Mark Twain at the Bardavon
How many of you love a good stand-up comedian? Some of you might enjoy the jokes of Richard Pryor, George Carlin, or Jim Gaffigan. Perhaps you have seen a live performance by Jeff Dunham or Steve Martin. The fashion of a single person standing on a stage of a nightclub or a theater telling stories and jokes was made famous by people like Lenny Bruce and Joan Rivers in the 1950s, but people have been telling jokes on stage for a long time. Of course, the oldest stage here in the City of Poughkeepsie is the one at the Bardavon Theater, and the first real stand-up comedian to grace that stage was America’s great humorist, Mark Twain.
On October 18, 1869, the Poughkeepsie Eagle News briefly mentioned that the newly famous Mark Twain would be one of the many speakers for the Lyceum Lectures. These lectures were held at the Collingwood Opera House–which we know as the Bardavon Theater today–and in 1869, both Twain and the Collingwood were fairly new creations. Twain, whose real name was Samuel Langhorne Clemens, had become famous thanks to his recently published work on his travels through Europe and the Holy Land, “The Innocents Abroad.” Around the same time in 1869, the Collingwood was being designed and built by local architect J.A. Wood.
Twain had discovered his ability to make an audience laugh through stories based on his own actual experiences, with a mix of exaggeration and absurdities. His first major speaking tour of the northeast was in 1869, and though his latest book was selling out faster than it could be printed, Twain decided that he would use the first lecture that made him famous in California: a lecture all about the Sandwich Islands, or as we call it today, Hawaii. His tour began in Pittsburgh, PA on the first of November, and he left the crowds roaring through Jamestown, NY in January of the following year. The Poughkeepsie Eagle News informed the city the day before he was scheduled to perform that, “we would advise all who can appreciate sparkling wit and genial humor, to provide themselves with a ticket and wend their way to Collingwood’s Opera House, on Friday evening, nothing fearing that they will receive an adequate return from their investment.”
When he came to Poughkeepsie on the night of Friday, December 3rd, the audience was certainly ready. The Collingwood was designed to hold 2,000 people at the time, and though there is no record to tell us if it was a sold-out performance, we know that there was a large crowd based on the review the next day. During his lecture, he informed the curious audience of the natives of the islands saying,
“It used to be popular to call these Sandwichers cannibals. They are not cannibals. There was one, however, who opened an office in a back settlement and did a good business, eating up a good many Kannackers in his time. In other cities I usually illustrate cannibalism on the stage, but being a stranger here I don’t feel at liberty to ask favors, but still, if anyone in the audience would lend me an infant, I will go on with the show. However, it is of no consequence. I know that children have grown scarce lately on account of the neglect with which they are treated since the women’s movement began.”
One could imagine the roar of laughter that would ensue, or perhaps some mixed feelings from concerned mothers. Either way, an entertaining evening was had on the night Mark Twain came to Poughkeepsie.
Poughkeepsie Eagle News: 18 Oct 1869, 3 Dec 1869
https://twain.lib.virginia.edu/onstage/savlect.html – Mark Twain’s full lecture
https://twain.lib.virginia.edu/onstage/savsched.html – Mark Twain’s 1869-70 Tour schedule
Collingwood/Bardavon LH Collection 780c Boxes 1, 2, 3
https://www.loc.gov/resource/cph.3a08820/ – Photograph of Mark Twain – Library of Congress
Bardavon-003 – Interior view of the Bardavon theater – LH Collections
Bardavon-008 – Interior view of the Bardavon theater – LH Collections