Camp Street Theatre

image description
The Camp Street Theatre, also known as the American Theatre, in the 1842 City Directory

Photo Credit: "American Theatre." 1842 City Directory. October 2002 Images of the Month. New Orleans City Archives.

Contributors

James H. Caldwell opened the Camp Street Theatre, also known as the American Theatre, on May 14, 1823. [1] The small theatre was the first English speaking theatre in New Orleans. [2] It cost $70,000 to build and could seat 1,000 people. [3] It burned down on April 18, 1855, killing one person. [4] Its small size and eventual destruction led Caldwell to build the St. Charles Theatre nearby in 1835. [5]

James H. Caldwell

James H. Caldwell was an entrepreneur of theatre in the 1800s. He was born in 1793 in England and came to America as a child actor. [6] He became an actor and theatre owner in many American cities including Nashville, Cincinnati, and New Orleans. [7] He has been described as “the founder of nearly all the theatres in the South.” [8] In addition to his theatres, he also built many other New Orleans buildings, including the St. Charles Hotel. [9]

Camp Street Theatre

Upon arriving in New Orleans in 1819, Caldwell first managed the St. Philip Theatre starting in January 1820. [10] He was also an actor and performed both at the St. Philip Theatre and the Orleans Theatre. [11] In May of 1822, he began construction on his own theatre near the corner of Poydras and Camp Streets which he opened the following year. He was ridiculed at first for his choice of location, but he believed that by placing his new theatre outside of the normal theatre area he would draw other theatres to him. Within two years, Camp Street was paved from the French Quarter to the Camp Street Theatre, and over the next decade many other theatres were built in the same area. [12]

Gas-Light Entrepreneur

Caldwell opened the Camp Street Theatre for a new season on January 1, 1824. He lit the theatre for this performance with gas, the very first time any building in New Orleans and any theatre in the nation had ever been lit in such a way. This led him to form his own gas company that would eventually provide gas to the entire city and also led him to build the St. Charles Theatre which was the first building designed and built to be lit by gas in New Orleans. [13] Caldwell retired from acting in 1835 when he started building his new theatre, the St. Charles Theatre. [14] He managed this theatre until his death on September 11, 1863, while on a visit to New York. He was buried in New Orleans the following November. [15]

Legacy

Caldwell was known as a ruthless competitor in the theatre world. While assuming he was the founder of Southern theatre might be an exaggeration, the long list of theatres he owned, managed, or acted for is quite impressive. He had a strong rivalry with Noah Ludlow, to whom he eventually sold his St. Charles Theatre. Ludlow describes Caldwell as having a “crushing system” of management for his theatres. Ludlow accredits this all-or-nothing approach as to what eventually led to Caldwell’s demise. While attempting to build another theatre in Mobile, Alabama, Caldwell ran out of funds and faced utter financial failure. Caldwell was unsuccessful in driving Ludlow out of business and was forced to sell his best theatre to his own business enemy. [16]

Works Cited

  • “St. Charles Theatre.” October 2002 Images of the Month. New Orleans City Archives.
  • “Stage Reminiscences.” The New York Times. 2 April 1876.
  • Wilmeth, Don B. and C. W. E. Bigsby. The Cambridge History of American Theatre. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. p. 403-404.
  • “Destruction of the American Theatre.” The New York Times. 24 April 1855.
  • “Stage Reminiscences.” The New York Times. 2 April 1876.
  • Ludlow, Noah Miller. Dramatic Life as I Found It. St. Louis: G. I. Jones and Co., 1880. p. 521.
  • Ludlow, Noah Miller. Dramatic Life as I Found It. St. Louis: G. I. Jones and Co., 1880. p. 396.
  • “Dramatic Authors of America.” (1845). quoted in Ludlow, Noah Miller. Dramatic Life as I Found It. St. Louis: G. I. Jones and Co., 1880. p. 404-405.
  • “A Near Century of Gas in New Orleans.” New Orleans Public Service, Inc. 1926. New Orleans City Archives.
  • Ludlow, Noah Miller. Dramatic Life as I Found It. St. Louis: G. I. Jones and Co., 1880. p. 140.
  • Ludlow, Noah Miller. Dramatic Life as I Found It. St. Louis: G. I. Jones and Co., 1880. p. 215.
  • Ludlow, Noah Miller. Dramatic Life as I Found It. St. Louis: G. I. Jones and Co., 1880. p. 247-249.
  • Ludlow, Noah Miller. Dramatic Life as I Found It. St. Louis: G. I. Jones and Co., 1880. p. 249-250.
  • Ludlow, Noah Miller. Dramatic Life as I Found It. St. Louis: G. I. Jones and Co., 1880. p. 404.
  • Ludlow, Noah Miller. Dramatic Life as I Found It. St. Louis: G. I. Jones and Co., 1880. p. 521.
  • Ludlow, Noah Miller. Dramatic Life as I Found It. St. Louis: G. I. Jones and Co., 1880. p. 520.

This page was last modified on 27 April 2012, at 10:16

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Camp Street Theatre

451 Camp St, New Orleans, LA 70130, USA