The enclosed letter was found in a house on Capitol Hill. It is from the resident manager of the Belasco Theatre and is over 100 years old. Where was the Belasco?
— Pat Fox,
Bethany Beach, Del.
The letter in question, dated April 26, 1913, is from L. Stoddard Taylor to a Miss Elizabeth Watkins of Takoma Park. It is a form letter — addressed “Dear Friend” — and is touting an upcoming attraction at the Belasco: a stage version of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women,” a novel that Taylor calls “without doubt the most human and delightful story of a family of girls that has ever been written.”
Writes Taylor: “This is the first time that I have felt it my duty and privilege to personally guarantee the worth of any play.” He hopes Watkins will buy tickets and tell her friends about the theatrical version of “Little Women,” which he describes as “a good, wholesome, upbuilding, refreshing play, and one over which you will not have to blush.”
“Little Women” opened May 5, 1913, and received a favorable review in The Washington Post. Those who enjoyed the novel would “welcome the rebirth of these characters through the medium of the stage.”
But where was that particular stage? It was in historic Lafayette Square, at 719 Madison Pl. NW, just across from the White House. The theater was on the same spot as the house that Secretary of State William H. Seward lived in when he was stabbed in 1865 in the same series of attacks that killed Abraham Lincoln.
The Belasco wasn’t the playhouse’s original name. When it opened in 1895, it was called the Lafayette Square Opera House. It was designed by Wood & Lovell, a Chicago firm that specialized in theater architecture, and was touted as the city’s first fireproof theater.
It was an imposing edifice. The facade featured three tall arches behind a colonnaded entrance. Inside were three tiers of balconies and, of course, a presidential box. In the basement was a Turkish bath. The auditorium was, according to The Post, “a color study in soft tints of green, gold and silver.” The stage curtain depicted a scene from the Persian Wars, with soldiers spilling onto a beach and a group of flower-crowned maidens. It was a copy of “Les Vainqueurs de Salamine” by Fernand Cormon.
The first performance was “The Tzigane,” a comic opera by Reginald De Koven with a libretto by Harry B. Smith. It starred Lillian Russell as Vera, “a fortune-teller at the Fair of Nijnii Novgorod.”
In 1905, the theater was purchased by the Shubert brothers and David Belasco. Rechristened the Belasco Theatre, it opened with a performance of “The Girl of the Golden West,” starring Blanche Bates.
These were the glory years for the Belasco, as far as live performances went. Just down from the dressing room steps, on the way to the stage, was a large, full-length mirror. Among the performers who must have glanced at themselves before striding onstage: Helen Hayes, Sarah Bernhardt, Enrico Caruso, husband-and-wife Shakespeareans E.H. Sothern and Julia Marlowe, and more.
Will Rogers once made a joke at the Belasco about Warren Harding’s affection for golf. The Secret Service later called Rogers and asked him to remove the joke from his act. He refused.
During the Depression, the Belasco was converted to a movie house with a focus on foreign films. It closed in 1940. The federal government bought the building, pulled out the seats and used the floor as document storage space for the Treasury Department.
It reopened in 1942 as the Stage Door Canteen, a space where soldiers, sailors and Marines could enjoy free food and free entertainment provided by “local theatrical people.” After the war, it was taken over by the United Service Organizations.
In 1962, Lafayette Square was slated for redevelopment. The east side was needed for the U.S. Claims Court. Some of the historic buildings were saved, including Dolley Madison’s house; others weren’t. The Belasco was deemed to have no historic or architectural value.
In February 1964, Post reporter Sterling Seagrave caught a conversation between two employees of Arrow Wrecking as they prepared to demolish the Belasco’s ceiling, which still bore traces of its sky-blue paint and floral design.
“Sure will be a shame to rip up that ceiling,” said one.
“Sure will,” said the other.
“Some guy worked hard putting that up.”
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8For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.