for relaxation and as an escape from loneliness, as well as for religious services. Settlers from the Virginias and Carolinas brought English ballads, square dances, and fiddles to accompany their music for social activities. Thus, a heterogenous mixture of Native American music, church songs of all descriptions, social music of France and England, and hoedowns of the mountaineers could all be heard on Broad Street of Columbus during 1828, the first year as a city. The location of the site of Columbus had long been known to the Creeks, the Yuchi, and various of the Native American tribes. Their paths made a natural route of commerce traversing the Chattahoochee River near the foot of present Broadway and continuing into Alabama territory. Two branches of the early nineteenth century Old Federal Road met this fording site. Because the new city was situated at the river crossing and on the trade routes, already established traveling shows played on the porch of Kenard’s Tavern by 1825. Following one such trade route a traveler started from Charleston, South Carolina, and proceeded by boat to Savannah. From there, he went overland by stage or horseback to Augusta, Macon, and Columbus. The route continued by stage to Montgomery after crossing the river. From there the traveler went by river steamer to Mobile and on to New Orleans by boat.
This route was described by Captain Basil Hall (1827 – 1828), James Buckingham Silk (1839), Tyrone Power, Irish comedian, and Alexander Mackay. The accounts of these men along with those of Sol Smith and Noah Ludlow, theatrical impresarios, prove Columbus to be on the Old Federal Road and that major theatrical circuits followed these trade routes. Theater people were pleased to find a small settlement, as well as Kenard’s Tavern or other inns on the banks of the Chattahoochee. Many of them literally “sang for their supper.” Our “Trading Post” had theater and music before becoming the “city” of Columbus.
In John Martin’s History of Columbus, Georgia 1827 – 1865, he recorded the construction of a theater (a log structure) that opened for a brief engagement as early as July of 1828. Where this doubtlessly crude and makeshift structure was located, what the performance was or who played in it, has been lost in the obscuring mist of time, a mist compounded by the lack of local newspaper files.
Recorded, however, is the first visit by a professional troupe on May 24, 1832. The troupe’s actor-manager was a New Yorker by birth but a Southerner by choice – Sol Smith, who had been producing plays in towns and cities up and down the Mississippi River. Ever ambitious, Smith envisioned establishing a profitable “circuit” through Georgia. For there to be a Columbus stop, a theater had to be built. Asa Bates, a local contractor, qualified for the job, accomplished the task in three and a half days. To quote from a newspaper article, this 70-foot long and 40-foot-wide theater consisted of timber which “on Monday waved to the breeze in its native forest… fourscore hours afterward, its massive piles were shaken by the thunder of applause in the crowded assemblage of men.” Sol Smith's theater would be located in the 800 block of Broadway. In his autobiography, Theatrical Management for Thirty Years in the South and West, Smith relates a most amusing and hair-raising (in the literal sense) episode that occurred during that first performance in Columbus. The play was the popular Pizzaro, which first had been presented in America in 1800, a year after its Drury Lane Theatre premiere in London. The August Kotzebue tragedy concerns itself with a noble Inca’s doomed battle with invading Spanish soldiers. Smith contracted with 24 area Native American warriors to appear as the Peruvian army. The pay scale was fifty cents and a glass of whisky, which was secured before the performance. When called to perform, the warriors did so with zeal, keeping up a war dance for over half an hour. The celebration even included a “scalping,” when an actor lost his wig.
The Sol Smith theater site is the current The Joseph House, 828 Broadway. One side of the historic marker in front is titled Columbus' First Theater, and the second side is titled Early Theaters.
During the early 1830s, traveling shows continued to dominate the entertainment scene. The population of towns on the Columbus – Montgomery circuit was noted to be 300 – 1500. A variety of plays and musicals produced on this circuit compared favorably with any section of the country of equal population. Sol Smith, Jim Caldwell, and the Ludlow Company were responsible for a major portion of the theatrical activity. Tragedies, comedies, farces, and curtain raisers were the staple fare. When soloists of quality were available, serious music was performed, and at time musicals were treated as drama with songs between acts. Each troupe stayed in Columbus from one to three weeks, giving different plays each evening. Sol Smith and his family also took part in the social activities of the community.
The most celebrated and widely travelled twins in American history made their first appearance before some of Columbus’ pioneer settlers in 1834. Chang and Eng Bunker (pictured above in 1834), the world – renowned conjoined twins who were born in 1811 on a small houseboat near Bangkok (capital of the former Siam, now Thailand) had been joined before birth by a ligament at the base of their chests. They were brought to Boston in 1829 and shortly thereafter began making tours that would include appearances before audiences throughout the United States and several European countries. The twins were 23 years old when they arrived in Columbus in 1834. During their four days in the area, the twin took in $200. The admission fee for a view of the twins was 50 cents per person. According to their ledger, they spent one day in Wetumpka, Alabama before their arrival in Columbus, and then one day in Talbotton after their visit. In 1843, Chang and Eng married sisters in Wilkesboro, North Carolina. Combined, the two families had twenty – one children. (Don’t forget Chang and Eng! We will see them again later in the month when we highlight the Springer Opera House.)
