In the summer of 1866, Henry C. Jarrett, an ambitious, young theatre producer imported a Parisian ballet troupe to perform at the Academy of Music in New York. It seemed like the safest of theatrical investments. Since the late 1840's European ballet dancers proved to be surefire attractions. The dancing was often of secondary interest to the performers' short diaphanous skirts. But, before the troupe could even open, the Academy of Music Theatre burned down.
Jarrett's dream of a financial windfall had literally gone up in smoke. If thing weren't bad enough, he found himself paying for a large company of dancers (100) who weren't taking a step. All dressed up with nowhere to go, Jarrett had a show and no theatre in which to stage it. At the same time, William Wheatley was manager of Niblo's Garden on Broadway and Prince Street, and he had a show - of sorts - in rehearsal, THE BLACK CROOK by long-unproduced playwright, Charles Barras. Watching rehearsal, Wheatley was beginning to feel uneasy about the production's prospects.
When Jarrett told Wheatley of his dilemma with a danceless dance troupe on his hands, they decided they could resolve both of their problems by merging the two shows into a grand musical extravaganza. Barras objected! This was his masterpiece, a convoluted retelling of the Faust legend with improbable, anfractuous plot occurrences. His assent was secured with the promise of a substantial cash payout. And so the dubious blending of a murky melodrama and a Persian ballet was mashed together to become what many theatre historians consider to be the first American musical.
The first presentation of THE BLACK CROOK at Niblo's Garden was on September 12, 1866. It was a costly production - almost $25,000 at a time when $10,000 was considered high. No matter. It was a sensation! Attacks by the clergy and moralist in the papers were ignored by an enchanted public. 100 girls in short filmy skirts and flesh-colored tights provided Americans for the first time the privilege of witnessing a colossal display of feminine charm as nearly as possible unveiled; saw a drama and heard an orchestra. The Tribune's reviewer said, "All the gold and silver and gems and light and women's beauty can contribute to fascinate the eye and charm the sense is gathered up in this gorgeous spectacle." THE BLACK CROOK ran for 475 performances, breaking all existing records. Receipts at every performance averaged between: $2,700 and $2,800; sometimes hitting $3,000. The net profits for the season were $650,000.
When a version was rushed into production in San Francisco, a competing theatre brought a suit charging infringement of copyright. The judge in the case decided THE BLACK CROOK did not enjoy copyright protection because, "It merely panders to the pernicious curiosity of very questionable exhibitions of the female person.
Unfortunately, the success of THE BLACK CROOK did not bring happiness to its author, Charles Barras. One of the reasons he agreed to the complete overhaul of his drama was due to his wife being critically ill and he was penniless. He hoped the money he was promised might alter his circumstances and her outlook. But, the money came too late to save his wife's life. With the fortune he subsequently amassed from his contract, he built an imposing country home, where he went to live with his mother-in-law and his wife's dog but soon after, grief stricken, he committed suicide. Maybe for him Faust wasn't a legend after all.
The show had a very personal influence on someone else. A young boy who sold programs throughout the run. THE BLACK CROOK must have made a lasting impression on him because Charles Frohman went on to become the biggest and most influential Broadway producer of his time.
The next time you go to see or are cast in a modern-day musical remember the genre all started because 100 dancers, made idle by a fire, needed a stage on which to strut their stuff.