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Theatre in Zion: The Brigham City Dramatic Association

Utah Historical Quarterly

Vol. 33, 1965, No. 3

THEATRE in ZION The Brigham City Dramatic Association


In the winter of 1855-56, with his Brigham City home still under construction, Lorenzo Snow converted its largest room, 15 by 30 feet, into a "theatrical department." He furnished appropriate scenery for the small stage located at one end of the room and then invited the citizenry free-of-charge, but in shifts so that all could be accommodated, to pass a pleasant winter evening viewing the efforts of the amateur dramatic company. "Here the old and the young, the grey-headed and the little prattlers, met and mingled — the people were drawn together and a union of feeling was awakened."

Thus, two years after church President Brigham Young called him to lead 50 additional families to settle in Box Elder County and strengthen the settlement there, Apostle Lorenzo Snow initiated a significant contribution to his community. Following Brigham Young's example and sharing with him a love for the theatre, Lorenzo Snow nurtured and supported that love in those over whom he presided. It was fitting that the settlement named Brigham City should have a theatre.

The following summer saw the establishment of a more commodious, new theatre, 22 by 45 feet, in the basement of the partially completed courthouse. With this facility Lorenzo Snow "determined to have a dramatic company of ability, and capable of attaining to celebrity in the profession." To reach this goal he called from his own family and from the community a group of talented young people and hired Salt Lake City actor Henry E. Bowring to instruct the group in the fundamentals of acting. Bowring, accomplished and experienced, was probably free to travel to Brigham City, because the approach of Johnston's Army had caused the Deseret Dramatic Association, of which he was a member, to disband temporarily.

The newly trained group enjoyed its "improved circumstances" and probably performed "successfully" during the winter such plays as Rip Van Winkle and the Carpenter of Rouen. Spring weather, however, brought high winds; and before the courthouse could be completed, gales destroyed the building, all the stage fixtures housed in the basement, and for the moment put an end to theatricals. 

In spite of these difficulties, the people of Brigham City rebuilt the courthouse complete with basement theatre, and, according to Eliza Snow, the Dramatic Association resumed its activities. However, no production dates or details of the initial offerings in the rebuilt Courthouse Theatre can be found. Perhaps interest waned during the interval required for reconstruction, or, more likely, with Bowring's return to Salt Lake City direct leadership was lacking. Whatever the situation, by May of 1864 when he returned from a church mission to Hawaii, Lorenzo Snow reorganized the Dramatic Association. Alexander Baird, a Scottish convert to Mormonism who moved to Box Elder County in 1863, recorded an account of how he became the new stage manager.

In the winter (of 1864) the young people of Three Mile Creek [now known as Perry, and located approximately three miles south of Brigham City] started a kind of a theater. I was their leader and we got up the play, Barbars of the Parennes [sic]. After playing in the school house in Three Mile Creek we came up to Brigham City and played in the lower part of the Court House. We had a couple of wagon covers for curtains and scenery. We made eight dollars in cash. The house was filled to over flowing. John Burt was door keeper and gathered in the proceeds.
We seemed to please the audience. Even Brother Snow was there. Well do I remember the night. Well do I remember the proceeds. I got them. Bought one half pound of tea and eight yards of factory wool, a pair of staggy shoes, which came to the nights proceeds. Didn't I feel big. 

Continuing, Baird reported that in the spring of 1864, Lorenzo Snow asked him to come to Brigham City to work in the woolen factory.

Well just as soon as I got to Brigham, Brother Snow wanted me to start a theater. So we went to work to get up a dramatic troupe. I was chief cook under Brother Snow. This was in the spring of 1864. He, Brother Snow, gave me the names of the ones he wanted in the troupe .... We started and practiced well. I worked in the mill all day and studied and rehersed [sic] at night. I did well in the mill all summer and fall. We played short dramas and farces, once a week on Saturday evenings. We took well and prospered well and made money which all went to get properties and scenery. 

