< --Previous Up Next–>
From Andrea’s History of Chicago, Vol. II
Rice’s Theatre.—Until 1857, Rice’s Theater was the attractive center of dramatic representation in Chicago. For ten years it had been the chief place of amusement in the city, and the popularity of Mr. and Mrs. Rice never waned for an instant. No man had done so much for the interest and amusement of the Chicago public as John B. Rice, and his constant increase in favor testified how deeply that public appreciated his labors. But in 1857, he and his wife determined to retire from the stage, and the theater passed under other management It also encountered the competition of its new rival, just erected by J. H. McVicker, and its end was not long in coming. For several years it led a fitful and unpopular existence, until, in 1861, it became manifest to Mr. Rice that it could no longer maintain its place as a theater. He then had it torn down, and on its site erected a handsome business block.
The first Rice’s Theatre
Rice’s Theatre I
Location: South side of Randolph Street, 50 feet east of Dearborn
Life Span: 1847-1850
The real beginning of theatrical history in Chicago was made by J. B. Rice, who erected and dedicated, June 28, 1847, the first theater building constructed in Chicago. It was erected on the south side of Randolph Street, 50 feet east of Dearborn, and was opened by a stock company, in The Four Sisters. The company included Mrs. Hunt, afterwards Mrs. John Drew, Mr. and Mrs. J. B. Rice and Dan Marble. On May 2, 1848, J. H. McVicker made his first appearance, the farce being My Neighbor’s Wife. Edwin Forrest and Junius Brutus Booth were among the attractions of that year. The theater burned July 30, 1850, during a performance of La Somnambula, and it is stated that Mr. McVicker was on the stage when the alarm was given.
The Chicago Daily Journal1 July 30, 1850
An excellent house welcomed the Opera Troupe to the Chicago boards last evening and La Somnambula was performed as announced. Whatever may be the taste of the theatre-going public in this city with regard to Operas, all must conceed that the music was of a high order, and executed with admirable grace and skill. Miss Brientfs face is eloquent in her favor, to begin with, and her voice, now as soft as a vesper bell, now wild and shrill as a clarion, doubles and completes the charm. Messrs. Manvers and Guibel both possess voices of tone, power and cultivation, and with Miss Brienti and Miss Mathews make melody and harmony that Apollo would not hesitate to accompany upon his ocean-tuned harp.
On the evening of July 30th, the opera troupe gave their second performance of La Sonnambula, and the season was brought to a close by the burning of the theatre during the second act. The Democrat2 on the following day wrote:
One of the most destructive fires which has taken place in this city for some time occurred last night. Before subdued by the firemen it destroyed over twenty buildings, including the Chicago Theatre half a block in one of the most thickly populated portions of the city. It broke out in the stable owned by Mr. Kelley on Dearborn Street between Randolph and Clark, about 10 o’clock last night. In a few minutes everything was a mass of flames and the fire communicated to the theatre adjoining. The audience, which fortunately was not very large, was alarmed, but Mr. Rice, with much presence of mind, restrained them, and thus enabled all to leave the building without endangering each other by a rush.
The Chicago Daily Journal gave a more descriptive account:
Owing to the combustible nature of the materials the theatre was soon enveloped in flames. The curtain, the side scenes, and most of the private wardrobe of the company, was saved, but the properties, furniture, and fixtures were all destroyed. The loss falls heavily on Mr. Rice, the estimable proprietor and conductor of the theatre. He had an insurance of only one thousand dollars, while seven thousand dollars will not make good the destruction.
Mr. McVicker, who with his wife occupied rooms in Mr. Gurley’s building, was compelled to make a ‘flying leap/ losing property to the value of two hundred dollars, and of a nature difficult to replace.
The streets were completely strewn with household furniture, Saloon fixtures, and fragments of the wreck of the theatre, and what with the crowds of people filling the sidewalks, and clustered upon the roofs, and at every window, the hoarse call of the speaking trumpet, the foliage lighted up with strange tints, and the sky of a deeper blackness, the huge volumes of smoke, skirted with crimson, and rolling into the glowing abyss, and church spires rising glittering into the night, while it might have been a scene an artist would love to catch and stay upon canvas, yet it was eloquent of destruction and alarm.
The second Rice’s Theatre
Rice’s Theatre II
Location: On Dearborn Street, between Randolph and Washington
Life Span: 1851-~1861
On February 3, 1851, Mr. Rice opened his second theater, which was built of brick at a cost of $11,000, on Dearborn Street, between Randolph and Washington. With a frontage of 80 feet and many improvements and conveniences, it was regarded as a great step in advance and was destined to be the home of the drama in Chicago for six years, during which period all the important stars of that early day visited the city, which at that time boasted a population of less than 5,000 souls. The theater was opened on the evening already mentioned. The stock company joined first in singing the Star Spangled Banner and then presented a triple bill: Love in Humble Life, Captain of the Watch, and The Dumb Belle.
It was transformed into a business house in 1861, having outlived its usefulness by several years.
The Chicago Daily Journal, October 29, 1850
This fine structure is rapidly approaching completion and is planned after the most approved models for such buildings. Being one hundred feet in length, it gives ample ‘scope and verge’ for those who ‘strut their brief hour upon the stage.’ There will be three tiers of boxes, a Saloon, etc., etc. If the work progresses as begun, Mr. Rice will open about the First of January.
