On this date, August 27, 1863, John T. Ford reopened his namesake theater in Washington, D.C. About 8 months earlier, Ford’s Theatre had suffered a terrible fire that had completely gutted the original building. Despite the difficulties of raising funds in the midst of the Civil War, Ford was determined not to give up on his D.C. location and decided to rebuild. But rather than just rebuilding the theater to what it was previously, Ford wanted the new iteration of his theater to be even better than before. This was relatively easy to do since the first version of Ford’s Theatre was a remodeled Baptist church building. Functional enough for the role of a theater, but it had not been designed for the part. Ford spared no expense on his new custom theater, selling stock certificates like the one below to help raise the over $75,000 he needed to rebuild his dream.
The architect of the new theater was James J. Gifford, the same man who had constructed the Booth family home of Tudor Hall back in the early 1850s. There were many delays with construction due to issues with the foundation and a shortage of bricks in wartime Washington. When the building did open on this day, the exterior was still a bit incomplete. The interior, however, was finished and well designed for the viewing public. The acoustics had been improved so that each seat allowed for the best hearing of the actors on stage. The new theater had updated ventilation to help bring in fresh air and the interior ceiling was beautifully painted, resembling a dome. The expanded theater bore three different levels of seats. The main floor and second floor balcony both had moveable wooden chairs with cane seats, while the third level, dubbed the family circle, contained long wooden benches. In all the theater could hold approximately 2,500 patrons. For reference, Ford’s Theatre only has 665 seats today so those 2,500 patrons would have really been squished in there by modern standards (and fire codes).
Photograph taken of the interior of Ford’s Theatre after the assassination showing the President’s box and the three audience tiers.
When the doors opened on this day for the debut performance inside Ford’s New Theatre, the public was enraptured. John T. Ford had gone all out for his grand re-opening. The piece performed was a play called The Naiad Queen, which was more a grand spectacle than a traditional play. The sets were large and beautifully decorated. There were gorgeously painted backdrops. The costumes were lavish and glittery and the performance contained lively music throughout. Think the Disney movie, Fantasia, and you’ll have a sense of what Ford decided to start off with. It really was the perfect show to draw people and in and make them admire this brand new temple to the arts.
Yet, before all that “dazzling splendor of effect” took place, Ford arranged for the evening to begin with the reading of a dramatic poem to christen this new theater. The poem was written by Thomas Seaton Donoho, a local D.C. journalist and poet.
While it was originally expected that the poem would be read by one of the ladies of the cast, it was eventually decided the honor of reciting the first words on the brand new stage would go to actor James A. Herne, one of the promising newcomers to Ford’s company. While parts of the poem, especially its opening lines, can be found in newspaper articles covering the grand opening and elsewhere, as far as I can tell, the full poem has never been transcribed before. An original, handwritten copy of the entire Donoho poem is held in the John T. Ford Papers at the Library of Congress – which I photographed a few years ago. For the anniversary of Ford’s reopening, I thought I’d provide the full poem below. As you read it, take note of the part where Donoho references some of the great actors who graced the D.C. stages in the past, and the great performances that are still to come in this new theater. You’ll see a familiar name.
For the Opening of Ford’s Theatre, Washinton
August ___, 1863
Spoken by Miss ____ ______.
As from the ashes Cinderella rose,
Rise we, all radiant from our night of woes,
That starry night, which, suddenly, became
Black with vast clouds and terrible with flame;
And you, dear Friends, and we who tread the boards,
Gave one long sigh, and said: “Farewell to Ford’s!”
“Farewell to Ford’s” – and welcome Ford’s again:
A nobler Palace for the Muses’ reign!
May Beauty’s smile, and Man’s approval, grace,
And happier fortune crown, our brave new place!
“New Place!” The term came surely not by chance:
It bears an omen of significance;
For Shakespeare thus his home at Stratford named:
And our New Place, for his sake, shall be famed!
Shakespeare! That magic name we ever speak
With love on lip, joy on the kindling cheek,
Pride in the eye, and wonder on the brow:
What may the Past, what may the boastful Now,
Inscribe above it? To our fathers’ Isle,
From this wild shore, there was a chain erewhile,
And Shakespeare was our brother. That Debate
Which broke the chain, and formed our Starry State,
Even among its awful questions, gave
Grandeur to this: “Our liberty we save –
Our home – but lose our Shakespeare!” Was he lost?
No! in our hearts, however tempest-tost,
We bore him, till the storm awoke no more,
Then said: “We were a few, who loved before –
Lo! a New World, to love thee, gentle brother,
With a full reverence, loyal as the other
So the chain binds us yet, in war’s despite,
A stronger chain, electric, golden, bright:
And we, the living forms of Shakespeare’s dream,
Touched by his wand, become things we seem.
