Entertainment in Nebraska Territory

Nebraska’s first theatrical performance happened in Omaha in 1857. The troupe’s version of “Box and Cox” was considered by the local newspaper to have been a bit crude.

Although Nebraska’s first permanent theater, the Omaha Academy of Music, was not opened until 1867, there had been for a decade prior to this time sporadic theatrical activity in Nebraska Territory, most of it in Omaha. Early Nebraskans had little money for entertainment but like all emigrants to the American West, they brought with them a nostalgia for the culture they had left behind and a determination to re-establish it as soon as possible in their new communities. One of the important elements in this culture was the theater.

The Omaha Nebraskian of June 3, 1857, carried notice of the first dramatic performance in Omaha–and Nebraska:

On Thursday evening last [May 28], the first dramatic entertainment ever given in Nebraska, was witnessed in this city by a large audience, in Armstrong and Clark’s new frame store room. The company, a small one, consisting of Messrs. Wight, Powell and Scott, and Mrs. Powell, have been playing in numerous towns in Iowa and Missouri, during the past winter. They gave three entertainments in this city, but the unfavorableness of the weather Friday and Saturday evenings unquestionably prevented them from playing to as full houses those evenings, as the first. We would, in all kindness, suggest to the company, that a higher order of plays would be more acceptable to a refined audience, than the ‘Merry Cobbler,’ or ‘Box and Cox.’ But we do not wish to criticize the first theatrical performance in Nebraska.–There must be a beginning–as well as an end–to all things. Three years ago the streets of our city were trodden by the deer and the timid prairie wolf, and our ‘corner lots’ were the homes of the gopher. Three years hence and our population of 1800 may have increased to almost as many thousands, and ‘stars of the first magnitude’ may be proud to play at our theaters.

References to the troupe from contemporary Iowa newspapers indicate that its repertoire included more serious presentations than those given in Omaha. Perhaps the players underestimated their Omaha audience or needed a bigger company to stage more ambitious productions.

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