Family Tree: Thespian Roots

Written by on April 13, 2013 in Family Tree - 5 Comments
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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.

Broadways and Brightways

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.

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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.

thedramaticclub

 

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.

park theater

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.

english1

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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About the Author

Krystal L. Becker is the owner of Kinship Genealogy, a genealogical research and preservation company. With almost 20 years of genealogy experience, she has devoted much of her life to uncovering the stories our ancestors left behind. Krystal received a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature from DePauw University. She continued her education by earning a Master of Library Science degree from Indiana University, and she is currently pursuing certification from the Board for Certification of Genealogists.

5 Comments on "Family Tree: Thespian Roots"

  1. Beverly Fauvre April 13, 2013 at 12:07 pm · Reply

    Interesting article. You don’t, however, mention the Civic Theatre which was popular in the forties and fifties
    and may still be today.

    My mother-in-law “Scottie” Fauvre starred in many Civic Theatre productions and we still have photos of
    her on stage.

    As to the Murat, I remember it well. It was at the Murat that I saw my first circus and feared the clowns.
    It was also at the Murat that my grandmother took me to see my first stage play. Her friend had a role
    in the touring production, and I got to meet the actress backstage.

    Beverly Fauvre, La Quinta, CA

  2. Beverly Fauvre April 13, 2013 at 6:58 pm · Reply

    My apologies. It was brought to my attention that you do in fact mention the Civic Theatre and that it is
    still thriving. Must have read the end of the article too quickly.

    • Krystal Becker April 15, 2013 at 9:32 am · Reply

      🙂 No need to apologize! How wonderful to have so many fond memories of the theaters here in Indy! Thanks for sharing!!

  3. Norm Morford April 14, 2013 at 6:40 am · Reply

    Krystal — break a leg! At one time there were “dramatic” groups at both Christ Church Cathedral on the Circle and at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church on 10th St. west of Post Road. However, I don’t think either of those groups exist at present — I suppose you might say, “they died a natural death.”

    One has to wonder if the drama program that used to be in effect at Christian Theological Seminary had anything to do with such “imitations” in some of the churches.

    SO, after you are done with this run, maybe you’d like to create an umbrella org. for church drama groups?

    • Krystal Becker April 15, 2013 at 9:41 am · Reply

      Thanks, Norm! And that does sound like an interesting venture…though possibly beyond my abilities at this point in time! 🙂

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