Only a few details of these properties, scenery, and the stage are known. The basement was 22 by 45 feet, so the stage had a maximum width of 22 feet and a probable depth of 10 to 12 feet. This left an auditorium 22 by 33 feet, barely room for an audience of 100 people. Some of the scenery, in addition to the wagon covers mentioned by Baird, was painted on the rear wall of the stage by Porter Squires and Andrew J. Caggie. Traces of it remained 60 years later.  No doubt the group acquired additional curtain pieces, drops, and flats as its repertoire and popularity grew.

Such cramped quarters were soon overtaxed. Both the actors and the audience needed more room. As Alexander Baird recorded, "During this time the railway came along .... I contracted on the railway and played in the theater, which now had become something to deal with." The Dramatic Association solved the problem temporarily by staging plays in the dance hall over Rosenbaum's store and permanently by moving its theatre to new quarters provided on the upper floor of the courthouse. Baird provided some of the details:

We now had got up stairs to play in what was then the meeting house with a pretty good stage. The fitting up of the house for the purpose of a theater cost us three thousand dollars. We never received one cent for our labor, until we had paid the last cent of our investment. It was not like a large theater where they took in thousands per night. The most we ever took in was some hundred and twenty-five dollars. The town was small! Not two thousand in the whole town altogether — young and old. Only one ward. In two years we were out of debt and receiving pay.
I had been sent to Salt Lake City to see and learn all I could about the stage, the curtains, the wings and plays. All else I could learn. I then came home and got the carpenters to work. Brother Pett led the workmen. He was a good workman; but knew nothing about a stage. So he and I at times had strong arguments. Brother Snow had told him to do just as I said and if there was a wrong he would blame me. So with this we got along fine. 

Twice the size of the old, the new theatre offered many advantages. A stage 18-feet deep and 45-feet wide accommodated more complex productions than any previously attempted. The larger auditorium, 45 by 47 feet, with a balcony across the west end, and equipped with solidly constructed benches, curved to fit the body — probably permitted 350 theatre lovers to squeeze in for special presentations. 

Of course, the larger stage required additional scenery and properties. To acquire them the Dramatic Association spent $300, perhaps as a part of the $3,000 renovation cost or as a later supplement to the theatre's stock of scenery.  The new facility provided wardrobe storage for costumes, at one time designed and sewn by the local tailor, Ola N. Stohl. It may have been at this time that coal-oil lamps replaced the candles originally used for lighting. The lamps were used as footlights, suspended from the ceiling or mounted with brackets on the walls of the set. When Peter A. Forsgren acted as stage manager, he devised a method for dimming the footlights by drawing a tin shade between them and the stage. Such an innovation typified advances that were no doubt made in the theatre's facilities during the two decades of its use.

Many of the plays presented on the Courthouse Theatre stage were those witnessed in Salt Lake City by a Brigham City representative, laboriously transcribed, and brought home for local production. Sometimes the right to present a play was purchased.  Occasionally, a member of the Dramatic Association or some literaryminded resident of Brigham City wrote an original piece. For the most part these and other plays staged at the Courthouse Theatre were typical nineteenth century farces, melodramas, or domestic pieces. Brighamites often saw and applauded an instructive temperance drama. Although the claim cannot be substantiated by any extant review or advertisement that most of Shakespeare's plays were produced, it is likely that some were staged. The Dramatic Association produced Hamlet during the winter of 1868-69 in the dance hall over Rosenbaum's store, and it probably produced other Shakespearean plays in the renovated Courthouse Theatre. 

