Theatrical Date Book, Season 1903-1904 of William Macauley, with complimentary coupon and photograph of two unknown gentlemen, collection of the author.
Everything is connected. The diary of an actor touring America is a key to that convergence, the quotidien record of the eternal, the day by day accounting of the everlasting pursuit of fame and fortune and fulfillment of the heart’s desire for love, for beauty, maybe even for truth.
Do you know how quickly the world changes? How fast time sweeps away a way of life barely taken for granted before it is gone forever or altered beyond all recognition? Once upon a time if a railroad stopped in a town in this country that town had an opera house – a nice name for a tavern unescorted ladies could enter with impunity but still, a place where you went to be entertained, amused, charmed, deceived, diverted, inspired by melodramas, comedy acts, minstrel and magic and variety shows performed by actors and artists and touring companies arriving by rail for one, maybe two performances before moving on to the next town, next railroad stop. 56 different shows in 1904 at the Chicago Opera House in Chicago Junction, Ohio, named for the junction of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad with the Chicago Railroad (later the town changed its name to Willard, Ohio, after the president of the B&O). Population in 1904, a little over 2000 souls. William Macauley performed in W.B. Patton’s play “The Little Homestead” at the Chicago Opera House on April 4, 1904. And in one hundred and thirty-nine other towns across the country in six months, between December and June of that year.
Today a few of those towns still have their opera houses, the buildings at any rate. A few have grown in population (Willard, Ohio has around 6000 residents today, nearly a three-fold increase from 1904), and some have shrunk: Cairo, Illinois where Macauley performed two shows on February 20 and 21st, had a population in 1904 of over 12,000; now less than 3000 live there. As for the railroads, Amtrak still connects some of the better known names on the map; the remaining lines are used now for transporting coal, cargo, toxic chemicals.
Melodrama to toxic chemicals; how far we’ve come. But 1904 was the year everything important happened. It was the beginning and it was also the end. It was the time when the ordinary and the magical converged.
To be continued.