Each week we are highlighting the final resting place of someone related to the Lincoln assassination story. It may be the grave of someone whose name looms large in assassination literature, like a conspirator, or the grave of one of the many minor characters who crossed paths with history. Welcome to Grave Thursday.
The Montgomery Theatre
Burial Location: 39 S Perry St, Montgomery, Alabama
Connection the the Lincoln Assassination:
For this week’s Grave Thursday we are dealing with the death of a place, rather than a person. The place is the old Montgomery Theatre in Montgomery, Alabama which is currently in the final phases of demolition.
In the fall of 1859, Colonel Charles T. Pollard, president of the Montgomery and West Point Railroad, commissioned the construction of a new theater in Montgomery, Alabama. The brick contractor was B. F. Randolph who used his female slaves as the laborers for the theater’s masonry and plastering. By October of 1860, the large and stately Montgomery Theatre was completed. The first lessee and manager of the theater was Matthew Canning, who opened the theater with his troupe of actors on October 22, 1860.
22 year-old John Wilkes Booth was part of Matthew Canning’s troupe of actors. Booth’s tour with Canning was his first as a star performer. Prior to this he had been learning his craft in Philadelphia and Richmond. Attempting to succeed on his own talents rather than his prestigious family name, he had been and was continuing to be billed “J. B. Wilkes” or “John Wilkes”.
When the Canning troupe presented the grand opening performance of the show, School for Scandal, at the Montgomery Theatre, John Wilkes Booth was not present. Ten days earlier, when the troupe had been in Columbus, Georgia, Booth had suffered an accidental gunshot wound to his thigh. Though stories differ, the most reliable account holds that Booth and Canning were attempting to clean a pistol when the weapon accidentally discharged. This gunshot wound ended Booth’s performances in Columbus and caused him to sit out most of his starring performances in Montgomery as well.
John Wilkes Booth finally made his debut at the Montgomery Theatre on Monday, October 29, 1860, when he performed as Pescara in The Apostate. He would perform for the rest of the week before closing his engagement to recuperate further. John Wilkes Booth was resting in Montgomery, Alabama when Abraham Lincoln was elected the 16th President of the United States on November 6, 1860.
On November 16, Booth returned to the stage of the Montgomery Theatre in a benefit performance for his fellow actor, Kate Bateman. Booth played Romeo to Bateman’s Juliet.
The troupe’s final day at the Montgomery Theatre was on December 1, 1860 in a benefit performance for Booth himself. Booth performed in a two act play called Rafaelle, the Reprobate, and then his fellow actor, Maggie Mitchell, performed in Katy O’Sheal. The evening was ended with Booth performing the titular character in the fifth act of Shakespeare’s Richard III. This performance marked the end of Booth’s engagement in Montgomery but it also marked a new beginning for the young actor. It was on the stage at the Montgomery Theatre that John Wilkes Booth reclaimed his true name and was billed as J. Wilkes Booth. From this day onward, the actor would always use his true name.
John Wilkes Booth would never return to Montgomery, but the beautiful theater he helped to christen would continue to operate for many years. Edwin Booth would perform on the same stage in 1876, 1882, and 1888 along with countless other luminaries of the stage.
After 47 years of operation, the Montgomery Theatre was closed on November 13, 1907 when a newer, grander theater was opened in the city. The old theater’s interior was remodeled into a department store but the outside retained its original construction. The Webber department store lasted until the 1990’s when it finally closed. After a few years the building was bought by a foundation which paid almost half a million dollars to replace the roof. In 2010, the foundation sold the building to a developer who planned to restore the structure and create retail and housing space within the interior. Unfortunately while work was being done to restore the building in June of 2014, the structure suffered a partial collapse.
Though the hope was that the restoration would continue, the owner of the building didn’t have the funds to continue after the collapse. The ownership of the building reverted to the city of Montgomery in December of 2014. The city valiantly made efforts to find a buyer willing and financially able to restore the structure, offering to sell structure for $1 to any developers who would restore it. In the end, however, the city could not find a buyer with the means to restore the building. The property was sold off and slated for demolition which began in late 2016. Here is how the building looked on March 30th of this year:
Though the Montgomery Theatre building could not be saved, deconstruction of the building has been slow to allow for the salvage of some of the structure’s cast iron, bricks, and masonry pieces. Some of the windows of the theater are also being saved and will be given to the local historical society.
Despite the loss of the Montgomery Theatre building, the history of the site will not be lost. There is a historic marker that will be returned once construction on the site is completed. In addition, the company that is redeveloping the property has vowed to, “include a plaza and information to recognize the building’s history.”
I want to close this post with the words of an old time Montgomery resident by the name of Frank P. O’Brien. O’Brien was present the night the Montgomery Theatre opened in 1860. When the theatre closed in 1907 he gave his reminiscences of the many plays and actors that had graced its stage. At the end of the article, O’Brien stated the following words, which are very fitting today:
“Wednesday night, November thirteenth, the curtain was ‘rung down’ in the old play-house to give way to one of more modern construction. The soft glow of unforgotten scenes alone is left to me, and many whose hearts have throbbed with hope for future years, as nightly we ascended the broad stairs from the street to listen to and witness scenes of comedy, music, and tragedy. Thus is marked the passing of the glory of the old Montgomery theatre…There is not one of us who has not gone up the wide stairs loving, and come down them loving the more. There is not one of us who has not left some weight of the soul there and never returned to claim it.
Vale! old house, the ghostly shadows of scenes long to be remembered will continue to hover within thy hallowed walls ’till the inevitable march of progress hastens thy destruction.”
GPS coordinates for the former site of Montgomery Theatre: 32.378385, -86.307671