This weekend I will be performing in a production of Little Shop of Horrors at The Belfry Theater in Noblesville, and it has led me to consider Indianapolis’ theatrical past. Theater has a long history in this city, and if you have deep roots here, then it is possible that you have an ancestor with some tie to the theater.
Theater had a bit of a slow start in Indy. Many church groups and other reformers resisted the idea of having actors in the city. They saw actors as “frivolous and unstable,” and they didn’t believe their culture fit well within the morals of society. But theater prevailed, and in 1823 Indianapolis hosted its very first theatrical production at Carter’s Tavern, which was owned by Thomas Carter and sat on Washington Street across from the newly erected courthouse. The production consisted of two plays, “The Doctor’s Courtship” and “Jealous Lover,” and the price for entry was 37 cents.
After this first performance, there was a bit of a lull, and the next performance didn’t occur until 1837 when William Lindsay and his company came from Cincinnati. They performed three plays at Merr Olleman’s wagon shop, which was also on Washington Street across from the courthouse. Lindsay and his company received a much warmer welcome to the city and returned the following year to introduce the city to Shakespeare.
In 1840 the very first local theater group was formed. It was an all-male group called the Indianapolis Thespian Society and performed in a warehouse on Market Street. Its first performance was “Pocahontas” by Robert Dale Owen, a popular production at the time. The society was short-lived, but it inspired the formation of many other amateur groups throughout the following decades.
The best known of these is The Dramatic Club. Formed in 1872, it is the oldest continuous theater company in Indianapolis. Though it started as an all-women’s dramatic group, it soon saw the value in adding men to the company, and the club has remained open to both men and women ever since.
In 1859, Valentine Butsch built the Metropolitan Theatre, the first building in Indianapolis that was solely for theatrical purposes. The theater sat at the corner of Tennessee (now Capitol) and Washington streets. It was later called the Park, the Strand, and finally, the Capitol.
Theater continued to thrive in the city, and more theater houses were built to accomodate the growing popularity of stage productions. In 1868 Butsch built a second, larger theater, The Academy of Music, which was sadly destroyed by fire in 1877. In the 1880’s William H. English built The Grand and The English Opera Houses. And in 1907, the Murat Theatre opened.
With the introduction of film during the 1910’s, theaters began popping up all over the city. At first they showed both live productions and films, but when the film industry introduced sound to motion pictures with The Jazz Singer in 1927, live theater took a bit of a downturn.
Still local theater groups continued to gather and perform. In 1915, The Little Theater Society of Indianapolis was formed. It later became the Indianapolis Civic Theater, and is the nation’s oldest continuously operating community theater.
If you think you may have an ancestor who was involved in one of Indianapolis’s historic theaters, there are a few places you can go for research. The Indiana State Library has several collections of records and other papers that include information about the early theaters in the city. Likewise, the Indiana Historical Society houses much information about Indianapolis’s historic theaters, as well as a collection of images (available online) of the theaters, playbills, and casts. Start by searching the catalogs for specific theaters or productions. Several books have also been written about Indianapolis’s theatrical past. You may find that your ancestor is named there!
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