People's Theatre

St. Paul, Minnesota

first page of opening night program; June 11, 1888


There were evidently (at least) two theatres of this name in St. Paul at different times,
and perhaps one theatre using that name at times in Minneapolis.

A history of the first (1857) St. Paul theatre is contained in:

Theatrical Personalities of Old St. Paul
Frank M. Whiting


One factor that undoubtedly retarded St. Paul's dramatic development during the early 1850's was the lack of an adequate playhouse.
Prior to 1857 the only available theaters were crude frontier amusement houses.

Some of the difficulties encountered when such halls were used for theatrical purposes may be surmised from a letter of Sara Fuller, a member of a pioneer St. Paul family, in which she tells of attending a performance in the Empire Block:

There were no windows excepting in front, and the stageing took those off, and all the air
there was for the audience were the skylights overhead. We had been there about ten minutes
when it commenced raining and they closed the skylights, and it was an oppressive warm night
and they had been closed about five minutes when I began to grow faint and Sam went out with
me to the door, and went for a tumbler of water for me and when he came back I had fainted and
fell upon the doorstep. . . My bonnet was completely covered with mud, lamed one side of my
face and had to wear a patch for more than a week. I did not attend any more theatre parties.


The first man actually to do something toward improving theatrical conditions in St. Paul was Henry Van Liew. Unlike most of the theatrical managers who preceded him. Van Liew went to St. Paul for the purpose of making the city his home and providing it with a permanent theatrical company. When he arrived, in the spring of 1857, the city was nearing the climax of an extravagant financial boom. Van Liew immediately set to work on the construction of a temporary playhouse, which was intended to serve only until arrangements could be completed for a really first-class theater, but financial panic, fire, and civil war combined to defeat his plans. His temporary structure, the People's Theater, consequently holds the distinction of being the only budding in St. Paul constructed primarily for theatrical purposes before the completion of the Opera House in 1867."

According to one description, Van Liew's theater "cost the modest sum of $750. The sides were of rough boards, the roof of canvas. . . . The interior of the theater was as primitive as the days. There were no galleries. The floor raised gradually toward the rear, was seated with benches. The stage was cramped and small, and there was little attempt at decoration." A photograph of the exterior, in the possession of the Minnesota Historical Society, seems to bear out this description.

The statement that it had no galleries, however, appears to be an error, since daily advertisments listed admission to the "colored gallery" at twenty-five cents. Nothing is known of the lighting except that there were footlights, a fact deduced from an account of how a Chippewa Indian walked to the footlights and presented the star. Miss Henrietta Irving, with a diamond ring valued at seventy-five dollars. Van Liew brought an extensive wardrobe, good properties, and stage settings from Dubuque, Iowa, where he had been associated earlier with the Julien Theater.

The People's Theater was completed and ready to open on June 27, 1857. Van Liew had assembled a capable company, which included William S. Forrest, brother of the great Edwin Forrest, as stage manager, and R. E. J. Miles, later a producer of national importance, as prompter. For the first six weeks Van Liew encountered keen competition. Sallie St. Clair and her Varieties were at the height of their popularity, a third theater was opened and variety entertainment was abundant.

Then early in August the financial panic struck the town. All other forms of entertainment quickly melted away, but Van Liew continued, keeping his doors open in spite of hard times and empty seats. Finally, on October 19, 1857, even Van Liew had to give up, but not permanently. With the return of warm weather he was ready for the opening of a new season. Most of his original players returned, and to these Van Liew added the Old Gent's Band.

Dion Boucicault's new drama, The Poor of New York, which had the timely subtide "or, the Panic of 1857," was one of the important productions of the season. Another highlight was Mazeppa, which reached a sensational climax when a trained horse with Miles strapped to its back dashed wildly across the stage. The feat won the plaudits of both audiences and critics and it was soon to make the name of Bob Miles famous throughout the nation.

On September 27, 1858, the season came to a close, but on April 23 of the following year the People's Theater was reopened for its third season. Apparently Van Liew planned to make this a banner year. From May 9 to June 2 he featured Mr. and Mrs. James W. Wallack in the best season of drama and tragedy the city had yet seen. But as soon as the Wallacks left, attendance dropped off. General business conditions seem to have entered that darkest phase just before the dawn. Newspapers often printed extra pages to take care of foreclosures. Toward the end of July the company ceased to give regular performances, although special benefits continued into August.

The final blow came on September 8, 1859. A Republican political rally was in progress, when flames were discovered under the stage. The cause of the blaze was never determined. Some believed that sparks from a lamp or a lighted cigar had fallen through the rickety stage floor onto the combustible material beneath; others openly accused the Democrats of having fired the building in order to break up the rally. In any event a heavy wind soon swept the flames through the building and, although the audience escaped, nothing else could be saved. Van Liew lost everything — properties, costumes, scenery, and effects.

