AMERICAN THEATER | This Month in Theater History



‘The Ground Sisters’ by Tomson Highway. (Photo by Oostudio Photography)

November 1897 (125 years ago)

A poster advertising Harry Houdini and his wife Bess. (Photo by Liebler & Maass Lithograph 1895, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.)

Harry Houdini and his wife and stage partner, Bess, gathered a massive crowd in Garnett, Kansas, saying that through a live session they would solve a recent murder that had terrified the small town. On October 15, while Isaac Paul was away, an unknown assailant broke into the home he shared with his wife, Anne Paul, and stabbed her before ransacking the house. The citizens of Garnett were still nervous because the author had not yet been arrested. Harry and Bess Houdini arrived in Garnett as part of a traveling show troupe called Dr. Hill’s California Concert Company, after hearing about the grisly murder. Harry Houdini – the stage name of Hungarian-born Erik Weisz – had been performing as a magician since 1891 and until now had struggled to create a successful career. Shortly after their arrival, Harry and Bess began gathering extensive details about the town, visiting the cemetery and noting names, relationships, births and deaths, while the California Concert Company ran advertisements for a seance November 27 by Houdini. When the day arrived, the Grand Opera House was filled to the brim with a buzzing audience. Houdini and Bess further fueled the energy of the crowd through various small sessions, distributing messages from beyond the grave to individual residents who had recently lost a child or loved one. When the time came for the reveal of the great murderer, Bess, in a trance, began to physically describe the killer’s height and facial hair, but suddenly and shockingly broke down before providing the killer’s name. The crowd went wild. Ultimately, publicity for this event proved so successful that the California Concert Company added seánces to its roster of traveling shows, adding to Houdini’s fame.

November 1922 (100 years ago)

The exterior of the current Connor Palace Theater in Cleveland. (Photo by Thom Sheridan)

The Palace Theater opened in Cleveland with its first series of vaudeville shows: singer, silent film star and Ohio native Elsie Janis; the Cansino dancing family; and newcomer Grace Hayes performed alongside various other acts. The Palace, originally part of the Keith-Albee vaudeville circuit, was the last major theater to be formed Cleveland Playhouse Square, a cluster of five theaters located within a few blocks of each other that had opened within a few months, between February 1921 and November 1922. By the late 1960s, only one theater, the Hanna, remained open , all others having been closed. But from the late 1970s a massive restoration project on the square began, which has since reopened all the original theaters and added more venues, making Cleveland Playhouse Square one of the largest performing arts centers in the United States. The Palace Theater reopened in 1988 and was renamed the Connor Palace in 2014.

November 1947 (75 years ago)

Cover of the set program for the aisle’s first production, “A Sound of Hunting”. (Photo from Nina Vance Alley Theater Papers, University of Houston Libraries Special Collections)
Nina Vance and one of 214 postcards she sent to other artists and potential sponsors to generate interest in a new theater. (Photo from the Houston 100)

Harry Brown’s War Room A sound of hunting was performed to a packed house in a building in Houston, Texas, marking the first production by a theater company called The alley theater. Nina Vance, a former high school drama teacher, birthed the theater from an idea and 214 postcards sent to various locals asking if they would be interested in building a new local theater. When nearly half of the postcard recipients responded, Nina Vance knew there was a way forward for her business. In the early days of the theater, theater members paid 10 cents for voting membership, which gave the theater a broad base and literal community membership. Eventually, the theater would become a full-time Equity house. In 1980, Nina Vance died after a period of ill health, but her theater lives on and has become one of the oldest and most prestigious regional theaters in the United States.

November 1987 (35 years ago)

After a short, acclaimed tour in Winnipeg, Canada, Tomson Highway’s play The Rez Sisters open in Toronto factory theater in November. Tomson, a Cree playwright from Manitoba, crafted a play that weaved the complex lives of First Nations women with Indigenous spirituality and symbolism, in this Toronto Star critic Henry Mietkiewicz describes it as “one of Toronto’s most touching, exuberant, cleverly crafted and haunting plays”. The Rez Sisters follows seven sisters as they embark on a journey from their reservation on Manitoulin Island, Ontario, to Toronto to take part in “the world’s biggest bingo”. Their journey forces them to confront a story of lost love, abuse and marginalization. The tour was populated with a stellar rotating crew of First Nations people, including Spiderwoman Theater Company founders Muriel and Gloria Miguel. The play would go on to win various regional new play awards from Tomson Highway. In November 2011, Factory Theater relaunched The Rez Sistersin a production directed by Ken Gass.

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