As a city of spectacle, New Orleans has long loved theater in all its forms, with revered names such as Bernhardt, Barrymore and Booth having at one time or another graced the city’s many historic stages.
This includes the former French Opera, the loss of which many still lament today. It includes the large Saenger Theater on Canal Street, once the flagship of the chain of the same name. It includes the myriad of neighborhood theaters that dot the city landscape.
And then there’s the site of the city’s very first theatre, which if you’ve spent a lot of time in the city you’ve probably walked past without even realizing it.
Just past Pat O’Brien’s famous piano bar, right next to Preservation Hall and a stone’s throw from Bourbon Street, it’s at 730-732 St. Peter St.
At this address is now a private and sometimes commercial residence. In recent years it has housed a nondescript pizzeria and a gyro spot. But 230 years ago, from late 1792, the curtains went up on this site of what is widely credited as the city’s first theatre.
Admittedly, skeptics might rightly consider this a dubious claim. New Orleans, after all, has long been America’s epicenter of exhibitionism. It is inconceivable to think that someone did not have the idea of putting on a show between the moment the city was founded in 1718 and the creation of the theater on rue Saint-Pierre 73 years later.
That being the case, it is probably historically accurate to associate this address with one of many qualifiers, such as “the city’s first permanent theatre” or “the first purpose-built theatre”.
Either way, the creation in 1792 of La Théâtre de la rue Saint-Pierre – or the theater on rue Saint-Pierre – was an undeniable turning point in the city’s entertainment history.
This name, it should be emphasized, is just one of many names the historic theater has come to know. Initially it was El Coliseo, a reflection of the fact that the city was under Spanish rule at the time.
For the French-speaking population of the city, it was La Salle de Comédie and, later, La Spectacle de la Rue Saint Pierre. In 20th-century newspaper reflections, it is often referred to as Tabary’s Theatre, after Louis Blaize Tabary, a Haitian immigrant whose motley troupe of actors, after performing in everything from private salons to tents, took up residence in the rue Saint-Pierre theater just after its completion.
The men who really deserve to have built the theatre, however, are Parisians Jean-Louis Henry and Louis-Alexandre Henry, who bought the property from Louis McCarty in 1791 and set to work building a wooden structure from two floors.
In “New Orleans’ First Theater, 1792-1803,” historian Rene LaGardeur Jr. quotes Baron Joseph Delfau de Pontalba, who attended the first performance at the new theater on October 4, 1792, describing the theater of rue Saint-Pierre as “small but pretty. »
In addition to an orchestra pit and a gallery, 12 boxes overlooked the auditorium. “Two of the actors are tolerable, the others bad,” the Baron wrote.
Considering it was the only theater in town, “tolerable” was probably good enough for New Orleans audiences – who were apparently the rowdy type.
According to an article by longtime Times-Picayune columnist Frank Schneider, police were at one point tricked into posting the following notice on the theater door:
“If good order must be maintained, the hall orchestra cannot be subjected to fanciful requests to play this or that tune; no one who formulates a request in this regard must disturb neither the orchestra nor the public without running the risk of being brought before the magistrate.
Also explicitly against the rules: fighting, occupying someone else’s luxury dressing room, interrupting performances with whistles, throwing oranges or even pretending to throw oranges.
A riot between police and spectators ended up closing the place in 1807. A fire in 1816 finished the building permanently. On the site, builders Pizetta and Pinson between 1821 and 1826 erected the two-storey townhouse now occupying the site of planter Jean Baptiste La Branche.
If tears were shed over the loss of the old theatre, they seem to have gone unsaved.
In a bit of intrigue, the theater was remembered in 1942 when Pat O’Brien moved in two doors down at 718 St. Peter St., with newspaper reports citing this address as the location of the theater from the St. Peter Street. This error has been repeated frequently over the years and is, in fact, still referenced to this day on Pat O’s website, which declares it the site of the “first Spanish theater in the United States”.
Property records, however, prove otherwise, as evidenced by the historic marker erected by the New Orleans Landmarks Commission at Two Doors, LaBranche House.
This plaque declares 730-732 St. Peter’s the actual site of the theater—and, therefore, the true setting for Act 1 of New Orleans’ stage history.
Sources: The Times-Picayune Archives; Collins C. Diboll Vieux Carré digital survey of the New Orleans Historical Collection; “Old New Orleans,” by Stanley Clisby Arthur; “Kendall’s Story of the New Orleans Theater,” by John Kendall; “The First Theater in New Orleans, 1792-1803”, by Rene LaGardeur Jr.
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