Unlike Lincoln, my memories of Ford’s Theater are happy, if thoughtful, ones.
I was born in Washington DC and lived most of my childhood and teen years in the general area. I had a terrific friend, Maryanne, that was able to obtain free tickets to many events, concerts, plays and such, through her fathers job.
There are many perks to being her friend. Her sense of humor, her enthusiasm and upbeat personality, and her simply being a nice person are all pluses. But, as teenagers, being able to attend every concert that came to town (we often didn’t care if it was a group we liked or not, it was the fun of attending) and hockey games as well as plays truly enriched my life.
One of my favorite memories, besides Paul McCartney and WINGS, was attending a play at Ford’s Theater. The performance was “Your Arms are Too Short to Box with God”. I really enjoyed the upbeat gospel style performance.
But what was most enjoyable was being in a vintage theater. It was much smaller than the Kennedy Center, where most plays I had atteneded were shown. The intimacy of a small theater was new to me, but one quickly learned I enjoyed.
Many people are unaware that Ford’s Theater was closed after that tragic shooting of Lincoln during the play “Our American Cousin”. Lincoln was fond of a comedy, as I am. John Wilkes Booth ,the assassin and an actor, waited for a moment in the play when he knew the theater would be filled with laughter to shoot. The owner John Ford attempted to reopen the theater later, but threatening letters about reopening the building as a place of entertainment cause Ford to drop any plans to put on performances.
The theater was sold to the Federal Government and various offices were housed in the building. Tragedy struck Ford’s Theater again in 1893. A large section of the front of the building collapses, killing 22 government employees and injuring 65 others. A government contractor is blamed, and the theater ceases to serve as an office building.
The National Park service took over Ford’s Theater, and in 1968, it was reopened as a working theater.
The intimacy of the theater and the sense of history, makes attending any performance them a moving experience. The box, which the Lincolns and their guests used, is draped with the American flag. It overlooks the stage, and patrons are filled with a sense of the tragedy looking at it. I could easily imagine the horror of those viewing “Our American Cousin”. The smell of the discharged pistol, the confusion and noise, a well known actor appearing on the edge of the box looming over the audience, his shout of “Sic semper tyrannis!”, the jump to the stage in which Booth broke his leg and his running out of the theater to where a horse was waiting for his escape.
The small size of the theater, with combined with the height, would have contributed to the sense of pandemonium and terror. Sitting in the audience, I imagined this scene each time I attended a performance.
I also think of of the other tragedies of that night. Few people remember that another couple was attending the theater with the Lincoln’s that night. Major Rathbone and his fiancee , Clara Harris, were in the box with the Lincolns. Rathbone was stabbed in the arm and chest trying to restrain Booth after the shooting. The night changed him forever.
He married Clara, who was also his stepsister though not related by blood. They had three children together. However, he was said to be haunted mentally by his inability to have saved the President Lincoln on that fateful night. It is indeed tragic that this man who performed with such bravery on the night of the assassination, ended his life as a murder himself.
While serving as US consul to Hanover Germany in 1883, Rathbone murdered his wife Clara and attempted to murder his three children. He was committed to an insane asylum in Germany, where he died in 1911. He is buried next to Clara, the woman that had been by his side the night of the assassination and perhaps also a victim of Booth’s action that night.
I highly recommend not just visiting Ford’s Theater, but seeing a play there. A comedy would be nice. When the audience laughs long and hard at a line, look toward Lincoln’s box and remember another night so long ago when the audience laughed.