Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Fred and Billy

1830 New York, no one-horse town

Fred Niblo, son of a Civil War veteran, put his horses up on the screen. On the eve of New Year’s Eve in 1925 the fifty-year-old director’s silent adaptation of a biblical novel by another Civil War veteran, Lew Wallace, premiered at New York’s George M. Cohan Theatre, on Broadway and 43rd Street. He may have gotten a good deal on the theater, by the way; he had been Cohan’s brother-in-law, until his wife died. The spectacular set piece of all versions of “Ben Hur” has been the chariot race. Audiences watched enraptured as Ramon Novarro and Francis X. Bushman guided their plunging vehicles at breakneck speed around Rome’s Circus Maximus. The sound of thundering hoof beats, of course were only in the viewer’s mind.

Which may have been the case ninety-five years previously with another Niblo. According to Charles H. Haswell, writing as The Octogenarian back in 1830, “In July a trotting course was opened on the ground in front of the "Kensington House" of William Niblo, on the east side of the Old Boston Road at Seventieth Street, which he had opened several years before.”

We met William “Billy” Niblo on our last visit to Manhattan, when the entrepreneur re-opened his renovated Niblo’s Garden at Broadway and Prince Street, in today’s SoHo neighborhood. If Haswell was correct Niblo’s flier on the ponies was a rip-roaring non-success. First; none of the readily-available sources make mention of the project, and there’s only a brief mention in one, of a Kensington House, described as being on the East River. No connection is made there with Niblo. Even the location is suspect. In 1830 Prince Street was considered as being practically in the country. Seventieth Street, had it existed, would have been way “out of town”. Even if the transcription misread Seventeenth Street, as I suspect, there’s no further mention of a trotting track, run by anyone, anywhere near the spot. Haswell never mentions it again in the thirty further years he kept an account of the city’s history. So we can probably score one equine success and one failure for the Niblos.

And, in case you’re wondering, no, they were not related. Fred Niblo’s real name was Frederick Liedtke. It’s most likely he took his stage name from the producer. History can be messy.

The 1830s’ sporting crowd would have to travel over to Long Island to watch racing steeds or the newly-popular trotters. But there was plenty else to do in Manhattan, especially if the theater was your pleasure. And here Haswell is a fine guide. Even though James Stuart returns from his travels at the beginning of June he mentions attending the theater only once. But diarist and former mayor Philip Hone can help us fill in some of the blanks.

About the time Stuart was heading for South Carolina lower Manhattan’s Chatham Garden Theatre, which had failed last year, then been briefly reborn as the American Opera House (for a limited run of three months), opened once again, this time as Blanchard's Amphitheatre. “Under this style very good equestrian performances, with rope-dancing and the like, were offered.” So, if you couldn’t bet on the horses in Manhattan you could at least watch them prance around a ring.

© 2006 David Minor / Eagles Byte

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