It wasn’t the biggest theater in New Orleans. It wasn’t the most modern either.
But from 1875 to the early 1890s, the venerable playhouse on St. Charles Avenue between Canal and Poydras Streets was the center of the universe for a nation of dreamers.
It was the Academy of Music at 414 St. Charles Ave., and that was where the Louisiana State Lottery Company was located – the old, notoriously corrupt corporation known as “The Golden Octopus” for its method of getting into the wallets of families from the Going Coast to Coast Coast – hosted a regular spectacle where winning numbers were drawn.
“Few institutions can boast a record of more joy, sorrow, delight, madness, greed, or charity than the celebrated lottery, which has been practiced in its twenty-five years of existence,” wrote The Times-Picayune in a 1920 article on the legacy of the lottery . “His patrons and supporters stretched across the continent. In Montreal and Seattle men and women bought tickets just as feverishly as they did on St. Charles Street and at every cigar shop in the city of New Orleans or from the ticket vendors who advertised their wares on the streets.”
A great spectacle
The drawing of the winning numbers was a show most ticket holders would not witness in person; The theater only had room for 1,800 souls. But it was still an electrifying piece of stagecraft.
Early in the lottery’s history, drawings were held at various theaters around town or at the lottery’s three-story office building in St. Charles on the site of what is now the United Fruit Building, where the lottery organizers built a hall to host daily small-stakes drawings .
But for the more lucrative “golden” draws – with grand prizes of $100,000 or more – they needed a suitably large stage. For this they chose the nearby conservatory.
For years it would be a place where dreams were made – and shattered.
“There was a rustle as the entire audience leaned forward in tension and a sigh as the winner was announced,” wrote The Times-Picayune.
The three-story brick theater with Moorish-influenced elements was built in 1853 by George C. Lawrason for theater impresario David Bidwell.
Starting with a circus
For its first season, The Amphitheater, as it was originally called, was largely handed over to circus man Dan Rice, who not only booked traditional shows on the theater’s portable stage, but also hosted equestrian performances.
The next year, Bidwell turned it into a proper exhibition hall. “The sawdust was swept away, the stage remodeled, the Amphitheater name changed to the Pelican Theater, and the already popular playhouse became the home of comedy,” wrote The Picayune.
In 1856, coinciding with Bidwell’s admission of new partners, it was renamed the Academy of Music, which – in addition to a small second-floor museum of curiosities and natural curiosities – also had a snazzy new steam-powered air conditioning system.
Aside from being popular, it was conveniently located almost directly across from the lottery building. In December 1875, Lottery Brass installed their massive new two-wheeled drawing apparatus in the theater for a big Christmas Day drawing. Approximately 2,580 prizes were awarded that day, including a $100,000 grand prize.
Technology in the style of the 19th century
It was a showman’s fever dream.
Both wheels were hollow and made of glass. The larger, 5 feet in diameter, was filled with 100,000 numbered rolled-up slips of paper. The smaller wheel was filled with additional rolled-up slips, each with a win amount written on it.
When it came time to pick numbers, the wheels were spun by a man of imposing height while a band played. To lend a touch of credence to the whole thing, two former Confederate generals – PGT Beauregard and Jubal A. Early – were hired to oversee the affair.
“The theater was packed to the doors on these occasions, with the rich and elite, resplendently attire, and made a gala feast for the occasion,” wrote The Picayune. “Up near the roof the poorer guests crowded, revealing more openly the tense tension and bond that social scandal concealed beneath a facade of form.”
Then the spinning wheels were stopped and two blindfolded boys were led out of a local orphanage. At a signal, each dipped a hand into one of the wheels and pulled out a slip.
Those ticket holders who have the same number as on the first slip would win the prize shown on the second slip.
The draws would continue for hours until the prize wheel was exhausted, after which the winning numbers were wired across the country.
As dramatic as it was, this version of the Louisiana lottery was also extremely corrupt. By the time the original 25-year charter expired in 1893, public opinion had deteriorated and it was stopped.
A short recap
The Academy of Music building, remodeled in 1893, continued to host shows into the new century, even after changing hands and being renamed the Audubon Theater around 1901.
Then, on February 11, 1903, a fire broke out backstage just before 7 p.m. The old theater would go out with one last spectacle.
“The last curtain of the old Academy of Music came down in a great red fire last night,” wrote The Picayune in the following morning’s editions, “and now there are only embers and billowing brick walls and black splinters.”
After two years of vacancy, the remains of the building – as well as that of the Phoenix House restaurant next door – have finally been demolished. The German restaurant Rathskeller opened in its place in 1905 and was a popular nightspot for years – until it fell victim to Prohibition in 1921.
Today the Hotel InterContinental New Orleans is located on the site.
Sources: The Times Picayune Archives; “Jewell’s Crescent City Illustrated”; “History of New Orleans” by John Kendall.
Do you know of a New Orleans building worthy of being featured in this column, or are you just curious about one? Contact Mike Scott at [email protected]
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