Title: Brooklyniana, No. 8
Creator: Walt Whitman
Date: January 25, 1862
Publication information: Brooklyn Standard 25 January 1862: .
Source: The Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Our transcription is based on a digital image of an original issue. Gaps from damage to the original have been supplied by consulting Emory Holloway, ed. The Uncollected Poetry and Prose of Walt Whitman, 2 vols. New York: Doubleday, 1921. pp. 253–257.
Whitman Archive ID: per.00224
Contributors to digital file: Brett Barney, Janel Cayer, Ashley Lawson, Liz McClurg, Sarah Walker, Jason Stacy, and Sarah Gentile
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A Series of Local Articles, on Past and Present.
Now that we have our magnificent Academy of Music, so beautiful outside and in, and on a scale commensurate with similar buildings, even in some of the largest and most polished capitals of Europe, it will not be amiss to recur to what our city has had, in former times, of theatres, and places of kindred amusement.1
The same neighborhood—indeed the very locality—occupied by this temple of Italian song has many a time, in former years, been covered over with the circus-tent, barricaded with big baggage-wagons and iron-grated cages of animals belonging to some perambulating "show." These circus exhibitions, by the way, have always been a sure card in Brooklyn. The proprietors have repeatedly told us that they have always relied on making up for slim attendance elsewhere by "full houses" here—and have never been disappointed.
Probably very few of the readers who peruse these lines will be aware that we had a very handsome and respectable theatre put up in Brooklyn as early as 1828. Yet such is the case; and it would not have made a discreditable show, even for the requirements of the present time. It was a large and neat wooden edifice, and stood on the east side of Fulton street, immediately below Concord. It was so arranged in its interior that it could be changed in a few moments from a theatrical stage into accommodations for a circus, or vice versa. It had three tiers of boxes, and was about as large and convenient as the "old Richmond Hill," the play-house which stood, and was popular some years ago in Varick street, New York.
For some reason or other, however, the Brooklyn theatre we speak of never "took" very well. There were performances there, but with long intervals between; one or two attempts being made to get up rather showy "horse spectacles," of the style of "Timour the Tartar," &c., but they were received with chilliness by the Brooklyn public of those times. The corps of actors and actresses were of a very inferior order; and consequently the more educated families of our town avoided the place on play-nights. It therefore soon became resigned to audiences of a third-rate description at very cheap prices, and thus declined and died.
The edifice, not paying for the purposes originally contemplated, was transformed into a small row of neat dwelling-houses, and thus occupied for some years—when the big Brooklyn fire occured in 1848, and destroyed that row amongst much other property.
No theatre was established in Brooklyn, after this failure, till the sometime popular Brooklyn Museum was put up at the corner of Orange and Fulton streets, a few years ago, by Mr. John E. Cammeyer.2 It is but justice to say that while they lasted the performances of this second Thespian establishment were of a very excellent character, being all in the range of "the legitimate drama." The company was really a good one, though small; and two or three of the performers were of superior talent and national reputation. The attendance, for a while, was up to the paying point, and at one time, it was thought we were going to have the theatre as "a permanency" in our city. But by degrees the fickle favor of the public cooled; the audiences declined—New York perhaps offered greater inducements—and the consequence was, Manager Lovell3 and his talented wife had to shut up shop.
Since then, nothing has occurred till the establishment of our noble Academy—which has already commenced giving regular stage performances.
What did we have, for our amusements, previous to these theatres, and during the blanks, generally long drawn out, when they held not their revels? Well, a variety of ways of passing the time presented themselveas that would now be voted decidedly slow, but "did" for the Brooklyn of those days. There were the churches, especially the Methodist ones, with their frequent "revivals." These last occurences drew out all the young fellows, who attended with demure faces but always on the watch for deviltry. Then we had various sorts of "celebrations"—sometimes of the Sunday Schools, sometimes the regular educational establishments, sometimes of an anniversary of one kind or another. Of course we came out great on a Fourth of July celebration. This was always an affair to be carefully seen to and planned deliberately—and the "oration" was something talked of both beforehand and long afterward. Great were the jealousies and heartburnings among the young lawyers over the preference and selection to this important post, namely, that of orator to the annual Fourth of July celebration. It created as much buzz and electioneering by-play, on a small scale, as among the cardinals in Rome, when the Pope's chair is vacant, the choice for his successor. Next to the orator was the lucky individual who should be selected to "read the Declaration of Independence." Next again to him was the "Grand Marshal," of whose responsibilities, and the dignity of whose position, words are hardly immense enough to make out the statement.