We seek his very depths, else seldom sought,
And are the active Ariels of his thought,
Proud, while the wanderings of his worth we trace,
To lure, delight, instruct the human race!
All joys that cheer, all griefs that storm, the heart,
Find on the Stage their careful counterpart.
All nations walk on this enchanted ground,
All ages move in this mysterious round.
Time’s breathing panorama is unrolled
To music, and its wondrous history told,
With such impressiveness, that printed book,
Painting on wall, or statue in its nook,
Fades into air: for we, at once, maintain
Dominion o’er the eyes, ears, heart and brain!
Is there, to-night, amid our goodly show,
One who remembers, many years ago,
The Stage, in Washington? There is, no doubt:
Guide me, O Fortune! Till I find him out!
Surely I see him there – and there – and there:
I know him by the thoughts his eyes declare –
Those restless eyes, that glance from roof to floor,
Box to Parquette, and o’er, and o’er, and o’er!
What visions rise and flit along his mind!
The Present dazzling so, he scarce can find
The pictures of the Past – and yet the Past
To him was dear, and shall be, to the last!
What though the old-time Theatre was small,
And long-wick’d candles dozed on stage and wall –
Those sombre meteors, duly snuffed, between
The falling curtain and the opening scene:
What though the rival pit and gallery strove,
As once the gods with “cloud-compelling love:”
Yet, on that dim stage, Falstaff Warren strode,
Called for his “sack”, and, bullying, “took the road:”
Here, Jefferson, the genial, good old man,
Raised mirth so high that all to tears it ran:
Here, Booth, swift darting from his haunted tent,
His soul’s mad terror to our own souls sent:
Then Forrest, in his early glow of fame,
Armed cap-à-pé, at once a conqueror came,
And still to conquer: Charlotte Cushman, then,
Appeared – not walked – within the witch’s glen;
So startling, every motion, look and tone,
We saw, we heard Meg Merrilies alone!
Such are your thoughts, dear friend of other days:
The Past deserved, and shall receive, our praise,
Even as your own; but glory lingers yet,
Though the long triumph of the sun be set.
Forrest and Cushman still resplendent shine:
For them may happy years their chaplets twine!
Your grand King Richard, true, has ceased to reign:
His sons survive – he lives in them again!
While Hacket, valorous Falstaff, fat and witty,
Like Warren walks, and shakes your ponderous City!
These come, and many – far beyond my rhymes –
To make the present, soon, “the good old times!”
But I forget: – We have a play, to-night.
All who are here, low bending, we invite
To see it through: To all whom you may bring
Hereafter, will we say – some equal thing,
And do, whatever of the best we may,
To win your favor for ourselves and play!
Now – and herewith our small oration ends –
Long Live the Drama, and the Drama’s Friends!
Thomas S. Donoho
Did you catch the references I mentioned? In stanza 8, Donoho writes, “Here, Booth, swift darting from his haunted tent, His soul’s mad terror to our own souls sent”. This line is about the acting of Junius Brutus Booth, Sr., in the role of Richard III. The elder Booth was known for his authentically terrifying portrayals of Richard and the way in which he embodied the mad king. Donoho recalls that some of the legends still remain but Junius Brutus Booth is not one of them, he having died in 1852. However, the loss of Junius does not mean the end of his dynastic power. As Donoho writes in stanza 9, “Your grand King Richard, true, has ceased to reign: His sons survive – he lives in them again!” The sons of “King Richard” are Junius’ three sons who followed him into acting and carry on his spark. While Junius, Jr. was a decent actor, he never really took to the part of Richard III. Edwin, too, was far better suited for the brooding Hamlet and only received modest praise for his attempts at the Duke of Gloucester. In truth, the only Booth son whose Richard III emulated his father’s was John Wilkes Booth. Wilkes played Richard III more often than any other character during his career for a total of 114 times during his four years as a star performer. While the different talents of Junius, Sr. were spread amongst all of his children, Wilkes was the only true successor to his father’s Richard.
I find it a strange twist of fate that John Wilkes Booth is obliquely referenced in the first words spoken on the stage of the restored Ford’s Theatre. In Dec. of 1862, Ford’s had suffered a disaster that nearly destroyed everything. And here, when the building finally reopened, the first speech uttered on stage references the man who will cause them (and the entire country) another disaster.
The first time a fire struck, it took eight months for John T. Ford to pick up the burned pieces of his theater and rebuild. After the inferno that is John Wilkes Booth burns itself out, however, it will take decades for the country to rebuild and Ford’s Theatre won’t see another play performed on its stage for almost 103 years.