12 Sep 2005 -- On this day in 1866 The Broadway musical is born.

The Black Crook opens at Niblo's Garden, a musical extravaganza featuring a melodramatic plot and scantily-dressed ballerinas who serve as chorus girls. Tickets ranged from five cents to $1.50. It was the first Broadway show to run for more than a year. A musical starring Zizi Jeanmaire called The Girl in Pink Tights, which is based on the story of this show's creation, will open on Broadway in 1954.

Niblo's Garden, Corner of Broadway and Prince Street, 1828

In 1823, the Irish impresario William Niblo purchased Columbian Garden, as it was originally called, and added the Sans Souci Theatre, a saloon, and a hotel to the landscaped grounds. Niblo's opened in 1829. The fashionable entertainment center could accommodate 3,000 spectators, who came to see such legendary performers as Joseph Jefferson, Charles Kean, Edwin Forrest, Charlotte Cushman, and Adelina Patti. The Philharmonic in its early years performed at Niblo's, and it was said that the polka was introduced there in 1844.

Wood engraving, from D. T. Valentine's Manuals of the Corporation of the City of New York, 1865
Eno Collection

Niblo's Garden
Broadway and Prince Street

  • William Niblo purchased the Columbian Garden and added the Sans Souci Theatre, a saloon, and a Hotel and in 1829, he opened Niblo's Garden.
  • September 18, 1846, Niblo's Garden burned at four o'clock in the morning. The building was destroyed in 2 hours.
  • Rebuilt in 1849
  • Demolished 1895
Niblo's Garden became famous because it was used for several landmark productions. The Black Crook, for example, permanently altered the New York theater world by running much longer than was usual at the time, and by showing much more flesh than was usual at the time.

The Black Crook was reviewed by Mark Twain, who wrote:
"The scenery and legs are everything... Girls - nothing but a wilderness of girls - stacked up, pile on pile, away aloft to the dome of the theatre... dressed with a meagerness that would make a parasol blush."
In 1866, a Parisian ballet troupe was imported to perform at the Academy of Music. The theater burned to the ground before the show could be staged, stranding the performers and financially draining the show's producers. They, in turn, went to another impresario, William Wheatley, manager of Niblo's Garden, who was preparing a melodrama called The Black Crook.

Niblo's Garden, on Broadway and Prince Street, was a palatial theater by the day's standards. Built in the early 1840's, it became famous for producing small dramas and comedies interspersed with "musical entertainments". Wheatley decided to turn The Black Crook into a musical extravaganza. For the first time ever, audiences saw a drama; were entertained by an orchestra, and saw a hundred gypsies kicking up their heels. When it opened, it shocked, outraged and totally delighted American audiences, and a new, totally American art form, the Broadway Musical, had been created. The Black Crook had a run of 16 months, and grossed over 1 million dollars.

A playbill from 1877:

A satirical review of Charles Albert Fechter (1822/23-1879),
the Anglo-German actor, as Hamlet,
Niblo's Garden, New York, early 1870:

Charles Fechter as Hamlet
(photo: Boning & Small, London, circa 1872)

Our Firemen, The History of the NY Fire Departments

The Calamity at Niblo's Old Theater and Burning of the New

And now we come to one of the most memorable years in the fire history of New York--1835.
On September 17, Niblo's Garden had a narrow escape. For a neighbor it had a fireworks manufactory. About one o'clock in the afternoon the spontaneous combustion of some articles took place. Three or four explosions in rapid succession alarmed every one in the locality, and the firemen were called. Before they reached the scene, however, the fire had spread to Niblo's Garden, damaged it to the extent of fifteen thousand dollars. But a fatality was a still sadder result of the conflagration. The persons employed in the theater, and who were preparing for the evening performance, had barely time to escape before the building was enveloped in flames. A colored boy named Isaac Freeman was slow in getting out. In the upper part of the building two firemen were fighting the conflagration. One was Fire Warden Purdy, Jr., of the Tenth Ward (a son of Alderman Purdy), and the other W. Harris, of No. 2 Company. Volumes of thick black smoke accompanied by tongues of fire suddenly rolled around them. The firemen called to Freeman to get on his knees and crawl along with them. But Freeman was almost instantly suffocated, and Purdy and Harris then made a dash thorough the flames and with difficulty got through a window. They crawled along the gutters, and at last, amid the congratulatory shouts of the crowd, succeeded in reaching a ladder. Purdy's left hand was badly burned and his hair and face scorched. Harris escaped without injury. The fire did not prevent a concert taking place next night as announced. It was Mons. Gillaud's Benefit Concert, at which Signorina Albina Stella, Mrs. Franklin, Signor Montressor, and other well-known artists of the day assisted. The loss was about fifteen thousand dollars.

In early years a circus called the "Stadium" was established don the northeasterly corner of Broadway and Prince Street. These premises were purchased when Bayard's farm was sold off in lots by Mr. Van Rensselaer, and occupied the site of the Metropolitan Hotel and Niblo's Garden. Shortly after the war of 1812 the inclosure was used as a place for drilling militia officers who were cited to appear at the "Stadium" for drill. The circus edifice was surrounded by a high fence, the entrance being on Prince Street. Afterwards two brick buildings were erected on Broadway, one of which was for some time occupied by James Fenimore Cooper, the novelist. William Niblo, previously proprietor of the Bank Coffee House in Pine Street, removed to this locality in the year 1828, and established a restaurant and public garden. In the center of the garden was still remaining the old circus building, which was devoted by Mr. Niblo to exhibitions of theatrical performances of a gay and attractive character, which soon attained such popularity as to induce him to erect a building of more pretensions as a theater. This edifice was constructed even with a line of Broadway, but having a blank face on that street, the entrance being from within the garden. The latter was approached from Broadway. The interior of the garden was spacious and adorned with shrubbery, and walks lighted up with festoons of lamps. This view shows the condition of the Niblo's Garden before the erection of the theater on Broadway at present.