Peter Reuter: The Dramatic Hall years

 

Wheatley Dramatic Hall

A sketch of the Dramatic Hall as it looked circa 1880. [detail from newspaper sketch, originally published in The North American, Philadelphia, May 1, 1904]

One of the more fascinating chapters of my third great-grandfather, Peter Reuter’s life involves his time running the Dramatic Hall at Fifth and Gaskill Sts. (511 S. Fifth St.) in Philadelphia.

Wheatley Dramatic Hall (so named for actor William Wheatley whose troupe, the Wheatley Dramatic Association took up residence at the theater in the 1860s) was a building with its own impressive and colorful history. Its name was shortened during the seven years Peter was in charge.

After a decade of running a saloon at 817 Filbert St., Peter relocated next door to the hall at 509 S. Fifth St. and initially ran his business solo. But by 1885, Peter formed a partnership with his friend, Frederick Autenrieth, a bookkeeper.

It was at this time that Peter also expanded the business to include running the Dramatic Hall and leased both properties from the German Catholic Literary Institute.

511 S. 5th map

Dramatic Hall was located on S. 5th St., next door to Peter Reuter’s saloon. [Map data (c) 2016 Google]

The saloon and hall were located on the northern edge of the city’s Queen Village neighborhood.

Now one of the toniest sections downtown, it was formerly the center of the city’s free black community and had a reputation for filthy streets, overcrowded conditions and lack of baths. By mid-19th century, Queen Village had become a hub for immigrants.

Peter and his family lived above the saloon, which, together with the hall, were smack in the middle of the Jewish quarter.

Dramatic Hall was a lively community gathering place for numerous groups such as Fifth ward political parties, the Anti-Poverty Society, the first Jewish Immigrant Association, a Hebrew Sunday School, fraternal lodges, trade unions and, of course, opera and theater companies.

Here, renown black actor R. Henri Strange performed numerous Shakespearean plays (notably Othello with an all-black cast, save for a white Iago) and honed his portrayal of Shylock before premiering The Merchant of Venice at the Academy of Music in 1890. By 1889, famed Yiddish theater actor and singer, Boris Thomashefsky formed his acting troupe, the Oriental Theatre Company, making the hall its headquarters.

The hall also saw drama of another kind in raucous meetings of anarchists, such as the Pioneers of Freedom. Things could easily get out of hand, as when a speech given by Max Staller allegedly incited a bloody riot at the hall during the Cloakmakers Strike of 1890, leading to several arrests.

No doubt, Peter mixed it up with many a colorful personality and built an extensive network of friends and associates. It was quite a different lifestyle than that found in his home village of Bundenbach, Prussia.

Colored Thespians Win

Peter Reuter was successfully sued by The Philadelphia Amateur Dramatic Association for breach of contract. [originally published 16 Oct 1888 in the Philadelphia Times]

However, 1888 saw a turbulent turn of events for his business. In January, the Dramatic Hall was put up for sale and five days later, Peter’s business partner (the namesake and godparent of his second son, Frederick) committed suicide.

By March, the hall had new owners, a Hungarian-Jewish congregation, Chevra Emunath Israel-Oheb.

It meant the hall’s days as a theater would soon end.

If these events weren’t stressful enough, Peter was sued for $1000 by the Philadelphia Amateur Dramatic Association for breach of contract in October. The case, which he lost (the verdict against him was for $124.35), made the newspapers.

HIgh rent 2

“Extortionate demands” in rent led Peter Reuter to move on to his next successful business venture (and residence). [originally published 15 Mar 1892 in the Philadelphia Times]

 

 

 

 

 

He continued to lease the hall until 1891, when it underwent renovations to convert the building into a synagogue.

Peter ran the saloon next door for another year before moving onto to his next venture. He publicly contended that the rent charged by the new owners forced him to move.

The change would lead to a new and more prosperous chapter in his life.

511 S. 5th current

Modern utilitarian townhouses have been built where the Wheatley Dramatic Hall once stood. [image data June 2014 (c) 2016 Google]

Copyright (c) 2016 by Jana Shea. All materials protected under the laws of copyright. Do not copy or reproduce without author’s permission.

 

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This week’s discovery

I have been in the process of writing my first ancestor profile all week. I’m a first-time mama to a very busy toddler and a freelance journalist, so time to compose comes in bite-sized chunks of a few minutes here and there.

But it was a discovery of a newspaper article containing some bit of scandal that has really caused the delay.   Because such a find, of course, always leads to more research.

I was double-checking a name of a saloon/restaurant my ancestor ran at the turn-of-last-century when I came across (via Google search) this clipping from an article in the Times of Philadelphia from 13 Oct 1888:

Times of Philadelphia article

I was able to find a second article which noted that my ancestor, Peter Reuter, lost the case.  Both of these articles have led to a fascinating discovery of another aspect of his life and times.

Besides finding previously unknown facts about my ancestor’s livelihood, I am understanding more about the neighborhood he and his young family resided in at that time and more about a long forgotten history of Philadelphia’s immigrant neighborhoods and the city’s theater culture.

