The Bandera Courier
Bandera Courier
Thursday December 7, 2017
 
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2011-01-06

Unlikely Star

Chaz Allen

The Great White Way. That's what it had been called for years. And if you didn't know, it was called that because of the enormous amount of white lights and how brilliantly the street is lit up. Of course, I'm talking about Broadway. And there are lots of lights today of many colors. But once they were all white.
That magical place where, for more than 150 years, performers have dreamed of getting a role in a Broadway show. And if you are a talented young performer, and are lucky enough to get your shot in a Broadway show, then your career is off and running.
Just think of the huge stars and shows that have come off of that venue: Ethel Merman, Tommy Tune, Julie Andrews, Mary Martin. And the shows! South Pacific, Oklahoma, Camelot, Phantom of the Opera. And it wasn't just limited to musicals, of course. No. Great drama and comedies are also legendary on the Broadway stage. The list is as long as your arm.
But there was one who hit the big time on Broadway - a rather unlikely star. Really! And one that I'll bet you wouldn't guess if I gave you all day. It was back a few years ago and Broadway was up and running hard. Like today, the shows were big and extravagant, and they packed in the people in search of entertainment.
And in 1867, one person packed them in better than anyone else. I mean, before he even appeared, people were standing in two lines more than a mile long just for a chance to get a ticket to one of his performances. At a time when a seat at a Broadway performance cost a person about 50 cents, which was a day's pay for most folks back then, scalpers were getting more than $20 a ticket and selling every singe one they could get their hands on.
His first performance was on December 2. And even though the weather was freezing, and snow was falling, and winds were blowing (and remember, no cars or subways back then), they still came - and came by the hundreds of thousands. He was the hit of New York and the theater. No one - not the politicians, not the stars of the day, not Lilly Langtry, not the Swedish Nightingale - no one had bigger crowds than this man. He was scheduled for 20 performances, but it had to be extended to more than 200 to take care of the initial ticket sales.
And as I said, you'd probably never guess who it was, because by today's standards, he was a most unlikely performer and star. But it's all true. It's a Little Known Fact that from December 1867 to July 1868, one person ruled the Great White Way. A reader! Yeah, a reader of books. Of course, he also wrote those books and people came to hear him read, in the best of times and the worst of times. The biggest star of New York theater of that decade: author Charles Dickens.