Readers of this blog (indeed, any source on 19th century entertainment) will often come upon the name of the famous venue Niblo’s Garden. Some of the folks I’ve written about who performed or presented there included P.T. Barnum, Billy McClain, The Ravel Family, Joe Coyne, La Carmencita, and Sr. Antonia Blitz. But have you ever stopped to wonder, “Who’s this ‘Niblo’ when he’s at home?”
William Niblo (ca. 1798-1878) was an Irish immigrant who moved to New York as a child , apprenticed in taverns, and opened his first establishment the Bank Street Coffee House when still a teenager. By 1822 he had amassed a small empire, including the coffee house, the New-York Marine Bath, and a fancy hotel called the Kensington House.
The profits from these allowed him the following year to build his famous garden, an enormous pleasure resort on the old circus grounds at Broadway and Prince Street, that eventually contained a public garden, a saloon, a hotel, and one of the city’s biggest and most important theatres. The resort and its entertainments evolved over time. Initally, only music was performed. In 1834 the first of its theatres was built. Minstrel shows** and other variety was presented. Barnum exhibited there in 1835. The theatre burned in 1846 and was rebuilt in 1849.
This version of the theatre hosted the famous 1866 production of The Black Crook, and many subsequent early American musicals, as well as the 1850 premiere of Verdi’s opera MacBeth. The theatre burned again in 187 2 and was rebuilt with the help of department store tycoon A.T. Stewart. Niblo passed away in 1878 and was interred at Green-wood Cemetery, but his venue soldiered on until 1895.
By then New York’s theatre district had moved uptown to its 4th or 5th location, and was about to move yet again to Times Square. By that time too vaudeville and burlesque were going strong and movies were in the process of being born. Niblo’s Garden was very old hat indeed. Its last iteration was torn to accommodate an office building.
To find out more about vaudeville past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc
**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad.