“Baltimore’s Ford’s Theatre lived a good life. It lasted almost nine times as long as John T. Ford’s first eponymous theater in Washington, D.C. And when it closed in 1964, after 92 years of hosting musicals, drama and even the 1872 Democratic National Convention (Horace Greeley was the nominee), it was lauded as the oldest active theater in the country.
After the federal War Department seized Ford’s first theater in Washington, following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865, Ford returned to his native Baltimore where he managed the Holliday Street Theater, became a city councilman and, for a short time, acted as mayor of the city. On Oct. 2, 1871, he opened Ford’s Grand Opera House on the corner of Fayette and Eutaw streets.
Three stories high and crowned with a mansard roof, the lavishly appointed “temple of drama,” as The Sun dubbed it, was a remarkably large house for its day— it held 2,000 seats and the stage was a staggering 41 feet deep. There was walnut woodwork, yellow silk damask wall hangings, a ceiling fresco and a woodland scene painted on the stage curtain, as well as “ladies withdrawing rooms,” conversation rooms and a men’s bar. Private boxes, later removed during one of many renovations, afforded patrons the opportunity to see and be seen, while balconies allowed those of modest means a chance to enjoy a show.
Backstage, a warren of dressing rooms became the temporary quarters for the stars who graced the stage. W.C. Fields and Fanny Brice appeared in versions of Flo Ziegfeld’s famous follies, Al Jolson performed his revue— even Buffalo Bill Cody did a turn in melodramas. Alfred Drake starred in “Oklahoma!” while Boris Karloff headlined in “Arsenic and Old Lace.” The first American production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “H.M.S. Pinafore” took place on Ford’s stage. And in 1916, Lillian and Dorothy Gish were in attendance at the beginning of an exclusive five-week local showing of the film “Birth of a Nation.”
Prior to the 1940s, at which time the theater’s segregation policy became the subject of boycotts by both actors and national theater personages such as Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, Ford’s was one of several East Coast “tryout houses” for productions before they went to Broadway. By the time the segregation policy (Ford’s permitted African-Americans onstage, but not in the audience; the Lyric Theater allowed the reverse) was rescinded in 1952, D.C. and Philadelphia had usurped Baltimore for many tryout productions.
Ford’s hosted live theater, so by definition not everything always ran smoothly. Dickie, the theater’s resident black house cat, was known to wander on stage and nap in the middle of a dramatic scene on the nights someone forgot to put him out. Bats were also occasional guests— and another wildlife incident was immortalized in Cole Porter’s musical “Kiss Me Kate,” where the first act is set in Ford’s Theatre (a sample line: “You know Baltimore. Deer running around in the balcony.”). And sometimes, the actors themselves were the spectacle. Edwin Booth (the older brother of John Wilkes Booth) reportedly told a packed house one evening: “I’m drunk, but if you’ll bear with me, I’ll give you the greatest performance of ‘King Lear’ you’ve ever seen.”
Ford and his children owned the theater until 1921, when it was leased then purchased by A.L. Erlinger, a New Yorker. At Erlinger’s death in 1942, local businessman Morris Mechanic purchased the property at auction for $50,000. During his tenure, Ford’s underwent several renovations and hosted some spectacular productions. (“My Fair Lady” set a record, bringing in $131,000 in 1961.)
Still, for all its successes, there were many seasons in which the theater couldn’t draw crowds. Mechanic sold the theater to the Hecht Co. in 1962. “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” was the final show, performed on Saturday, Jan. 25, 1964, in front of a packed crowd of politicians, visiting luminaries like Dorothy Lamour and theater fans. By that Monday, the building had been razed for a parking lot.