The early history of the city of New York’s vaunted theater district provides yet another illustration of how oft-repeated narratives become accepted truths. On the website of the New York Preservation Archive Project, we find the following:
“The Broadway Theater District originated in the early 1900s as theaters began to move from Union Square and Madison Square Garden further uptown to the Times Square area because of its cheaper real estate.”
We respectfully offer a much earlier date — October 21, 1882, opening night of the Casino Theater on the Southeast corner of Broadway and 39th Street — for the “birth of Broadway.” At least the Broadway as we know it today.
It was an inauspicious beginning. The Moorish revival theater’s roof was not-quite finished, and rain reportedly dripped onto the well-heeled audience’s elegant attire. In his 1913 memoir, theater manager Rudolph Aronson explained the rushed circumstances. First, there had been a hurried trip to Europe, where his efforts to associate known greats like Johann Strauss, Charles Gounod and Jules Massenet with the spectacular theater he was building in Manhattan had failed. Back in New York, he negotiated by cable for the rights to a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, to be performed by a large troupe under the management of the esteemed Maurice Grau (who later managed the Metropolitan Opera House), headlined by the French comedienne songstress Mme. Théo. The immensely popular Théo had never performed in America and was sure to draw a crowd.
But the planned September 11th opening was impossible because of construction delays, and the entire troupe decamped to the rival Fifth Avenue Theater at 29th and Broadway. So Aronson resorted to John A. McCaull’s Opera Company. As the new opening date loomed, there were remaining issues, but as Aronson put it in his memoir: “McCaull… with a big, expensive company on his hands, insisted on opening…. and open I did!”
The production, The Queen’s Lace Handkerchief by Johann Strauss, was well received, but audience conditions were miserable. Aronson recorded: “during the entr’actes ladies and gentlemen tramped about the foyer to keep warm!”
After a few more performances, the Casino closed for further repairs, and the show reopened at the end of December. As per Kurt Gänzl’s Encyclopedia of the Musical Theatre, the Casino “quickly became established as the city’s leading house for quality musical theatre.”
McCaull parted ways with Aronson (and the Casino) two years later, but the McCaull Opera Company’s many 1880s productions, in New York and throughout the country, helped embed the musical comedy art form in American culture. So it seems long overdue to shine the spotlight on these two forgotten pioneers.
John A. McCaull was born in 1845, in Stranraer, Wigtownshire, a ferry-port town whose ancient Celtic inhabitants were sometimes referred to as “the Wild Scots of Galloway.” By 1861, 16-year old McCaull was living in South Carolina, and enlisted in a Confederate artillery regiment. Surviving records do not indicate he ever achieved a rank higher than Sergeant, but in his later persona as theatrical impresario, he was widely known as Colonel McCaull.
During the tumultuous post-Civil War period, McCaull served as a delegate for Roanoke County to the State House of Representatives from 1868 to 1870, edited a local paper and was involved in harness racing. Thereafter, he continued to migrate northward and took up the practice of law in Maryland.
One of his clients was Baltimore-based theatrical manager John T. Ford, whose Ford’s Theater in Washington. D.C. had been the site of Lincoln’s assassination. In 1879, McCaull came to New York where his client was producing Gilbert and Sullivan’s new opera, Pirates of Penzance, at the leased Fifth Avenue Theater.
McCaull was brought in to resolve a contractual dispute between Ford and the orchestra musicians. New York newspaper coverage of the settlement illustrates McCaull’s flair for rhetorical flourish and the beginnings of his mutual love affair with the New York press: “The Pinafore Orchestra Surrenders. The mutiny on board Her Majesty’s Ship Pinafore, Capts. Gilbert and Sullivan, has been quelled.”
The former soldier was introduced to the complicated art of production, balancing the concerns of dramatists, composers, theater owners, orchestra, and everyone in between. Step-by-step, an impresario was born.
By the next year, McCaull and Ford had both invested in the Bijou Opera House to be located on Broadway between 30th and 31st, which opened in March 1881. Early success was mixed, Ford returned to Baltimore, and McCaull bought him out.
In short order, the energetic McCaull brought out a number of notable productions, including La Mascotte, The Snake Charmer, and Olivette, which was his first major financial success. He also showed a gift for identifying such promising stars as Lillian Russell. Too small to be profitable, the Bijou was torn down by 1883.
Although it was replaced by a larger version on the same spot, McCaull had already invested in Rudolph Aronson’s Casino Theater further north.
McCaull was generally described as large, with arms befitting a prize-fighter. Press clippings from throughout the 1880s show a trail of litigation and occasional physical altercations. But commanding figures of musical comedy such as Russell and DeWolf Hopper later looked back gratefully on the opportunities afforded by Col. McCaull. For a flavor of his companions:
Hopper eventually married six times and was jokingly referred to as “the husband of his country”; Russell — who was described in her heyday as the epitome of feminine beauty — had only four husbands, but one of them was convicted of bigamy, for which he served time in an English prison.