During the following winter he and his foster daughter, the beautiful Azlene Allen, danced, sang, and entertained whenever and wherever possible in an effort to make a living. At last Van Liew gathered up his few remaining belongings and started down the river on a barge loaded with Minnesota sand. Somewhere along the way the barge sank, leaving Van Liew penniless, but in spite of everything he went to Memphis and started over again. It is little wonder that, upon learning that he had become a proprietor of the Memphis Burlesque Opera House, a writer for a St. Paul paper lauded Van Liew as a man of irrepressible "courage and enterprise." Many years later "a St. Paul gentleman ran across him at Deadwood, gray and grizzled but almost as cheery as in the days when he catered to the elite of St. Paul in the amusement fine."

With the passing of Van Liew, the first period in the history of the St. Paul theater came to a close. Civil war soon intervened and cut short all thoughts of stage entertainment. It was not until 1864 that a regular theatrical company was again seen in St. Paul, and by that time the old plays, the old players, and the old playhouses that had stirred audiences with excitement, laughter, and tears during the 1850's had disappeared.

Permission to print the above was given to me by the kind assistance of the Minnesota Historical Society.

We are still searching for more information relating to the progress and fate of the second People's Theatre.
The following newspaper clippings are all we can find at present:

From "The Sporting Life" (V. 11, #8 / American Drama section), May 30, 1888:

Linda Dietz, Lizette Le Baron, Ada Ceaves, Mary Myors, A. S. Lipman,
Charles Coote, Charles Stanley, Myron Calice, Herbert Ayling and
Harold Russell have been engaged for the company which opens at
the People's Theatre, in St. Paul, Juue 4, for tbe summer. The
repertory will include "Our Boys," "The Ticket of Leave Man," etc.

St. Paul Daily Globe
August 28, 1887, page 11

"Work on the People's Theatre
is progressing rapidly."

(typical vintage Hazel Kirke poster)

People's Theatre Fined

"The Salt Lake Herald"
(Salt Lake City, Utah)
February 19, 1888, Page 5 - Theatre Section)


Hazel Kirke is a four-act play in written by American
actor and dramatist Steele MacKaye between c1878. MacKaye
meant it expressly for New York City's Madison Square
Theatre, which he had recently completely remodeled.

Originally titled An Iron Will, the play toured
until renovations on the theatre were complete. It
premiered on February 4, 1880 and was immensely
successful. Starring Effie Ellsler in the title role
it ran for 486 performances before closing May 31, 1881.

Because MacKaye revolutionized the concept of multiple
companies performing the same production simultaneously. By
1883 the play had been performed more than two thousand times.

Obviously the People's Theatre was performing a "pirated"
copy of the play at a time when copyright laws were just
beginning to be strictly enforced, and they were made to pay.

The question is, was it actually the St. Paul theatre they
were referring to? (As it was not yet officially opened.) I can
find no newspaper advertisements for the production other than
an evidently legitimate one at the Grand Opera House in 1884
and a benefit performance at the Minneapolis People's Theatre
for Wallace D. Shaw in May of 1888 (three months after this date
and hardly the kind of event one actor would fine a theatre for
holding in honor of a fellow performer.)

"Western Appeal"
(Saint Paul)
March 24, 1888, page 6

Our American Cousin is being performed,
obviously by the Minneapolis company. This
light comedy-of-manners will forever be
be linked in American history with Ford's
Theatre and Lincoln's assassination.

Western Appeal
(Saint Paul)
April 14, 1888, page 4



I can find no information on this play.
Like Forsake Me Not, it may have
been written by a stock company member.

"Western Appeal"
(St. Paul)
April 28, 1888, page 5)

As if to press their advantage before the
St. Paul People's theatre opening in June,
People's Theatre of Minneapolis wishes
the readership of "Western Appeal" to note
that Streets of New York has drawn
an "immense crowd."

"Western Appeal"
(St. Paul)
May 26, 1888, page 5

An extremely laudatory article on
the Minneapolis People's Theatre,
and the performances offered for that

"Western Appeal"
(St. Paul)
June 9, 1888, page 5)

Preparing for opening night, Forsake Me Not,
written by two members of the reportory company
(and never performed again, to my knowledge),
is advertised for the St. Paul People's Theatre.

Also advertised is the beginning of an opera season
at the People's Theatre in Minneapolis, just as the
season at their Grand Opera House is ending.

"Western Appeal"
(St. Paul)
June 16, 1888, page 4)

On this day the St. Paul seems the be
lone theatre advertiser in "Western Appeal"
with its new production of White Feather.

Western Appeal"
(Saint Paul)
June 23, 1888, Image 5)

Ticket-of-Leave Man

An English melodrama about an innocent
man wrongly exiled to Australia and returned
home via a "ticket-of-leave" (branding him an
ex-convict). This might have been a sensitive
subject in the Mid-West, where so many people
from the East Coast had migrated in search of
fresh start.

Meanwhile, the People's Theatre in Minneapolis
is running Gilbert & Sullivan's ever-popular,
light-hearted Mikado.

St. Paul Daily Globe
June 24, 1888, page 11

People's theatre stock company
travels to Minnetonka where it
will join with members of other
area companies for an unnamed
event. (Possibly a benefit
performance for an ailing performer.
This was a quite common thing to do
in the days when actors had no health
insurance and little savings.)

"Western Appeal"
(St. Paul)
June 30, 1888, page 5)

Engaged heads the bill in St. Paul
while the Minneapolis People's Theatre
presents the Deshon Star Opera in Olivette.

"Western Appeal"
(St. Paul)
July 7, 1888, page 7)

A comedy in three acts written by Henry James Byron,
Our Boys was first performed on January 16, 1875
in London at the Vaudeville Theatre. Until it was surpassed
by the run of Charley's Aunt in the 1890s, it was the world's
longest-running play, up to that time, with 1,362 performances
until April 1879. The play contains the famous line,
"Life’s too short for chess."

scene from Our Boys

The week's competition was the Minneapolis People's Theatre,
presenting the Deshon Opera Company and their
production of Three Black Cloaks.

"Western Appeal"
(St. Paul)
July 14, 1888, page 6)


Once again St. Paul is the only theatre
advertising on this date with its production
of East Lynne

"Western Appeal"
(St. Paul)
July 21, 1888, page 4)

Society drama Newport.

"Western Appeal"
(St. Paul)
July 28, 1888, page 4)

A "sensational" play,
London By Night.

"Western Appeal"
(St. Paul)
August 4, 1888, page 4)

On this day the St. Paul seems the be
lone theatre advertiser in "Western Appeal"
with its new production of Caste
("After years of sham heroics and superhuman
balderdash, Caste delighted everyone
by its freshness, its nature, its humanity"
- original New York review) a three-act
comedy by T. W. Robertson, also the author of
another People's Theatre production, School.

"Western Appeal"
(St. Paul)
August 18, 1888, page 4)

Here we see the St. Paul People's
Theatre competing not only against
its sister theatre in Minneapolis
but the newer Olympic Theatre and
the older, more established Opera House.

"Western Appeal"
(St. Paul;
August 25, 1888, page 4)

Again the St. Paul stock company
is competing against both the Olympic,
the Minneapolis People's Theatre and
the Opera House.

"Western Appeal"
(St. Paul)
September 1, 1888, page 4)

Besides the Minneapolis People's
Theatre presenting 49 - or -
Child of the Sierras
, the
Olympic was showing "an entirely
new company of vaudeville stars," the
Grand Opera house had a melodrama,
Harbor Lights and the Fiske
University Glee Club was performing
at the St. James A.M.E. Church.

Tough competition.

Western Appeal
(St. Paul, Minn.)
September 08, 1888, page 1
Another political convention, but this
time the house doesn't burn down!

Also, a review of the Fiske University
Glee Club and kudos for the new People's
Theatre production, 49.

"Western Appeal"
(St. Paul)
September 8, 1888, page 4

A Woman of the People based on the
French melodrama by Adolphe-Philippe Dennery

"Western Appeal"
(St. Paul)
September 22, 1888, page 4)


"Western Appeal"
(St. Paul)
September 29, 1888, page 4)

Camille is a classic tear-
jerker, but most men in Minnesota
would probably preferred the jolly
"Burlesquers" at the Olympic or the
spine-tingling Dr. Jekyl and
Mr. Hyde
at the rival People's
Theatre. For the die-hard music
lovers, Emma Abbott and her English
several well-loved classics like Mikado
at the Grand Opera House.

"Western Appeal"
(St. Paul)
October 6, 1888, page 5)

I'm also having trouble finding
anything on Martha, the Factory
, which may have been another
in-house production.

"Western Appeal"
(St. Paul)
October 10, 1888, page 4)

The Marble Heart - or -
The Sculptor's Dream.

"Western Appeal"
(St. Paul)
October 27, 1888, page 2

Romance of a
Poor Young Man

St. Paul Daily Globe
June 12, 1889, Page 8

How She Loves Him

St. Paul Daily Globe
June 21, 1889, page 8

Lost In London

New York Evening World
August 18, 1889 - page 3

The news is offical, coming from New York -
the St. Paul People's Theatre stock company
has disbanded. The building itself is now in
the hands of a Mr. Harris, who will probably
rename it (as the People's Theatre in Minneapolis
will later become the Bijou) and it will be rented
out, mostly to touring repertory companies.

New Ulm weekly review
(New Ulm, Minn.)
June 10, 1891 - pg.5

Several of the former Peoples Theatre stock company
members seem to have found a place in the touring
repertory company of May Louise Algen.

The Anaconda Standard
(Anaconda, Montana)
Thursday Morning, October 24, 1895

Another of the former stock company
members, Al Lipman, has found a place
in the theatre of Anaconda, Montana.

Programs available from this theatre:

  • Forsake Me Not (1888)

  • Return to Index of Theatres