Page from the Bunker Twins account book showing entries for March 1834.
From 1835 to the early 1840s, the editor of the Columbus Enquirer would allow very little to be printed about the theater as, “…the theater deletes morals…bad for good order, happiness…bad for religion.” Epidemics around the country and the Panic of 1837 also hampered the touring groups. However, other sources reveal that music and theater in Columbus were becoming broader in scope. The newspapers describe a “new and fashionable theatre” built in 1837 on Crawford Street (10th Avenue) located behind the Rankin Hotel. It boasted a gallery and seated 400 persons in its hall which was eighty feet long and forty feet wide. The Crawford Street Theatre became the third theatrical establishment in less than a decade. The Crawford Street Theatre would soon fall into disuse and within a few years, had a achieved a new fame as a “house of ill repute.” On February 19, 1853, the building burned to the ground.
The German migration of the 1840s brought several excellent music teachers to the city who wrote, performed, and organized groups. This is given as the main reason for the rise in popularity of opera and serious music by the mid-century. In addition to the Crawford Street Theatre, there were soon built two additional theaters across the street from one another on Broadway. The Columbus Lyceum was organized in March 1839 to furnish entertainment and instruction for the people. By the following year, a hall was built on the west side of Broadway and 13th Street, Lyceum Hall. As interest in the Lyceum began to languish, the hall was converted to a theater by Charles B. Lovell, actor - manager. Until the late 1840s, Lyceum Hall was used for lectures, public meetings, dioramas, plays, and local concerts. That Columbus people had become more music conscious probably accounts for the establishment of a fifth public hall where dramatic performances were given. Situated on the east side of Broadway and 13th Street, Concert Hall was located on the second floor of a two-story building. It was a mecca for musical entertainments of all types, church suppers, temperance lectures, burlesque and Grand Opera, and a series of excellent dramatic entertainments. For a period, Columbus had access to Lyceum and Concert Halls. Both were said to have good acoustical properties, to have been well ventilated, and decorated for that day. Artists loved performing concerts in both venues.
1860 Temperance Hall program. The Columbus Museum purchase made possible by Thornton F. Jordan and Thornwill Farm, Harris County, Ga.
The corner stone was soon laid for a new theater, Temperance Hall, December 22, 1849, with all the Columbus civic organizations taking part. Located on First Avenue between 12th and 13th Streets, it served as a major theater until the Civil War. When constructed, the theater cost $7,000. It was 100 feet long and three stories tall. It provided an assembly room on the second-floor large enough to hold 2,000 people. It was formally dedicated on January 8, 1851. On that occasion, the great apostle of temperance, Dr. Dabney Jones, paid tribute to the female half of the assembled magnitude saying how he wished women had the right to vote – which wouldn’t happen until 1920. From 1851 to some period after the Civil War in this town of 7,000 people, theater goers were patronizing Lyceum Hall, Concert Hall, and Temperance Hall. Fire damage in 1856 prompted talk of converting the large First Avenue structure into use as a factory or a church and of the construction of a proper opera house. Nothing came of it though, due most probably to the early warnings of war. Instead, Temperance Hall continued to operate. Opera troupes, Chinese jugglers, ventriloquists, minstrel shows, and a steady stream of concerts and plays by professional and amateur groups served the double purpose of raising money for soldiers and acting as safety valves to relieve the high pressure of war.
On November 19, 1866, city council member John McIlhenny offered a resolution establishing a public school system for white children. McIlhenny came to Columbus in 1857 from Philadelphia to start the Gas Light Company. In March 1871, city council appropriated $750 to create four three-month schools for African Americans. Unlike other southern cities during Reconstruction, Columbus’ school board hired Black teachers. Temperance Hall served as the first public school for African Americans when the city provided educational facilities in 1872. It was a rented building and proved unsatisfactory. In June 1875, the School Board purchased the African Methodist Church building on 6th Avenue to be used for school purposes. (***Editor's Note: The Claflin School was built soon after the Civil War and financed with private funds from seventy-one local African American families and $6,500 in federal funding. Claflin was owned by the Freedman’s Bureau until purchased by the School Board in 1880.)
The circled building is Temperance Hall.
Though each had points of great improvement over its predecessor, no single one of the six "theaters" that citizens of Columbus patronized from 1828 to 1871 could rise completely above the word "primitive." Consequently, the quality of the shows presented in these must have, on occasion, outweighed the standard of their physical surroundings.
Next Week: Next Thursday, we will highlight musical icon Blind Tom. Thank you all again for your continued interest in these emails and for your support of preservation! See you next week!