The digging continues…

Copyright (c) 2015 by Jana Shea. All materials protected under the laws of copyright. Do not copy or reproduce without author’s permission.

 

Alternate sources: pew rentals and coffin receipts

pew holders

What can you do when the records that surely would contain a wealth of information about your ancestors no longer exist?

My 4th great-grandfather, Charles Bender, has long been one of the more elusive members of my family tree.

One of the big reasons why is that the church he joined as an adult is defunct and its records seemingly lost.

The First Presbyterian Church of Northern Liberties, was organized in 1813 out of the Second Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia. It was originally located at 2nd and Coates Sts. (now Fairmount Ave.), but moved to 6th and Buttonwood Sts. until it dissolved in 1917. Besides being an important neighborhood parish, from which sprung three more congregations, it also had the distinction of organizing the first Sunday schools in Philadelphia.

So what became of the records of its parishioners?

Sadly, the only ones that appear to have survived are lists of pew rentals from 1820 to 1830.

Nicholas Helverson was a local coffin maker and undertaker who was charged with collecting the church’s pew rents. Thankfully, his descendants were thoughtful enough to gift his account ledgers to the Historical Society of Philadelphia.

It made sense to make a trip to the HSP and rifle through the ledgers, each sealed in a Ziplock bag stowed in a cardboard box in the special collections section. If Helverson was charged with collecting pew rents for the church, he surely must have been the go-to undertaker for its parishioners.

I already knew for certain Charles belonged to the church, from a published membership list (compiled from Helverson’s records), and notation in Thomas James Shepherd’s The Days that are Past, a history of the church’s organization.

Certainly, the baptisms of his children and perhaps even the marriages for those who survived to adulthood (Philip H. Bender, Sr.), and the burials for those who did not, occurred at First Presby of N.L.

Truly a genealogical tragedy that these records are gone!

But I was holding out hope that in Helverson’s records, I could at least find record of Charles’ burial in the account ledgers and maybe some of his deceased children’s names too.

No such luck.

Helverson’s coffin receipts, though vague when it comes to names (often recorded as “Mr. [insert surname]” or occasionally only as “A man from [insert street name]”, are usually well detailed when it comes to customer’s address and what the funeral expenses were for. These details include things such as who the coffin (including size if small) was made for, who paid for it (sometimes a relative), carriage or hearse arrangements and for whom.

Unfortunately, the years between 1830 and 1834 are a bit spotty.

From pension records, I gleaned that Charles’ death occurred in August or September 1832. I believe he may have died as a result of the cholera epidemic that was happening in Philadelphia during the late summer of 1832.

I was really hoping to learn the exact date.

All I did find was that for years Charles secured seating on pew 38 next to his dear friend, Philip Hess.  An interesting bit of information, but not the jackpot I had hoped for.

Copyright (c) 2015 by Jana Shea. All materials protected under the laws of copyright. Do not copy or reproduce without author’s permission.

 

Tueday Tip: Google your ancestors

IMG_1553

It’s always wise to periodically conduct a Google search on your ancestors. With more and more records, old books and other potential sources of information being digitized each day, you never know when you might find something new.

Recently, I discovered that my great-great grandfather, Philip Hess Bender, Jr. was appointed a position within the Philadelphia Police Department in 1876.

I consider the two decades of research on the Bender family of Philadelphia, particularly my own direct line, to be quite comprehensive. And yet, here was a new revelation about Philip Jr.’s life.

From the notation, it appears he was part of the vice unit in the PPD’s 24th district for just two years, resigning in 1878.

Of course, learning this led to some further exploration. For insight on the history of law enforcement in 19th century Philadelphia, Howard O. Sprogle’s Philadelphia Police Past and Present is a must read.

The PPD went through some reorganization and major reforms after Mayor William S. Stokely took office in 1871. For starters, he increased the force by 1000 men shortly after he was elected. Philadelphia had the second largest population in the nation at that time, increasing nearly 20 percent over the decade prior. Then came the Panic of 1873. The nation was plunged into a depression and with it came the desperation which caused crime, particularly vice, to escalate. Stokely added another 200 men to the police department’s ranks.

When Philip Jr. joined the force Philadelphia was gearing up to host the Centennial Exposition. The eight-month long event attracted more than 9 million visitors and some of the nation’s worst criminals.

Stokely added 300 extra officers to offset the city’s need for more police protection.

In addition, on March 20, 1876, Philadelphia’s Select Council (predecessor to today’s City Council) passed an ordinance to take a census of inhabitants during the Centennial. The work was entirely carried out by police patrolmen in April. Since Philip was appointed on March 30, he likely contributed to that enumeration.

During his brief time with the PPD, he also helped restore order in the city during the Great Railroad Strike of 1877.

It’s incredible how one tidbit of new information can lead to fascinating discoveries about past events and how they impacted the lives of those who lived during those times. It’s one of the reasons I enjoy nerding it up in pursuit of my ancestors.

For tips on how to get the most out of a Google search for ancestors, check out this Family History Daily article.

Copyright (c) 2015 by Jana Shea. All materials protected under the laws of copyright. Do not copy or reproduce without author’s permission.