1792, August 9. Commerce. Culture. Theater.
The contract to construct the new theater for West and Bignall was given to Captain Anthony Toomer, with the understanding that the building was to be finished in January 1793. The lot for the theater was a triangle parcel at Broad and Middleton streets, and the high ground of Savage’s Green (present-day New Street), purchased from Henry Middleton for £500 sterling.
There is some evidence that the theater was designed by James Hoban, who had lived in Charleston for a couple of years while helping design and build the Charleston County Courthouse.
Rendering of the New Theater at Savage’s Green, facing Broad Street (present day location of New and Broad Streets)
Sarah Bernhardt appeared at the Academy of Music in “La Tosca” on January 21, 1892. Her appearance was treated like that of royalty. A local reviewer for the “News and Courier”, who referred to Bernhardt as “the divine Sarah,” also wrote that the theater “had rarely held as brilliant and cultivated an audience who were spellbound through love, hate, scorn, revenge, and disgust, all of which had full sway in the role.”
The two lower floors of the Academy sold out for Bernhardt’s performance within forty-eight hours. The day before, the “News and Courier” warned the audience about the “bonnet boycott” if they were attending.
(From “The News and Courier, Jan. 20, 1892)
Bonnets and Bernhardt do not go together. We do not mean … that the Divine Sarah has discarded the use of bonnets; on the contrary her headgear is said to be perfectly lovely; and we wish to convey the idea to the ladies of Charleston that bonnets will be entirely out of place at the Bernhardt performance … It is suggested that all ladies leave their bonnets at home unless indeed they are small enough not to interfere with the view.
“A Sufferer” goes so far as to suggest that it would be entirely proper for the Reporters of the News and Courier to take down for publication the names of all the ladies who go to the Academy wearing any particularly offensive hats or bonnets. Another correspondent “who paid three dollars to see Bernhardt, and not to gaze at ‘Miss Brown’s bonnet’” suggests that the new Chief of Police might distinguish the beginning of his administration by posting a strong force of men at the Academy to keep all the high hats out of the house!
It is true that some ladies have to wear hats as a protection, but the ladies of Charleston never look so sweet and charming as when they display their queenly heads unencumbered by the frippery of the milliner’s art. There is no reason why any lady in Charleston should keep her head covered at the Bernhardt performance tomorrow night.
Academy of Music photo: from “Memories of the Professional and Social Life of John E. Owens, By His Wife.” 1892.
Sarah Bernhardt photo: from Library of Congress