It wasn't the biggest theater in New Orleans. It wasn't even the most modern.
But from 1875 to the early 1890s, the venerable theater on Avenue Saint-Charles between Canal and Poydras streets was the center of the universe for a nation's dreamers.
St. It was the Academy of Music at 414 Charles Avenue, home of the Louisiana State Lottery Company, a corrupt former corporation known as the "Golden Octopus" for ripping into families' pockets. – organized a regular show where winning numbers were drawn.
"Few institutions can boast a greater record of joy, pain, delight, madness, greed or charity than the famous lottery that has been held in its 25 years of existence," writes The Times-Picayune in an article. 1920, Reflection on the Legacy of the Lottery. . “His patrons and admirers were spread across the continent. In Montreal and Seattle men and women bought tickets as feverishly as they did on St. Charles Street, and in New Orleans at every cigar shop or from ticket sellers weeping in the street.
The drawing of the winning numbers was a sight most cards would not have seen live; The theater only had room for 1,800 souls. Yet he was a vibrant part of the performing arts.
Early in the lottery's history, draws were held in various theaters around town or in the lottery's three-story office building in St. Charles, where the United Fruit Building now stands, where lottery organizers built a room. their everyday life. small bet designs.
But the most lucrative "gold" sweepstakes with jackpots of $100,000 or more required an appropriately sized stage. For this they chose the nearby music academy.
In the years that followed, it would be the place where dreams were made and shattered.
"There was a murmur as the entire audience leaned forward and a sigh as the winner was announced," wrote the Times-Picayune.
The three-story brick theater with Moorish elements was built in 1853 by George C. Laurason for theater director David Bidwell.
starting from the circus
During its first season, the amphitheater, as it was originally called, was largely dedicated to circus artist Dan Rice, who hosted horse shows in addition to regular performances on the theater's portable stage.
The following year, Bidwell turned it into a real storefront. "The dust was removed and the stage remodeled, the 'Amphitheater' renamed the 'Pelican Theatre', and the already popular theater became a breeding ground for comedy," wrote The Picayune.
When Bidwell gained new partners in 1856, it was renamed the Academy of Music and featured a new steam-powered air conditioning system in addition to a small two-story museum of curiosities and natural wonders.
In addition to its popularity, it was almost on a par with the lottery. So, in December 1875, the lottery installed its new giant two-wheeled machine in the theater for the Christmas Day drawing. About 2,580 prizes were awarded that day, including the grand prize of $100,000.
Technology in the style of the 19th century
It was a showman's fever dream.
Both wheels were hollow and made of glass. The largest, 5 meters in diameter, was filled with 100,000 folded and numbered pages. The smaller circle was filled with more folded slips of paper, each with the winning amount written on it.
When it came time to pick the numbers, the wheels spun around the sinister man while an orchestra played. To add an element of credibility to the whole affair, two former Confederate generals, PGT Beauregard and Jubal A. Early, oversaw the affair.
"In those days, the theater was filled with the rich and elite, beautifully dressed and throwing a gala feast for the occasion," Picayune wrote. "The poorer guests gathered on the roof and showed more clearly the excitement and interest that hides under the cloak of social glamor."
Then the wheels stopped and they were taken blindfolded from a local orphanage. At the signal everyone grabbed one of the wheels and pulled out a joint.
Cardholders with the same number as the first card win the prize shown on the second card.
The draws continued for hours until the winning wheel was exhausted, after which the winning numbers were distributed nationwide.
As dramatic as it was, Louisiana's version of the lottery was also deeply corrupt. When the original 25-year charter went into effect in 1893, public opinion had deteriorated and it was annulled.
a short essay
The Academy of Music building, remodeled in 1893, would continue to host performances into the new century, although around 1901 it saw new owners and a new name, the Audubon Theatre.
Then, on February 11, 1903, just before 7:00 p.m., a fire broke out backstage. The old theater should be released with the last performance.
"The last curtain of the old Academy of Music fell last night in a great red fire," wrote the Picayune in the next morning's issues, "and only embers, shattered brick walls and black fragments."
After two years of vacancy, the ruins of the building and the Phoenix House restaurant next door have finally been cleared. The Deutsche Rathskeller Restaurant opened in its place in 1905 and was a popular nightclub for many years until it fell victim to Prohibition in 1921.
Today the Hotel InterContinental New Orleans is located on the site.
Sources: Times Picayune Archives; "Illustrated Gems of the Crescent City"; "History of New Orleans" by John Kendall.
Do you know of any buildings in New Orleans that deserve to be included in this column, or are you curious about them? Contact Mike Scott at [email protected].
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