The first play staged in the Courthouse Theatre for which there is a definite record was The Stranger, produced in June of 1867. Earlier productions included Jacob Jones' drama The Carpenter of Rouen (1844), J. R. Planche's farce The Loan of a Lover (1834), Dion Boucicault's Octaroon (1859), one of the several stage versions of Washington Irving's Rip Van Winkle, W. S. Pratt's temperance play Ten Nights in a Bar Room (1858), and a piece called The Milky Way. In succeeding decades theatre goers to the Courthouse Theatre saw J. S. Jones' The People's Lawyer (1856), J. T. Haines' Idiot Witness (1823), J. Lunn's Family Jars (1822), M. Barnett's The Serious Family (1849), D. Boucicault's Willow Copse (1849), and, of course, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. ie

Only one of these plays is still staged with regularity, the temperance tract, Ten Nights in a Bar Room. Modern audiences laugh at its broad deliniations, but nineteenth century Brighamites found it deeply absorbing. Alexander Baird reported that,

One evening I was playing Joe Morgan in Ten Nights in a Bar Room, when I came to the part where my child is knocked down with a tumbler, one of the Irishmen there [a railroad worker] jumped up and pulled a bottle of whiskey out of his pocket, dashed it to pieces against a bench and cried aloud, "I'll never taste another damn drop in my life again." I bawled right out, "I hope he keeps his word." 

William L. Watkins, a schoolteacher in early Brigham City and bookkeeper for the Mormon Church cooperative industries, acted as prompter for the Dramatic Association. He copied parts for all the actors in the various casts, and attended the usual four rehearsals a week. The group evidently built a sizable repertoire, Ten Nights in a Bar Room and Uncle Tom's Cabin were often repeated, for it was the Dramatic Association's custom to play each Saturday night. Some weeks included Wednesday night productions, and during the construction of the railroads larger audiences required a third performance. The season at the Courthouse Theatre ran from September to May, although summertime productions were staged for special occasions. No doubt lapses occurred in this weekly schedule, particularly when traveling troupes occupied the stage or when no enterprising stage manager could be found.

Although Alexander Baird, and possibly other key figures during the years, received pay for acting and managing the Courthouse Theatre productions, most participation was voluntary and without pay. Presentations, however, were not free-of-charge. At one time tickets cost 25 cents for children and 50 cents for adults; at another time adults paid 75 cents in "Home D" — the scrip issued by the Brigham City cooperative. In addition to meeting operating expenses, profits often went for charitable purposes, to members of the Dramatic Association, or to support such projects as a new organ for the tabernacle. 

The volunteers included the members of the Theatre orchestra. In 1954 Joseph Watkins, then 93, recalled his experience as one of "about fourteen" members who considered it an opportunity to contribute musical talent to enhance productions at the Courthouse Theatre. The orchestra attracted little attention, either commendation or condemnation. "Dick," critic from the Ogden Daily Herald, noted that the orchestra "played some fine music," but could improve !  "Candor," who wrote to another Ogden newspaper was less ambiguous. "The music rendered by the orchestra on the occasion was very nice, and the boys deserve the compliments bestowed upon them by their hearers," he said. 

Records contain the names of over 50 actors who participated in Brigham City theatricals, and if accounts were complete the number would be much higher. Not only the number of participants, but the diversity of their backgrounds indicates the integrality of the Theatre with life in early Brigham City. Alexander Baird, who managed or acted in the Courthouse Theatre for 25 years, based his impersonations on a colorful background. Prior to locating in Brigham City as a worker in the woolen mill, he spent his youth in Scotland, went to sea, married unsuccessfully, sailed to Japan with Admiral Perry, returned to Scotland, and remarried. As an actor he specialized in "heavy" parts, and gained reknown for his portrayals in Ten Nights in a Bar Room and in Black Eyed Susan. 

Henry E. Bowring brought a wealth of experience to the Courthouse Theatre productions when he moved from Salt Lake City to Brigham City in 1877. His home in Salt Lake City had housed the Mechanics Dramatic Association in the fall of 1859 and was the first building actually known as a theatre in the territory — Bowring's Theatre. Before his move north Bowring had appeared over a hundred times on Salt Lake City stages and had co-managed the Salt Lake Theatre with Phil Margetts. For short periods after the move, Bowring toured the territory with a company under the management of Margetts. Courthouse Theatre productions under Bowring's skillful direction brought forth glowing reviews, as did the comic acting of this first-rate comedian. 