The Chicago Daily Journal, January 29, 1851
The interior of this beautiful edifice is receiving the finishing touches. The scenery grows apace. Mountains rise, plains stretch away, palace turrets gleam, and forests rise as magically as ‘Birnam Wood came to Duficinane.’ It is to be opened Monday next.
The Chicago Daily Journal, October 24, 1853
The undersigned, acting in the name and on behalf of Mme. de Vries and Signor L. Arditi, (known by the name and style of the Artists Association) has the honor of calling the attention of the musical community and of the citizens of Chicago in general, to the fact that he has made an arrangement with Mr. Rice, the manager, to have the Italian Opera Troupe for two nights next week at the Chicago Theatre, to perform the opera in Three Acts, Lucia di Lammermoor, the chef doume of Donizetti, and the grand masterpiece of Bellini, Norma.
The undersigned respectfully begs leave to introduce to the citizens of Chicago in general the following unrivalled artists, who were received with the utmost enthusiasm and unbounded applause by the public of New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, Richmond, Cincinnati, Louisville, and St. Louis:
Prima Donna Signorina R. de Vries
Tenor Signer Pozzolini
Baritone Signor Toffanelli
Basso Signor Colletti
The public will find that every department is complete as well for the number as for the excellence of the performers.
A very effective chorus of ladies and gentlemen the best in the United States of America and desirable even in Europe.
The orchestra is composed of solo performers, and all professors of the highest standing over 40 in number, the whole under the magic direction of the most distinguished master and composer, Sig. L. Arditi, of European fame, and well known as one of the greatest living composers.
The undersigned feels confident that the citizens of Chicago will appreciate his efforts to produce before them an Italian Opera on a scale unrivalled, and that they will bestow upon them liberally their favors.
John B. Rice
John Blake Rice, actor, theatrical manager, mayor, congressman, a man of broad heart and mind, able and determined, and cheerful through all adversities; was born in Easton, Talbot Co., Md., on May 28, 1809, when about twenty-one years of age made his debut as the Uncle, in ” George Barnwell,” appearing in the Boston Theater. Subsequently he went to the West Indies, where he joined a dramatic company which played in several of the leading cities. Mr. Rice rose so rapidly that his friends and admirers, a few years thereafter, organized a stock company and built him a theater in Bangor, Maine. He and his company played in the principal cities of the country, and thus it was that he met Mary Ann Warren, the daughter of the celebrated William Warren, and sister of William Warren, Jr. Miss Warren was a young lady of rare accomplishments and ability as an actress, and, in December, 1837, was married, in Philadelphia, to the man of her choice. Mr. and Mrs. Rice acted together as stars, removing from New York to Buffalo in 1839, where the former managed the Buffalo and Albany museums. In the fall of 1846, Mr. Rice first came West for the purpose of selecting a location for a theater. At this time Milwaukee and Chicago were the competing points, and the former city threatened to carry the day, for he transformed an old military hall into a theater, organized a stock company in Shakesperian selections, put ” Black Eyed Susan” on the stage, and gave that village its first real taste of drama. Subsequently he erected a brick building, on the site of the ill-fated Newhall House, which was burned, but not until Mr. Rice had determined, by a trial of about five years, that Milwaukee was not a paying town. In May, 1847, he had contracted for the erection of a frame building, on the south side of Randolph Street, afterward known as “Rice’s Theater,” and opened to the public on June 28. In the meantime, Mrs. Rice had come on from Buffalo, and appeared as a member of the company on the I2th of the next month. The burning of his theater in July, 1850, was a blow to his prospects; but his was a spirit not to be even depressed by such a calamity, and it still remains in his wife’s memory, as a pleasant recollection of his sturdy character, that upon the night of the fire, when she was well nigh crushed, he returned to his home, whistling cheerfully like a boy. He at once set about repairing his fortune, and a large brick building, completed in January, 1851, was the result. For a time after the opening of the new theater, in February, Mrs. Rice resumed her place upon the stage as leading lady, In October, 1857, Mr. Rice retired from theatrical pursuits, and, in 1861, erected a business block upon the site of his theater, he also purchased the property which afterward became the site of the Crosby Opera House, and in other real-estate transactions added to his competency. His character was above reproach; his influence for good, not only in his own profession but with all classes of people, had been great; he was warm-hearted, able, patriotic and popular; consequently, when the Union party of Chicago commenced to look around for a leader, they fixed upon John B. Rice and in April, 1865, he was almost unanimously elected to the mayoralty. Mr. and Mrs. Rice also gave their only son, William Henry, to their country’s cause. He fell at Chickamaugua on September 19, 1863, being at the time of his death captain of Co. “A,” 89th Illinois Infantry. In 1867, Mr. Rice was again elected mayor, and in 1872 was elected to Congress from the first District of Illinois, but did not live to complete his term as congressman. He died in December, 1874, at a home he built in Norfolk, Va. He had been suffering for some time, but, believing a change of occupation and a prolonged rest at the conclusion of the session would restore him to health, he refused medical treatment. His case, however, became more alarming, and a removal to Norfolk was suggested; but he failed to rally, and his death occurred December 17, 1874. Mr. Rice left behind him, of his immediate relatives, his wife, still a resident of Chicago, and five daughters—Mrs. Kimball, widow of James Kimball, chief engineer in the navy; and Mesdames James W. Odell, William S. Smith, George L. Dunlap, and Orson Smith, all of Chicago.
1 Chicago Daily Journal, 1844 – 1929 (newspaper was relaunched as the Chicago Daily Illustrated Times)
1 Chicago Democrat 1833 – 1861 (merged with Chicago Tribune)