Percy Williams

The Bushwick Theatre, built by Percy Williams in 1911

The son of a prosperous doctor, Williams (born this day in 1857) had entered show business as an actor in melodramas, touring with his own production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (known colloquially as a “Tom” show) and playing parts with his various companies. His entrepreneurial bent emerged when he cooked up a medicine show to hawk herb bags prepared by his father. He started out busking with a spiel on the street, then began booking halls and mounting full variety shows to sell these hokey cures. The profits from the medicine bags, enabled Williams, in partnership with chewing-gum magnate Thomas Adams Jr., to build a Brooklyn amusement park in 1893 known as Bergen Beach. The addition of a Casino to the park three years later represents Williams’ first experimentation with professional vaudeville, although his 1895 purchase of a plot of land in downtown Brooklyn shows he already had big plans. On that plot of land, in 1901, he opened what was then considered to be the most beautiful theater in the world, the Orpheum, at Fulton Street and Broadway in Brooklyn. In the meantime, he had taken over the old Brooklyn Music Hall (later renamed the Gotham) and made it his own. Williams was becoming a power. Despite a reputation for being the most generous of the major managers, he nevertheless joined Keith, Albee et al in forming the combine known as the United Booking Office (UBO) in 1907. In 1912, he cashed out of the business for good. He passed away in 1923. According to a provision in his will, his large estate became a home for aged and indigent actors.

To learn more about vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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