Traveling troupes supplemented local talent on the Courthouse Theatre stage. The 16 troupes for which records exist were probably only a fraction of the total. Some of the visiting companies were professional, such as the John Langrishe Troupe from Denver, Colorado, that played at the Courthouse Theatre for several nights in 1868.  Amateur com- panies from Wellsville, Logan, Ogden, Willard, and Plain City made appearances in Brigham City, probably in exchange for a visit from the Brigham City Dramatic Association. Phil Margetts — sometimes termed the "dean of western theatre" — performed several times with the Brigham City Association, and at least one troupe under his direction trod the boards at the Courthouse Theatre in 1875.  The great influx of professional road shows did not come, however, until the last decade of the century after the stage lights in the Courthouse Theatre were permanently darkened in 1889. The Courthouse Theatre was essentially the home of the Brigham City Dramatic Association.

In today's era of mass entertainment provided by radio, movies, and television, it is difficult to imagine the importance of the Courthouse Theatre to its patrons. The theatricals helped fulfill the need for entertainment, romance, and escape, as well as offering delightful instruction and new experiences, albeit vicariously, as attested by the crowds that filled the auditorium for performance after performance during the three decades of the Theatre's existence. Extant comment unanimously affirms the "well-filled," "crowded," or "turn-away" houses. When "Dick," from the Ogden Daily Herald, visited the Theatre he found a "tumultuous" crowd. "When I arrived at the steps," he continued, "it was five minutes to seven o'clock, and when I arrived at the door, it was 7:20 ... . When I obtained a view of the ticket man, I was greeted with 'All tickets sold.' ' Fortunately, "Dick" obtained admission at the "actors' private staircase." 

Such acceptance supports the claim that the Brigham City group was "justly acknowledged as the best dramatic company in the Territory outside Salt Lake City." Additional support came from an anonymous visitor to Brigham City who found the Dramatic Association "a very creditable affair," that with a little more study and attention to "side speeches to the audience, and dialogue three-quarter face to the front. . . need not fear the criticisms of older and more experienced players."  No less an authority than Phil Margetts was "loud in his praise of the Brighamites' home company . . . ."  when he visited with the editors of the Ogden Junction on his return from performances in Brigham City. Moreover, when the Dramatic Association disbanded after the close of the

Courthouse Theatre, patrons soon pointed out that with a new theatre Brigham City could once again have a home company "ranked second in the Territory." Lack of dissent from neighboring towns lends credence to the claim, but perhaps the crowning compliment came from the "Gentile voice" of Corinne in the following newspaper article.

A crowd from town went to Brigham Saturday night to attend the regular Saturday night performance in the court house there. The play was "The Sergeant's Wife," and the building was packed with saints and saintesses, making it about an even thing to squeeze in. The troupe did well enough, considering, yet there is no particular danger of their turning the world over with their efforts for awhile to come. Near the close a small boy in the audience made a slight noise, which was made the occasion for "Chief-of-Police" White mounting to the stage and with hat on declaring, "This 'ere noise has got to be stopped; yer didn't come 'er to make fools of yerselves, and if you don't [stop] I'll see that yer do!" What the bold policeman meant by this rambling we could only conjecture, but the boy looked wise and we suppose he understood it. 

Although only implied the praise is eloquent when considered in the context of vituperation usually directed toward Brigham City from this source.

Even though the record is incomplete, no evidence indicates that comparable amateur companies in other Utah towns approached the Brigham City Dramatic Association in regularity of performance, continuity of organization, and consistency of acceptable quality of production.

By 1889 demands for space for the conventional uses of a courthouse required closure of the theatre and the consequent disbandment of the Dramatic Association. And although by 1891 the Brigham City Theatre Company transformed Rosenbaum's store into an elegant, $10,000 opera house and a second generation of Brighamites acted in a reorganized troupe, Brigham City never recaptured the same spirit, born of need and cooperation, that imbued the Courthouse Theatre.

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