Cold, cloudy and unpleasant today. Went to the National this evening in company with friend Morgan. Tremendous house but of rowdies principally—I’m done going to see that kind of thing.
The National Theatre, located on Chestnut Street between Eighth and Ninth Streets, had been recently renamed Chanfrau and Owens’ National Theatre after the two principal performers appearing at that time. Perhaps they tired of sharing profits with theatre managers and established their own place. Frank Chanfrau had been performing at Burton’s Arch Street Theatre at the end of September. He enjoyed tremendous acclaim for his realistic portrayal of Mose, a Bowery b’hoy (see the entry for September 20). Playing opposite Chanfrau was fellow comedian John E. Owen (1823–1886) who had his own “stage Yankee” character, Jakey.
They put on three farces that night, namely Spectre Bridegroom, Mysteries and Miseries of New York, and Jumbo Jum. However, competition from Burton’s, where Mysteries was also playing, doomed the enterprise. The new theatre closed on October 12. Owens enjoyed a long career as an actor, comedian, and theatre owner (he was working at Ford’s Theatre in Washington when Lincoln was assassinated). He made a fortune at his chosen vocation but reportedly lost it all in the 1870s speculating on stocks. Such was his fame that after he died on December 7, 1886, long obituaries were written in all of the major American newspapers.
If Nathan and James Morgan were surprised at “rowdies” being present to see Mose and Jakey, they shouldn’t have been. It’s a little like going to see Rocky Horror Picture Show and being surprised to see someone wearing a wedding dress.
“John E. Owens Dead.” Boston Globe. December 8, 1886.
“Obituary: John E. Owens.” Chicago Daily Tribune. December 8, 1886.
Bogar, Thomas A. John E. Owens: Nineteenth Century American Actor and Manager. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2002.