Ice, Snow, and the Show: The Blizzard of 1888
By: Tom McMorrow and T.E. McMorrow
It was warmer than normal the beginning of March. Crocuses began popping out of the ground in Central Park. On March 11, 1888, a light rain began to fall. By the next day, the temperatures had plummeted, eventually hitting a low of six degrees, and New York City was under attack from the worst blizzard in its history. The storm raged for two full days. In Gravesend, Brooklyn, snow drifts were recorded at 50 feet in height.
The new technologies then in place, that of telephone and electricity, along with the telegraph, meant that over the streets of New York, as well as the still-independent city of Brooklyn, a spaghetti-like maze of wires was suspended from poles. During the blizzard, the wires froze and came crashing down, leaving the two great cities in darkness, and incommunicado.
All ground transportation came to a halt. Across New York, the network of elevated trains stopped in place. If you were a lucky passenger, your train had stopped at a station. But many straphangers spent two days huddling for warmth, stuck between stations, high above the city streets.
Over 200 people died in the city. The stock exchange shut down for the duration, as did almost every other business.
Except, at least in part, for one: the business of theater.
The biggest stars on Broadway, Sir Henry Irving, the Shakespearean actor whose Lyceum Theater company was wrapping up its American tour, and his leading lady, Miss Ellen Terry, whose correspondence with her admirer George Bernard Shaw is considered a classic of letter-writing, defied the blizzard and got to the Star Theater at 13th Street and Broadway, to appear in "Faust."
Also wading his way down Broadway through the drifting snow, dodging falling ice and frozen live wires, was the company’s manager, Bram Stoker. It is said that he used Irving as the inspiration for his 1897 Gothic horror classic, "Dracula," which he originally titled "The Un-Dead."
And Augustin Daly’s star-studded company, whose production of "A Midsummer Night’s Dream" was one of the big hits of the season, made it to Daly’s Theater on West 30th Street and Broadway at the height of the storm. The company included names like John Drew, Jr., Otis Skinner, and Ada Rehan.
In "The Life of Augustin Daly," written by his brother, John Francis Daly, it says that "…Notwithstanding the difficulties of travel, every member of the company was at the theater, and the performance was given. Some members of the cast came from Brooklyn, and some from Harlem."
A newspaper report said the gallant company turned what could have been "A Midwinter Night’s Nightmare" into The Bard’s midsummer "Dream." And although the audiences were small to tiny, they gave the actors the experience of being cheered at every entrance and exit, with loving "Bravos!" at the end.
But, in an apparent case of low-tech trumping the state-of-the-art, at least for a few days, not all companies were able to take the stage.
The Broadway Theater had opened its doors on 40th Street just south of Longacre Square to the public with a production of "La Tosca," a comic opera starring Fanny Davenport, on March 3. The theater had replaced the demolished Cosmopolitan. Designed by J.B. McElfatrick, considered in his time the father of contemporary American theater design, it was truly a gem, eschewing the English class-based design for a more egalitarian one.
Articles that appeared before the show opened emphasized the show’s sexuality, and it the production had had a good opening week.
State-of-the-art in theater meant, of course, electric lighting. Thomas Edison had patented the light bulb in 1879: the new technology swept across the western world. The first American theater to install electric lights was the Bijou Theater in Boston in 1882.
But, while much safer than the theater technology it replaced, gas lighting, (yes, there actually was a dimmer board for gas-lit theaters. A stage hand would raise or lower the levels of gas to achieve the desired effect) the blizzard would reveal one flaw in the mechanics of the delivery of the new power source, as opposed to gas: the wiring was all above ground, sitting on poles, vulnerable to the elements, while the gas pipes were buried underground. In the case of the gas-lit theaters during the blizzard, the show would, indeed, go on.
The Broadway Theater was dark for several days, and though "La Tosca" reopened, it closed for good soon thereafter. While the economic impact of the storm may have been partly to blame, tepid reviews, and a script watered down to avoid censorship undoubtedly played a role, as well.
In the aftermath of the blizzard, the infrastructure of New York was changed forever. All wiring was sent underground, along with, eventually, mass transit, with the introduction of the subway in 1909, just in time for Broadway’s final move north on the map of Manhattan, to what is now the Times Square area, where it has braved many a storm, since.