Impresario built 'temple of the drama' Theater: Ford's Opera House, opened in Baltimore in 1871, earned a solid reputation with its Shakespearean productions and became a venue for pre-Broadway tryouts.

Way Back When

December 12, 1998|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's famed and much-lamented Ford's Theater, torn down in 1964 for yet another downtown parking garage, had its birth in tragedy.

In 1869, four years after Abraham Lincoln's assassination there, the U.S. government ordered the closing of Ford's Theater in Washington.

So theatrical impresario John T. Ford, a Baltimore native, returned to the city and built Ford's Opera House at Eutaw and Fayette streets.

Ford's was hailed as a "temple of the drama," when it opened in 1871 with a production of Shakespeare's "As You Like It."

The three-story building, constructed with pressed brick, painted white, and topped by a mansard roof, was considered "a very great improvement to that portion of the city in which it is erected," contemporary newspaper accounts reported.

Through the ensuing years, the theater earned a solid reputation for its Shakespearean productions. Gilbert and Sullivan's "H.M.S. Pinafore" made its American debut before its flickering footlights, as did actress Helen Hayes in 1921.

"The hall echoed with the voices of Lily Langtry, Mrs. Leslie Carter, Fanny Davenport, James O'Neill, father of Eugene O'Neill, and untold hundreds of other thespians.

And politicians were known to drop by now and then, too. Horace 'Go West, Young Man, Go West' Greeley was nominated here for president in 1872," said the Sunday Sun Magazine in a 1989 article.

In 1964, The Sun recalled, "Almost every theatrical star from the last century has played there, from James W. Wallack and Maude Adams to Katharine Cornell, and the building has gained a reputation for everything from cats on stage to deer in the balcony and bats in the dressing rooms.

"Numerous minstrel shows, the appearances of Thurston the magician, Robert Mantell's traveling Shakespeare Players, the beauty of Lily Langtry and the talents of Mrs. Minnie Maddern Fiske" always guaranteed a full house, The Sun said.

Baltimore, which developed an excellent reputation as a tryout town for Broadway-bound productions, was such a talisman to David Belasco, the "Bishop of Broadway," that he refused to open his productions anywhere else.

Gradually, however, theater attendance declined here. In Cole Porter's musical "Kiss Me Kate," which takes place at Ford's, there is a reference to the city's meager audiences of later years.

"You know Baltimore," said one of the actors. "Deer running around in the balcony."

Not everyone was sorry to see the old theater go when it closed in 1964, after a final performance of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," its final presentation.

As the great curtain fell, there were jokes about it not having been dry-cleaned in years. The audience rose and sang "Auld Lang Syne."

Charles Dickinson, a Baltimore theatergoer, reminded a Sun reporter that the theater dated to the Civil War period.

"From the looks of its interior," he said, "one can image that the first battle of Manassas might have been fought in its aisles."

"I feel at home at Ford's," said G.H. Pouder, who had been a regular since early in the century.

In a farewell editorial, The Sun said that Ford's was often "unequaled as the place for a night out with one's spouse or sweetheart -- that Ford's, sure to be known favorably to future theater historians, is the theater most Baltimoreans will go on seeing for a long time to come, whenever the curtains of memory are raised and the recollective spotlights go up anew."

As for its builder, upon his death in 1894, The Sun noted that the news "will be received with sincere regret not only in Baltimore, where his name has long been as familiar as a household word, but by many thousands of people in every section of the country.

"For there is probably not a State or Territory in the Union in which he was not personally or professionally known by a larger or smaller circle of people who treasure grateful memories of the man who for so many years ministered to the public instruction and entertainment."

Pub Date: 12/12/98

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