Washingtonians at Play
Unchanging pastimes in a changing dc
Lincoln Theatre Program, October 27, 1925
Theater is a form of public transportation, whisking an audience from ordinary life to magical new realms. African-American audiences were treated to just such an experience in 1925 when opera virtuoso Lillian Evanti performed at the Lincoln Theatre on U Street. Evanti, a D.C. native, had recently returned from her debut abroad as the first African-American to sing with a major European opera company. This theater program traces the journey audiences took that night, from the traditional spirituals of the past to the opera Evanti belted in her triumphant moment in France.
"The Stage," August 23, 1886
The logistics of hosting an audience is no small thing, especially when there is no air conditioning. This 1886 issue of The Stage, a publication of Albaugh’s Grand Opera House, bills the theater as the nation’s coolest and most comfortable, promises ice water in the lobby, and encourages ladies to walk between acts. Despite the challenges, a perk of these public gatherings was the opportunity to disseminate news of the day. This issue of The Stage teems with ads for the latest fashions and gizmos, while the “Footlight Flashes” on page 3 announce everything from death-report corrections to the – alleged – benefits of cocaine.
Lafayette Square Opera House Box Office Statement, December 14, 1901
The Lafayette Square Opera House, built in 1895, was designed to lure audiences. The lavish 1,800-seat theater included a polished granite entrance, marble staircases, steam heat, electric lights, a barbershop and Turkish baths. Filling the theater, however, was another matter. The play “Dancing Girl” – about a Quaker woman seduced by big city vice – had filled both the lower floor and balcony in its 1901 Lafayette Square debut, newspapers reported. But this box office statement from a performance five days later shows that a scandalous morality tale is no match against raindrops and stiff competition. Alas, the theater business, like its product, is prone to dramatic turns.
The Belasco Theatre and Lafayette Statue
After its first decade, the Lafayette Square Opera House was sold to theater impresarios David Belasco and the Shubert brothers. Renamed the Belasco Theatre, it continued hosting live shows and was briefly converted to a movie house in the 1930s. In 1940, the theater was sold to the federal government for use as a warehouse and a USO canteen. Artist Lily Spandorf captured the twilight years of the old theater as part of her painting series “Washington Never More,” an effort to capture Washington’s vanishing architecture. This watercolor image represents a last glimpse of the Belasco before it was razed in 1964.