Today, standing on Church Street and looking directly towards the storied Dock Street Theater, the eye catching wrought iron balcony and sandstone columns gracing its facade immediately captures your imagination. The theater is by far Charleston's most remembered, not because it was the City's only theater, but simply because its appellation has survived Charleston's tumultuous history of confrontation, conflagration, and cataclysm. Its cycle of existence reminds me of the Bible passage at Revelation 17:8, which in part reads, "...and they that dwell on the earth shall wonder...when they behold the beast that was, and is not, and yet is." The Dock Street Theater opened on February 12, 1736--"was", went out of existence in the Great Fire of 1740 and was replaced with the Planter's Hotel--"and is not", and finally returned as the Dock Street Theater on November 26, 1937--"and yet is."
During the time the Dock Street Theater was not, hidden in the shadows of time and lesser known by most people today, there existed two celebrated theaters housed in architecturally impressive structures. The Broad Street Theatre, also called Charleston Theatre, was built at the corner of Broad Street and Middleton Street (now New Street). The New Theater was constructed on Meeting Street.
The Broad Street Theatre was designed by James Hoban (best known as the architect of the White House in Washington). The masonry playhouse was built by contractor Capt. Anthony Toomer. As reported by the City Gazette on August 14, 1792, "the ground was laid off for the new theatre, on Savage's Green. …125 feet in length, the width 56 feet, the height 37 feet, with a handsome pediment, stone ornaments, a large flight of stone steps, and a palisaded courtyard. The front will be on Broad Street, and the pit entrance on Middleton Street. Owned by West and Bignall, the theater seated 1,200 people. It opened February 1793.
Soon after the Broad Street Theatre opened, Santo Domingan refugee John Sollée built a French-language theater on Church Street. Competition between the two theaters was fierce, and heightened by conflicting political alliances after France declared war on Great Britain in February 1793. While the wealthy elite patronized Shakespearean productions on Broad Street, supporters of the Jacobin revolutionaries flocked to the comedies, acrobatics, and light opera presented at the French Theater. After the 1795-96 season, it was effectively out of business.
While the Broad Street Theatre remained closed, the French and English theater companies merged during the spring of 1796 and through the summer of that year performed at a Church Street theater under the name of "City Theatre." Then, in the spring of 1800, the parties cooperated to open both playhouses. The re-opened Broad Street venue would present drama and the Church Street venue music, acrobatics, and ballet. Sollée then renovated his Church Street property as a music hall and ballroom, known for years as "Concert Hall." After 1800, the Broad Street theater was Charleston's only playhouse, and generally referred to as The Theatre.
The theater closed when the War of 1812 broke out, reopening in the autumn of 1815 under the management of English actor Joseph Holman. Junius Brutus Booth performed two engagements in the winter of 1821-22. On February 20, 1826, the City Gazette advised its readers that a "New Portico" would be erected at the expense of Mrs. Gilbert to induce attendance. Within a few years, the portico had been added to the Broad Street facade.
|Broad Street Theatre became Medical College in 1833|
With the closing of the Broad Street theater, the city was without a proper theatrical venue. In early 1835, a group of businessmen led by Robert Witherspoon agreed to develop a new theater enterprise. They bought a lot on Meeting Street from the Grand Lodge of Ancient Free Masons of South Carolina, and organized "The Charleston New Theatre," as a joint-stock company.
The Charleston Courier, December 18, 1837 described the 1200-seat New Theatre as being two full stories in height above a raised basement, the stuccoed brick building had a massive Ionic portico, with four columns, above an arcaded base. The portico was accessible only from within the building; entry from Meeting Street was through the arcade level. Three main doors opened to the lobby/vestibule, which had a ticket office at one side, ladies withdrawing room at the other, and a corridor leading to the boxes and seating floor. Above the richly ornamented auditorium was a large dome, at its center a forty-eight lamp chandelier eight feet across.
The New Theatre opened on December 15, 1837 to a large audience. After Mr. Latham delivered a "poetical address" written for the occasion by William Gilmore Simms, theater manager William Abbott took the lead role in the play, The Honey Moon, supported by Miss Melton and Mrs. Herbert, who also sang an "afterpiece."
In March of 1838, Junius Booth was booked to make his first appearance in Charleston in more than a decade at the theater. His characterization of Sir Giles Overreach was declared by the Southern Patriot as being on the whole "the most thrilling piece of acting we have ever seen…" In May, 1840, the celebrated German ballerina Fanny Elssler, whose appearances in Baltimore and New York had caused riots among her adoring fans, danced at Charleston's theater.
Although Abbott left Charleston in 1841, a series of managers were relatively successful in running the theater for the next twenty years. In 1858 and 1859, Edwin Booth (son of Junius Booth and brother of John Wilkes Booth) played several engagements. He reenacted his father's great roles as Richelieu, Hamlet, Giles Overreach, and Othello. The New Theatre was also destroyed in the great fire of December 1861.
|The steps in the foreground was all that was left of the New Theatre after the 1861 fire and the Civil War.|
Not far from the Dock Street Theatre on Queen Street is the The Footlight Players. It was formally organized and incorporated in 1932. In 1934, the group purchased an old 1850 cotton warehouse that eventually became their permanent home. There are many other smaller venues located throughout Charleston--all producing quality entertainment.