Connecticut Theaters

Katharine Hepburn and Alfred Drake stand in front of the American Shakespeare Festival Theatre in Stratford. Their photo is flanked by images of the Bushnell Theater in Hartford, left, and East Haddam's Goodspeed Opera House. (Courant File Photos / February 7, 2014)

The Puritans just didn't have much fun.

Until late in the 18th century, there wasn't much in the way of public entertainment for The Hartford Courant to cover, and certainly nothing in the way of theater.

Oh, there was the time just before the Revolution when Yale men put on a play, shocking the community by playing the female roles and wearing dresses.

But if anyone dared to put on a professional show, which was rare, they were careful to stress its wholesomeness.

Witness the first theater ad in The Courant that appeared in 1795, carefully pointing out the producers' intention to uplift: "They beg leave to offer their assurances that everything in their power will be studied that they may tend to render the entertainments a source of moral instruction as well as amusement."

Still, there was little life on the wicked stage for nearly the first 100 years of The Courant's existence, save for a short four-year period in the 1790s when English actors came to Hartford's New Theatre on Bachelor Street (later renamed Temple Street).

One of the first Hartford shows was a tour stop by the Old American Company that played the comedy "The Dramatist; or Stop Him Who Can" with English actor John Hodgkinson.

Those who spent four bits for a gallery seat in the plain hall not only got a play but beneath dripping candle chandeliers and candled footlights, the epic (and smoky) evening could also include a pantomime (such as "The Elopement or Harlequin's Frolic" ), "a glee," a comic opera (such as "The Prize" —- written by the author of "No Song, No Supper"), then an "epilogue," concluding just before midnight by "a flying Leap through a Barrel of FLAMING FIRE," as The Courant described in an advertisement.

During the New Theatre's short period of operation, more than 200 shows were presented, many of them operas or musicals. Even Shakespeare got the musical touch: 27 songs were added to "A Midsummer Night's Dream." "The Tempest" had 32, reported The Courant.

But the curtain came down in 1800 when the legislature banned "theatrical shows and entertainments" and "painted vanities." The New Theatre became a Sunday school.

If the state's citizens wanted to go to the theater, they'd have to travel to New York or Philadelphia because for the next half century, no theater would be presented in Hartford.

We pause here for a moment of silence.

Here Comes 'Tom'

Through public pressure, theater returned in 1853 when the curtain rose again at Hartford's American Hall on Market Street. Two years later "Uncle Tom's Cabin," based on the wildly popular and influential novel about slavery by Hartford's Harriet Beecher Stowe, was brought to Hartford.

Archaic and wordy advertisements of shows touring the states provided most of the information about the shows of the day, including a steady stream of minstrel shows, magicians, ventriloquists, dramatic readings, temperance dramas, bagpipers, Swiss bell ringers and curiosities including "Siamese twins, wild Australian children, a two-headed girl and lectures by the 19th wife of Brigham Young."

P.T. Barnum was developing his own kind of show biz, first in New York and later on his 224 acres in Bridgeport in mid 19th-century America. Barnum was branding himself — like a Walt Disney of his day — as the developer of wholesome family entertainment. Before that going out to a show was often rough and tumble and largely a male experience, and Barnum was the first to recognize and exploit the family market.

Barnum was also mastering the art of social media in his day — orchestrating promotions from elaborate parades to something as simple as having his field hands bring elephants out to advertise his show whenever the railroad passed by. The Courant reported on his flamboyant career and travels, as well as those of his stars, including Jenny Lind and Tom Thumb (Charles Sherwood Stratton), who had a home on the Thimble Islands in Branford.

The Booths Played Here, Too

In the second half of the 19th century, more theaters emerged in Hartford to meet the growing demand of the emerging middle class. And more significant shows and players, too. Allyn Hall, located in the hotel of the same name, seated 1,400 people. (On Oct. 20, 1863, John Wilkes Booth came to town. It was the last Connecticut appearance for Booth, who assassinated President Abraham Lincoln in 1865. "The voice and attitude and gesture of the artist invested the stage," The Courant wrote in one of its rare critical descriptions.)

Other stages included Market Street's New National Theater, which presented vaudeville acts. On Main Street there was the Peoples' Theater and Roberts Opera House. (Edwin Booth, the more famous acting brother of John Wilkes Booth, broke the Roberts' box office record with a tally of $3,011 when he played "Hamlet" for two nights in the 1870s, before it became Proctor's Opera House.)