Footlights and Curtain Calls: Theater Since the 1800's

By Robin L. Wallace
Special Collections Assistant

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Viola Allen was one of the many famous turn of the century actresses who graced Louisville with her talents.  She had her first stage performance at the age of 14 and later acted in silent films.The development of the arts is indicative of a city’s cultural advancement and economic progress. Kentucky has a venerable theatre history, spanning back to the performances in the temporary frontier play houses of the late eighteenth century, and including the present day masterpieces presented at Actors Theatre and the Kentucky Center for the Arts. 

Louisville’s earliest theater, The City Theater, appeared in 1808 before the first church had even been built. By the turn of the century, Kentucky’s theaters had played host to the most famous thespians of the day and were rapidly competing for audience members. The Italianate and Beaux Arts gems were thronged with theater goers eager to see such performers as the renowned Booth family, and singer and actress Lillian Russell. 

The Macauley Theatre's last audience during the closing performance of The Naughty Wife on August 29, 1925. The Filson Historical Society’s theater holdings offer a fascinating look at Louisville’s past via the footlights and curtain calls of the stage. From humble high school productions to the elegant venue of Macauley’s Theatre, our collection preserves the performances of local amateurs and revered stars, such as Louisville’s own Mary Anderson and the famed Madame Modjeska. Collections of ephemera like this one are valuable records of a city’s lesser-known stories that can easily be lost in the annals of time. Not only are Louisville’s theaters and thespians represented, our theater collection also gives us a glimpse of our city’s residents and their milieu preserved through advertisements, articles and reviews. 

The Filson’s theater program collection has recently been reorganized for easier perusal and encompasses over 90 boxes of loose programs and scrapbooks housed in The Filson Library. It spans back to the early nineteenth century when Louisville was experiencing its first influx of dramatic artists and includes handbills from the turn of the century theater boom and Viola Allen and Benjamin Howard acting out a passionate scene from In the Palace of the King. programs documenting the rise of the motion picture house. In addition to the vast array of Louisville programs, the collection also contains programs from various cities throughout Kentucky and a selection of other states and countries. Among the venues represented are those well known to Louisvillians of today: Actors Theatre of Louisville, Iroquois Amphitheater, Macauley’s Theatre and Memorial Auditorium. However, many programs in our collection provide evidence of theaters demolished or forgotten, such as the Liederkranz Hall, the Avenue Theater, the Masonic Temple Theater, and the Amphitheater Auditorium. Also included are school recitals, church pageants, drama societies and performances given before local social clubs, such as the Wednesday Morning Music Club. The library collection also houses a series of books by John Jacob Wiseart which are invaluable to anyone wishing to research Louisville theater history. Wiseart has provided checklists of performances for Samuel Drake’s City Theater, Macauley’s Theatre, the Louisville Theater, and Mozart Hall. 

Our theater holdings extend to the Special Collections department, as well, where one may find broadsides of coming attractions, accounts of performances in the personal papers of local residents andIn the Palace of the King was performed in Louisville in 1900.  Programs such as this one are indicative of the elegance and artistry of this period in theatre history. photographs and prints of local theaters and actors. 

One such gem is the Heineman Theatrical Collection from the early twentieth century. This 86 item collection includes photographs from various plays and portraits of actors and actresses, many of whom appeared at Macauley’s Theatre in Louisville, such as Maud Adams, George Arliss, Billie Burke and Fay Templeton. 

Exploring each facet of The Filson theater collection reveals a vibrant and fascinating picture of Louisville’s past and the part it played in this country’s burgeoning theater arts scene. This by-gone era of elegant stages and scintillating performances laid the foundation for the thriving theatrical community that graces our city today, and reveals not only a great deal about Louisville’s theater history, but about the people who patronized these venues.



Volume 6, Number 4

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The Filson Historical Society
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