Sometimes there was quite a godsend. Some distinguished person, for instance, would visit New York, and then it would go hard with us if we did not get him over to Brooklyn. Perhaps it would be the President of the United States. Once it was no less a personage than the great and good Lafayette.4 This was on the 4th of July, 1825. The writer of these veracious pen-jottings remembers the whole occasion and scene with perfect distinctness, although he was then only a little boy in his seventh year.
The day was a very pleasant one. The whole village, with all its population, old and young, gentle and simple, turned out en-masse. The principal regular feature of the show was, (for want of any military,) the marshalling into two parallel lines, with a space of twenty feet between them, of all the boys and girls of Brooklyn. These two lines, facing inward, made a lane, through which Lafayette rode slowly in a carriage. It was an old-fashioned yellow coach; and, indeed, the whole proceeding was of an ancient primitive kind, very staid, without any cheering, but then a plentiful waving of white pocket handkerchiefs from the ladies. The two lines of boys and girls ranged from Fulton Ferry landing along up to Henry street. As our readers will understand, it was something very different from such a turnout of modern date, as that which welcomed the Prince of Wales or the Japanese Ambassadors, or president Lincoln last Spring.5 Still, as near as we can remember, it must have had an air of simplicity, naturalness and freedom from ostentation or clap-trap—and was not without a smack of antique grandeur too. For there were quite a number of "old revolutionaries" on the ground, and along the line of march; and their bent forms and white hair gave a picturesque contrast to the blooming faces of the boys and girls to be seen in all directions in such numbers. The sentiment of the occasion, moreover, made up in quality and in solemnity what was wanting in spangles, epaulettes, policemen, and brass bands—not the first sign of any of which graced the occasion.
Lafayette rode to the corner of Cranberry and Henry streets, where he laid the corner stone of the Apprentices Library Building, (now superseded by the Brooklyn Armory.) From there he was driven a pleasant route along the Heights, (Clover Hill), and so to a collation, if we remember rightly to the Military Garden.
We shall have something further to say of this visit of Lafayette in a future article, giving a history of the old Apprentices Library.6
Such were some of the "events" of those former times in Brooklyn. There were not wanting, during the winter nights for any who enjoyed them, livelier "frolics," balls, sleigh rides, (we had good sleighing almost every winter then), parties, lectures, concerts, and various itinerant shows; to say nothing of the always popular "singing school"—now quite among the things that were, but are not.
Upon the whole, we guess people, old and young, of six or seven lustrums gone, had just as good a time without our more modern excitements and amusements as we do now with them.
1. The Brooklyn Academy of Music opened its doors in 1861 on 176–194 Montague Street, just a year before Whitman wrote this article. Built before the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883 and the consolidation of Brooklyn and New York in 1898, the Brooklyn Academy of Music brought culture to Brooklyn residents. Originally designed for the presentation of classical music and opera, it hosted the virtuoso musicians of the time. Many notable names in American theatre also graced its stage, including Edwin Booth and Eleonore Duse, as well as important writers and political figures such as Mark Twain and Frederick Douglass. Though the original building was destroyed by fire in 1903, the Academy reopened to great fanfare at a new location on Lafayette Avenue in 1908. (See "Brooklyn News," New York Times, January 5, 1861, and "Brooklyn Academy Cornerstone Laid," New York Times, May 26, 1907.) [back]
2. John E. Cammeyer was the proprietor of a tanning yard in New York. [back]
3. H. V. Lovell, who was also an actor, took over the Brooklyn Museum in 1850 with another manager, a man named King. The Brooklyn Museum was closed in January 1851. [back]
4. The Marquis de Lafayette was a Frenchman who fought in the American Revolution. The event to which Whitman refers is Lafayette's farewell tour of the United States in 1824–1825. Whitman gives another description of Lafayette's visit to Brooklyn in his article "Brooklyniana No. 15" (March 15, 1862). Also, for more on Whitman's perception of this event, see David S. Reynolds, Walt Whitman's America (New York: Knopf, 1995), 33–34. [back]
5. The Prince of Wales visited New York in October 1860. The Japanese ambassadors visited in May and June 1860. [back]