Copied from The Lansing Journal – MI – Saturday, May 12, 1906
Lansing’s Early History – The First Shows
It was in 1847 that the capital of the state of Michigan was moved to the town of Michigan, renamed Lansing; and in February 1848, while the first legislature which met at the new capital was still in session, the first opera troupe to exhibit in the future auto metropolis appeared in the dining room of the old Seymour house, now Franklin Terrace, on Franklin avenue east.
Wood & Gillam’s Minstrels was the first show staged here and the dining room was packed with state officials, legislatures, townspeople and visitors from Dewitt and other places. Van Rensselaer Tooker can remember well the show which the two mulattoes and their troupe presented, and it is perfectly evident that the event, the first of the kind he or Lansing had ever seen left a vivid impression upon his memory.
“There were twelve members of the company,” he says, “all colored men, and they gave a regular old-fashioned minstrel show. It was there I first heard that song “The Camptown Races,” with the chorus which became famous: “I’ll bet my money on the bob-tailed mare, who’ll bet on the gray?
“Those minstrels were reckoned very good in those days, and they certainly had one of the finest shows of its class I ever saw.
“The next show which came to Lansing was the Antonio Brothers, Frenchman, acrobats, who exhibited at the same place to a large house. Many people had to be turned away. As I remember it, the troupe consisted of the father, who was the manager, four sons and two daughters.
“Shows were given in different halls throughout the city after that. In March 1873, the first entertainment was given in Buck’s opera house, before it was finished, a fly-by-night concern exhibiting there. The opera house was formally opened May 3, 1873, by Edwin Booth in ‘Hamlet’, exhibiting to a house which netted $1,596. That night 30 tickets were sold to Greenville people. May 9, the same year, Joseph Jefferson appeared in ‘Rip Van Winkle’, playing to a $900 house.
“Lawrence Barrett appeared here in ‘Cardinal Richelieu’, the date I do not remember, it was soon after the house was opened. Barrett and I were chums in Detroit, where we lived together as boys. Barrett used to ‘supe’ in Ellis & Parker’s old theatre there, and would frequently get passes for me. Later he became a bell boy in the old Michigan Exchange, then he set type in the office of the old ‘Advertiser’, all the time studying for the stage. When he finally became a full-fledged actor I lost track of him until he came here.
“I had been told by theatrical people that Barrett would not recognize me. When he appeared at the opera house I was lighting the gas, with which the theatre was lighted. I asked him if he remembered what had become of a friend, Chauncey Tibbles. He had not. Asking my name, I told him ‘Jim Tooker’. After that he was very cordial, asking me from the front of the theatre – I was tending door – to the stage where he had a long visit. He asked about my family, said he would like to meet my wife, and we had a good old time, talking over early days in Detroit.
“Accidents in the old opera house? Not a one. Panics? Not a scare. Once we did have a small sized riot. A spiritualist was the bill – one of the fake variety – and he had a lot of people up on the stage when someone raised a kick, and the audience demanded their money back. The old fakir started for the box office where Mate Buck had the money, but I got there first and Mate went across to the furniture store, where it was dark, with the money done up in a bag. We finally succeeded in quieting the audience, who had begun to toss the chairs around, and got them out of the house, locking the doors.”
“Once too, a member of college students became dissatisfied with the show and tried to block the hallway, but ‘Billy’ Matthews, who was a special policeman, and I cleared the hall and dispersed the crowd.
“The first circus that came here was Levi J. North’s in 1858. North showed on the lot across from R. E. Olds present home. He had one tent, a 90-foot round top, the early circuses having no menagerie. He came here in wagons from Jackson. I remember that ‘Bill’ Lake was the clown, one of the best clowns in the early days.
“Dan Rice in 1862, had the first railroad show, and came to Lansing from Owosso on the ‘Ramshorn’ which had only been completed to the deep cut. From there the wagons had to be drawn to what is now the Third Ward Park, where the exhibit took place.
“Shows were held here for several years. Later the state lot was used. Forepaugh once put up tents on the site of the Wagon works. The Olds Gas Power company site, the Sparrow block on Washington avenue near the Grand Trunk tracks, and a lot in the western port of the city, between Ottawa and Ionia streets were also used. The only time John Robinson showed here, I forget the date, he used the land now occupied by the Omega Separator company.
“In 1872 I first entered the bill-posting business here, before that, since 1862, having been associated in the the circus business with J. E. Warner, with whom I visited every important town from Mackinaw to Cincinnati, and from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to Council Bluffs.
“Van Amberg brought the first menagerie to Lansing in 1874. Van Amberg, I remember, was the first man who entered a cage of lions. Hyatt Frost was the manager, and he had another intrepid animal tamer, Herr Drisback, a German or Russian. That year I handled paper for five circuses, the greatest number ever in Lansing in a single season. Besides Van Amberg’s, there were the Great London shows, Forepaugh’s and two others. Barnum, at a later date, was the first to use private cars, all others having hired their trains of the railroads. Barnum was also the first to have two trains.
“Buffalo Bill had their first ‘Wild West’ show, in the opera house. The next year he came back with the canvas fence.
“The parade was a feature of the old circus, but was a meager affair compared with the display that has been made in late years. One year, Dan Rice’s parade consisted of Mentor’s cornet band, the blind horse, Excelsior jr., and two trick mules.
“Bill posting in those days was carried on in a more extensive scale than now. The paper was cheaper, but it was well printed in colors, although with fewer lithographs. Most of the printing was done by the Cincinnati Enquirer, the Buffalo Courier, and two New York firms. Booth & Co., and Clavey & Riley. I recall one show when I handled nearly 350 sheets of bill-board advertising.”