In addition to his sometimes fractious and shifting theatrical family, McCaull had a real household in Baltimore to support as well. The 1880 Federal Census reveals “retired lawyer” John McCaull, his wife, Angela Monteiro, two small daughters, two teenage sisters, one traveling salesman brother-in-law and a single servant.
It’s difficult to imagine a less likely partner for McCaull than Rudolph Aronson. The German-Jewish Aronson family had emigrated from Prussia a few years before Rudolph’s birth in 1856. Rudolph showed musical gifts at a young age, and his memoir records his early fascination with opera.
The Academy of Music Theater was near his family home on 14th Street: “I, in company with my brother Edward, soon managed to form an acquaintance with the janitor of that then famous ‘Temple of Art,’ and two and sometimes three times a week the good-natured janitor smuggled us in through the stage, and, ascending the emergency staircase leading to the gallery, we heard there to our hearts’ content the works of Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi, Rossini, Gounod, and Ambroise Thomas.”
Aronson had the benefit of early tutoring by the famous Austrian pianist and composer, Leopold von Meyer, and spent three years (1874-1877) studying composition at the renowned Conservatoire National in Paris. Over the years, he published roughly 150 songs, waltzes and marches, including one immensely popular piece, “Sweet Sixteen” (1880).
Aronson was fascinated by showmanship. In the fall of 1877, shortly after his return from Paris, he began conducting a Sunday evening orchestra at Gilmore’s Garden (which became Madison Square Garden). At the time Barnum’s Circus occupied much of the open-air amphitheater.
Barnum called it, “the Roman Hippodrome.” Aronson set up with his fifty musicians on a platform in front of an improvised screen. The result was a whimsical melodic synergy between his music and the sounds of jungle animals on the other side of the screen.
While the Casino was clearly Aronson’s greatest creation, there was a precursor: The Metropolitan Concert Hall, which opened in 1880 at Broadway and 41st Street. Aronson played a role in its formation and conducted the orchestra for nearly two years. But he was busily raising capital in New York to fulfill his vision for a majestic European-style “casino,” with a rooftop garden. The investor group ultimately reached 500 stockholders, representing the cream of gilded age New York’s wealthy and well-connected, including names like William Vanderbilt, Ulysses Grant, Jr. and Jay Gould.
The site was an old coal-yard, surrounded by vacant lots. Aronson insisted on emulating London’s Savoy Theatre by making the Casino the first all-electric theater in the U.S., with whirring fans along the ceiling and in the boxes. The Moorish-inspired designs carried through to the interior, with a jeweled velvet curtain, carved arabesques on the raised boxes above the general audience, intricately woven designs on the ceilings and walls, and rich coloring.
McCaull chose The Queen’s Lace Handkerchief, a Strauss operetta, for opening night. John Perugini, Lilly Post, Louise Paullin, Joseph Greenfelder, Jennie Reiffarth and Mathilde Cottrelly played leading roles, with a chorus of sixty people and an orchestra of forty. Aronson conducted the orchestra. After a few more uncomfortable performances in the unfinished building, the company left temporarily for Philadelphia and then Chicago. The theater reopened on December 30.
Queen’s Lace became a hit. The following production, Offenbach’s La Princesse de Trébizonde, was marred by a contract-breaking walkout on the part of the flamboyant Miss Russell, but was brought back later in the same year with Marie Jansen. The Casino’s own run would last nearly 50 years.
The following year, Aronson overcame his architect’s concerns, and expanded the Casino upward, opening one of America’s first public rooftop-gardens. He procured exotic plants from his investors, strung the exterior with electrically lit lights, and erected a domed partial glass roof to protect it from rain. The rooftop café served up coffee, beer, wine, and ice-cream. Performances would be staged in the heat of summer, open to the skies, allowing his theater to continue operation despite the extreme humidity, which forced other venues in 19th century New York to shut down. The Casino rooftop is where Aronson can be said to have married atmosphere, experience, and the operetta.
Also in 1883, the Metropolitan Opera House (demolished in 1967) opened on the northwest corner of the same intersection. New York’s musical center of gravity had shifted, permanently, uptown.
Managing the Casino was something of a family business, in which Aronson’s younger brother Edward and older brother, Prussian-born Albert, both participated. Inevitably, the Aronsons and McCaull clashed over artistic control, money and contractual rights.
Aronson’s memoir provides a dry, one-sided version: “A veritable merry war was raging between a certain prominent manager and me. The cause of it was a contract I had with him, which was to expire on May 1st, 1885, and which I declined to extend for one more year.”
McCaull shifted his operation to Wallack’s Theater, and later opened his own theater in Philadelphia. The McCaull Comic Opera Company also began touring the U.S., famously blanketing the country with as many as three troupes at the same time.
Post-McCaull, Aronson’s Casino found its big winner in the comic opera Erminie, which opened on May 10th, 1886. In Gänzl’s words, “if critical reaction was pleased but extravagant… the public reaction was startling.” The lead actors, songs like “Lullaby.” even the pink décor in a ballroom scene became the height of fashion. The box office run at the Casino set a musical comedy record that would not be surpassed during the 19th century, with over 1,200 performances.
Meanwhile, his Comic Opera Company would bring McCaull a trail of successes, along with the litigation and conflict that seemed to follow him everywhere. In an 1886 episode that must have made a reporter’s day, McCaull was competing with the Casino for the services of a recent beauty contest winner. McCaull took umbrage at some remarks by a Casino employee and marched over to the theater, grabbed the diminutive fellow’s nose and “shook him like a rat.”
But in December 1887, the former teenage soldier slipped on ice in Chicago and never fully recovered. An October 7, 1888 piece in the New York Times captured McCaull’s nostalgic sentiments on the Opera Company’s final New York performance of Bocaccio prior to Wallack’s shutting down for renovations under new management. The headlines sum it up nicely: “COMIC OPERA IN AMERICA. Slowly Developed from Small Beginnings. Some reflections by Col. M’Caull on its establishment as a permanent feature of our amusements.”
There followed rapid decline, and financial distress, with the company changing hands in 1890 and its assets sold for a pittance in 1892. Following his death in 1894, obituaries all over the country mourned the loss of this vigorous spirit who brought so much life to the stage. By then, Aronson too had lost control of his beloved creation.
With the 1890s, a new era had unfolded, along with ferocious competition. On October 1st, Aronson unveiled Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, which was premiering the very same night in Oscar Hammerstein’s theater.
In 1893, the Board of Company Stockholders for the Casino found that Aronson had mismanaged its finances and the managerial position was passed to Thomas E. Canary and George Lederer. He attempted a revival in the theater world many times — moonlighting as a producer of imported plays at the Bijou, making a futile effort to raise capital for a Casino Theater in Los Angeles; traveling through Europe to book shows for American theaters, and sought to become a proprietor of the Hotel Metropole in New York City, and a resort hotel in Puerto Rico.
Aronson’s personal life is a bit of a mystery. A brief marriage to an aspiring soprano was dissolved. But the 20th century found him boarding with his sisters in New York City, the same apartment in which he died in 1919.
The Casino Theater meanwhile went on to further acclaim. In 1898, Clorindy or The Origin of the Cake Walk, an African-American written and performed musical, took the roof-top stage at the Casino, which was a first for white American audiences to witness.
And in 1900, the Edwardian musical-comedy Florodora was staged, which introduced the Florodora Sextet. New York’s first chorus line, the “Florodora Girls” became celebrities and shoved the Casino back out into the spotlight. The plot itself is rather misty and incoherent; the people came for the glamour, the girls, the atmosphere, the tinny music — all as Aronson had dreamed up in the beginning.
There was a devastating fire on February 11th, 1905. Lillian Russell who had been scheduled to perform the leading role in Lady Teazle that evening was luckily not in house, but all the chorus girls and her understudy were. One girl actually managed to escape with Russell’s most expensive clothing in tow, though most fleeing the burning theater were forced to jump from the windows. The theater, though quite gutted, was destined to be rebuilt and stood until 1930.
Today, no monument or plaque graces the location of the lost Casino Theater; and 21st century crowds rush by the impersonal glass and metal office building at 1710 Broadway, sometimes jostling an aging amateur history-writer who pauses in front for a solitary moment of reflection. And no public markers commemorate the forgotten musical comedy pioneers.
One might dwell on the two men’s obvious failings; and attribute their tragic inability to resolve their differences as the reason they were consigned to oblivion. But it costs us nothing to put aside the petty squabbles of the lost era and give due credit to the odd couple who embraced a special combination of comedy, music and spectacle that evolved into the modern musical, whose spirit is still alive (albeit struggling with the pandemic of 2020) on Broadway.
Jessy Brodsky contributed to this story. Brodsky graduated from Gallatin at NYU with a BA in “Narrative Form” in 2008; she also has a Masters in Painting from the New York Academy of Art, from 2012. She was the recipient of a grant in 2014 to hand-bind and self-publish 75 copies of a novella. Ms. Brodsky has published short stories with Wilderness House Literary Review and Blaze Vox, was shortlisted for the Tartt First Fiction Award and published a novella with the small press, Black Scat, in 2020. She lives in a yurt in the Hudson Valley with her two children.
Photos, from above: Casino Theater, c. 1898, Bryon Company, courtesy Museum of the City of New York; Drawing of John A McCaull, “The Press,” NY newspaper, 1894; Lillian Russell for the McCaull Opera Company, 1881 courtesy New York Public Library Collection;Rudolph Aronson from Walter Browne, F. A. Austin (eds.) Who’s Who on the Stage: 1906; Sweet Sixteen sheet music courtesy Library of Congress; Still from “Erminie” at the Casino Theater, 1887 courtesy Museum of the City of New York; 1904 sheet music cover: “Lullaby” from Erminie.