Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar. Part 334 – Thomas G. Moses and Pittsburgh’s Avenue Theatre

Part 334: Thomas G. Moses and Pittsburgh’s Avenue Theatre

In 1895, Thomas G. Moses provided scenery for the Avenue Theatre in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It was also known as the “Family Avenue Theatre,” opening on Monday, November 11, 1895. The Avenue was one of three theaters on Fifth Avenue in Pittsburgh: The New grand Opera House, the Avenue Theatre and Tivoli Gardens Theatre.

The Avenue was originally known as the Harris Theatre from 1888 to 1895. The performance venue originated as a hall for the Independent Order of Odd Fellows Hall (I.O.O.F), located at 58-60-62 Fifth Avenue. By August of 1865, it was listed as an Opera House. Then another opera house appeared – the “new opera house,” or the Pittsburgh Opera House, opening in 1871. It was located directly behind the Harris Theatre (later known as the Avenue Theatre). The Pittsburgh Opera House was christened the “New Grand Opera House” in 1895, the same year that the Harris Theatre was renamed the Avenue Theatre.

Advertisement for Harry Davis’ Avenue Theatre in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Thomas G. Moses painted scenery for the venue when it opened in 1895.

From cellar to roof, newspaper reviews for the Avenue Theatre reported, “every vestige of the old Harris theater has been removed, and in its place is the coziest, prettiest and most convenient and best-appointed little theater in Pittsburgh.” (Pittsburgh Daily Post, 13 Nov 1895, page 9). Harry Davis was reported at spending over $30,000 to transform the property into “a delightful family theater.”

As with the Lowell Opera House in Massachusetts, architectural firm of J. B. McElfatrick & Sons provided the plans for the alteration, reporting “nothing but the four walls” would be left standing (New York Times, 29 May 1894, page 8). There was also an interesting comment made about the backstage area. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that the new proprietor hoped to create a stage that would accommodate “any kind of show, from quiet comedy to a grand spectacle.” The new proprietor, Harry Davis, created a house “anew” at the expense of $50.000” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 9 Nov 1895, page 5).

The Avenue’s seating capacity was increased to accommodate 2,600 people. 4,000 incandescent lights illuminated the auditorium and stage. The New York Times reported, “The scenery is the work of Thomas G. Moses, the celebrated Chicago scenic artist, and will compare favorably with his best productions found in the leading theaters of the country. The drop curtain is a beautiful work of art, agreeably harmonizing with the prevailing colors of the house. A fire-proof curtain has also been added to the equipment of the stage, and in the design of the building a sufficient number of exits has been included to make it possible to empty the house in two minutes” (New York Times, 29 May 1894, page 8).

The opening week performances included Alice Shaw, the famous ‘La Belle Siffleuse,” the “great Lady Whistler. Famed over two continents.” Other acts included A. O. Duncan, premiere ventriloquist; Lawrence & Harrington, the Bowery Spielers; Bryant & Saville, comedians; Dockstader, the black-faced comedian; and other “sterling vaudeville acts,” such as the Ariel ballet, John and Ella M’Carthy, M’Bride & Goodrich, Campbell & Evans, Minnie Lee, Edgar Seldon, and Carl Johnson.

Advertisement for the Avenue Theatre in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (20 Nov 1897, page 5).

Advertisements promised “continuous performances” and “ten hours of uninterrupted fun each day” from 1PM until 11PM (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 9 Nov 1895, page 5). The Avenue Theatre was marketed as venue that presented “high-class vaudeville,” as well as the “best of drama” and “superb comic opera.” For the opening, Charles Drew headed the 40-member Mackery Opera Company in the revival of the “Mascot.”

Davis’ gamble proved to be a success and by 1902 the Pittsburgh Press reported “There will be hilarious times at the Avenue Theatre this week, for the management have engaged a company of vaudeville performers whose stock and trade is to make people laugh. There is scarcely a serious act on the bill which would seem to prove that Proprietor and Manager Harry Davis has discovered that people go to a continuous show house to be amused and not to worry over the intricacies [sic.] of plots and problems” (19 October 1902, page 34). By 1897, the Avenue Theatre would be advertised as “the Mecca of refined Vaudeville,” still showing continuous entertainment daily (Pittsburgh Post Gazette 20 Nov. 1897, page 5).

The Pittsburgh Daily Post reported, “The auditorium is the temporary place of visitation for the public, and it has been shown that no pains have been spared to give pleasure and comfort. The same can be said for the world which lies behind Thomas Moses’ scene curtain – the stage” (10 Nov 1895, page 9).

Illustrations of the Boxes in the Avenue Theatre from the Pittsburgh Daily Post (10 Nov 1895, page 9).
Illustrations of the Avenue Theatre Lobby from the Pittsburgh Daily Post (10 Nov 1895, page 9).

To be continued…

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