Scenes and Scandals
Theater has played an important role in Richmond history. From its architecture to its scandals, there’s no lack of drama here in the archives!
Our photo collection affords views of the city’s whimsically-designed, now vanished theaters, like the Bijou. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the drama business thrived so well that theaters sprung up in unlikely places. On the James River, the James Adams Floating Theater troupe performed comedies and melodramas. Even the roof of the Jefferson Hotel supported a theater!
In addition to the playhouses themselves, our photo collection includes saucy actress cabinet cards and cast photos from both professional and amateur groups. Our ephemera collection offers hundreds of broadsides and programs. Digging deeper into the vertical files, you can learn about specific theaters, schools, troupes, and scandals that rocked the city. For example, in the winter of 1914, Evelyn Nesbit Thaw was arrested onstage at the Academy of Music after dancing for a packed theater.
The News Leader article reporting the incident noted that “her dance with Mr. Clifford was rather acrobatic, but by no means unusual. The finish was an Arab Whirl.” After this move, a police officer stepped onstage for the arrest. Accused of causing “serious harm to the morals of the community,” Thaw was brought before Judge John Crutchfield that same evening. At the trial, five ministers spoke out against Thaw, claiming that she represented “the exaltation of vice.” Strangely enough, these ministers admitted that they had never seen Mrs. Thaw dance, nor had they ever spoken with anyone who had. The problem, they argued, being not her tango or the Arab Whirl, but her reputation, recently aired in national newspapers. In short, her estranged husband stood accused of murdering her former lover, but was declared insane at the second trial. As for Richmonders, weeks of highly-publicized moral outrage at Mrs. Thaw’s audacity to show herself in public only sold more tickets. Theater-goers who had packed the theater now packed the courtroom. When Judge Crutchfield decided that no law had been broken and Mrs. Thaw could dance, the crowd burst into applause. According to the Evening Journal: “Justice Crutchfield put a big chew of tobacco in his mouth and went back to his private office. Every man in the audience who had the price hurried down to the Academy box office and bought a ticket.”
Valentine Richmond History Center