One of Herbert Asbury’s more outlandish anecdotes concerns a street gang of the 1870s Five Points area known as the Baxter Street Dudes, led by “Baby-Face Willie.” (see Gangs…, Chapter XI, Section 3) The dudes set aside their ruffian inclinations to pursue thespianism, and converted a dark Baxter Street basement into a pioneer of people’s theater, called the Grand Duke’s Theater. According to Asbury, the company acquired scene props by stealing them from legitimate theaters and merchants, and after a flourish of success were beaten down by attacks from rival street gangs.
Later commentators, following Asbury’s lead, suggested that the fare offered by the Baxter Street Dudes reflected their own mean origins, and consisted of tales of robberies and killings, with many scenes of blood-letting.
While this is an entertaining image to consider, it strays far from the truth. There was no street gang known as the Baxter Street Dudes, and “Baby-Face Willie” was a fiction. However, there definitely was a Sixth Ward Baxter Street basement stage run by juveniles known as the Grand Duke’s Theater, and its true story is as every bit as wonderful as Asbury’s fable of delinquent actor wannabes, if not more so.
The boys who formed the Grand Duke’s Theater in late 1873 were a group of six to eight Sixth Ward newsies (newspaper boys) and bootblacks, ranging in age from 9-16. They came from poor or modest families, but none were known to be homeless. Though they hardly could have grown up ignorant of street crimes, they appear to have been (with a few exceptions) law-abiding. Several were quite literate, and were known to have attended school. Most of all, they were fans of popular theater, especially of productions of the Bowery theaters: variety and musical theater, i.e. what would later be known as vaudeville.
According to one of the group’s co-founders, Henry Campora, the building at 17 Baxter Street was the basement of his father’s tavern, with its own side entrance on Worth Street. Campora was the scenery painter, ticket booth operator, and usher, while the performers were managed by Pete Connors. The star performer was Terence Sullivan, who did an Irish comedy/dancing act. The other members included Miles O’Reilly, Sam and Dick Bernard, George Hawthorn, Richard Burke, Dave Conroy, and Frank Bush. Other infrequent company members (some of which might have been stage names) included Michael Kelliher, John Shay, Jack Daly, Jack Conway, James McGrath, Ed Mulcahy, Thomas Wing, Michael Boyd, and Thomas J. O’Brien.
The fare they offered consisted mainly of comedic sketches, with a heavy emphasis on blackface minstrels, along with German, Jewish, and Irish caricatures. The same type of acts were found in the most popular Bowery theaters of the time–there was no meanness or violence to speak of. However, that did not stop moralists like Dr. Thomas DeWitt Talmadge, the leading religious orator of Brooklyn and New York in the 1870s, from decrying the wickedness of the theater’s offerings. In response, the Duke’s Thomas J. O’Brien published a masterful mocking letter to the editor of The New York Herald, poking fun at “Tallrage”:
Years later, Henry Campora recalled the origins of the group:
The newspaper feature that brought the world to the boy’s candlelit basement stage was the January 17, 1874 edition of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, which ran a feature spanning 3 pages, accompanied by the engravings seen below.
Though nearly always called “The Grand Duke’s Theater,” a hand-made sign was hung by the stage announcing it as the “Grand Duke’s Oprea House,” with Opera misspelled. The Russian Grand Duke had left the United States in early 1872, so the story of his visit to the dark basement may be apocryphal; but many other notables did take in the show, including the leading theatrical producer in New York, Tony Pastor.
The Grand Duke Theater quickly ran into trouble for operating without a license, which cost $500; however, their legal issues seemed to have faded after this harassment was exposed in newspapers, and so the show went on. The boys were invited to perform at the Cooper Union Institute; and Dave Conroy and Jack Daly were invited to join a variety run at one of Pastor’s theaters. On several occasions, the boys collected their profits for a week and donated them to a benefit cause.
Several of the boys went on to have long careers in vaudeville: Sam Bernard, Dick Bernard, Dave Conroy, Jack Daly, and Frank Bush. The theater’s location at 17 Baxter Street was shuttered when Campora’s family moved to New Jersey, but in 1877-1878 the Grand Duke’s Theater reopened further east, on Water Street, with a new cast of performers. From 1874-1876, The Grand Duke’s Theater spawned some competing theaters run by boys, from which the leading comedy vaudeville duo, Lew Fields and Joe Weber, emerged.
The Grand Duke’s star, Terence Sullivan, died as a young man while swimming off the New York Battery. Another featured performer, Miles O’Reilly, was arrested at age 19 for stabbing his landlord over a rent dispute. This, however, was the only reported act of criminality associated with the theater. Their props and costumes were homemade, not stolen.