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(Editor’s Note: As part of Preservation Month 2016, Broken Sidewalk is highlighting some of the most storied historic theaters of Louisville in an ongoing Focus on Preservation series. We’re kicking things off today with the theater that ignited Louisville’s romance with theater, Macauley’s.)

Macauley’s Theatre
319 West Walnut Street (now Muhammad Ali Boulevard)
Architect: John B. McElfatrick
Opened: October 13, 1873
Last Show: August 29, 1925
Demolished: December 1925

In 1873 when it was built on West Walnut Street, (now Muhammad Ali Boulevard) between Third Street and Fourth Street, the New Orleans Republican proclaimed Macauley’s Theatre as “one of the finest and most beautiful theatres in the Western country. It is fitted up with all the modern improvements. The ceilings are frescoed in deep rich colors.”

Macauley's Theater, right, before construction of the Starks Building on the site of the old First Christian Church. (Courtesy Forgotten Louisville Architecture)
Macauley’s Theater, right, before construction of the Starks Building on the site of the old First Christian Church. (Courtesy Forgotten Louisville Architecture)
Lobby of Macauley’s Theater showing an extensive collection of John T. Macauley. (Courtesy Theatre Historical Society of America archive)
Lobby of Macauley’s Theater showing an extensive collection of John T. Macauley. (Courtesy Theatre Historical Society of America archive)

After the Civil War, mass entertainment such as American vaudeville became more popular since audiences had more money and more time in which to spend it. Louisville was growing as a trade center in the 1870s, and once Macauley’s opened, drama gained in prominence as well.

Actor Bernard “Barney” Macauley decided to build the 1,900-seat theater after settling in Louisville, but it was his brother, “Colonel” John T. Macauley, who operated it successfully for many decades after taking over management in 1880.

Bernard “Barney” Macauley, left, and his brother “Colonel” John Macauley, right, with one of his beloved dogs. (Courtesy UL Archives - Reference, Reference)
Bernard “Barney” Macauley, left, and his brother “Colonel” John Macauley, right, with one of his beloved dogs. (Courtesy UL Archives – Reference, Reference)

Barney made a series of poor business decisions, got the theater into debt, and eventually decided to return to the stage for a handful of years before his death. John worked with other theaters to keep actors touring in established circuits and many of the finest actors and actresses of the day graced the stage, including the debut of Louisville native Mary Anderson in 1875. When John died of cancer in 1915, his obituary in the New York Times stated: “every prominent stage star has appeared” at Macauley’s.

An early view of Macauley's Theater shortly after it opened showing entrance to the theatre is the far left. This photo pre-dates the first section of the Starks building, built in 1913, which eventually led to the demolition of the theater in 1925 for an expansion. (Courtesy UL Archives - Reference)
An early view of Macauley’s Theater shortly after it opened showing entrance to the theatre is the far left. This photo pre-dates the first section of the Starks building, built in 1913, which eventually led to the demolition of the theater in 1925 for an expansion. (Courtesy UL Archives – Reference)

The architect chosen by Macauley was Pennsylvania-born John Bailey McElfatrick. He began building theaters in 1855 and moved to Louisville in 1865. By the 1880s he had relocated again and opened an office in New York City, where his two sons joined him at J. B. McElfatrick & Sons. The firm was well known for theater design across the country. Marilyn Casto’s book, Actors, Audiences, and Historic Theaters of Kentucky, describes McElfatrick’s design of Macauley’s:

[It] incorporated many features that came to characterize the firm’s work. Its preference for extremely ornamental facades with stone and wrought iron, combined with ornate interiors, was reflected in the Louisville theater, as was its tendency to use paneling and red or green with gilt or ivory interiors.

Macauley's Theater in the 1920s. (Courtesy Encyclopedia of Louisville)
Macauley’s Theater in the 1920s. (Courtesy Encyclopedia of Louisville)

The firm is thought to have designed three hundred theaters in the United States and Canada; the Cinema Treasures website lists 42 known theatres built by McElfatrick, but only 6 are known to remain open. One of the most impressive is the Colonial in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, similar to Macauley’s in its grand scale.

Interior of Macauley's Theater on its last night. (Courtesy Tipster)
Interior of Macauley’s Theater on its last night. (Courtesy Tipster)
“The Naughty Wife” – seen on the marquee here – was the last performance at Macauley’s on August 29, 1925. (Courtesy Theatre Historical Society of America archives)
“The Naughty Wife” – seen on the marquee here – was the last performance at Macauley’s on August 29, 1925. (Courtesy Theatre Historical Society of America archives)

In February 1924, a small mention in Billboard stated that Macauley’s had been sold to John and Isaac Starks, local capitalists. While it commented that the oldest theater in the city would “continue under the same policy, playing road shows and stock attractions,” Macauley’s was suddenly on borrowed time. Its last show was “The Naughty Wife” on August 29, 1925, and demolition began immediately to clear the block for the Starks building expansion. By December, Macauley’s was gone.

It was announced shortly after the theater was razed that Colonel John T. Macauley’s theatrical photograph collection – “probably the finest and largest individual collection in the world”, according to Billboard – would be presented to the University of Louisville. Many of these images of early actors, actresses, and performances can be viewed online here, with their legacies continued in public memory.

As far as keeping long-gone theaters in mind, Barney Macauley was eloquently quoted on opening night in 1873 as saying: “[The] record of a theatre is not history; it is romance. I hope this one will end in romance.”

[Top image of Macauley’s Theater after construction of the Starks Building in 1913 courtesy UL Archives – Reference.]
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Jessica McCarron

Jessica McCarron

Jessica's Louisville roots go back to before the Civil War. After receiving an engineering degree from the University of Dayton, she worked in environmental protection for the state of Georgia for many years. A recent change of heart pushed her to complete a Master's in Heritage Preservation from Georgia State University, and she joined a small history nonprofit in Atlanta as a researcher. She looks forward to returning to her roots by moving her family to the Bluegrass State this summer.
Jessica McCarron

3 COMMENTS

  1. Very interesting that something as grand as the Starks Building was being constructed in 1925, only having a very short period of peak use before downtown emptied out. It gives me hope that the razing of the suburbs is just around the corner.

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