Saturday, April 06, 2019

The Bird Cage Theatre, 1964

Many GDB readers are familiar with the Bird Cage Theatre at Knott's Berry Farm - home to classic melodramas and comedies for many decades. Below is a photo of it from some time in the 1960's. The "Flying Scud" was on the bill... "Fun for young and old".

But there is another Bird Cage Theatre, in Tombstone, Arizona. It opened in 1881 (note the date above the center arch), and was intended to be a respectable establishment. But the ups and downs of the nearby Grand Central Mine affected the economy, and the theatre became a saloon, gambling parlor, and brothel.

The interior looks just like my place! Wikipedia says: One of the first acts at the Birdcage was Mademoiselle De Granville (Alma Hayes), also known as the "Female Hercules" and "the woman with the iron jaw". She performed feats of strength, specializing in picking up heavy objects with her teeth. Other acts included the Irish comic duo Burns and Trayers (John H. Burns and Matthew Trayers), comic singer Irene Baker, Carrie Delmar, a serious opera singer, and comedian Nola Forest.

The New York Times described the Bird Cage Theatre as "the roughest, bawdiest, and most wicked night spot between Basin Street and the Barbary Coast". Among the odd murders was one in which a brothel worker stabbed another with her stiletto heel. The building is said to have over 120 bullet holes.

Wikipedia again: The longest poker game in history was played in the basement of the theater. Those who wished to play had to pay a thousand dollars ($1,000) up front. Among the notable people who played in this particular game was George Hearst, Diamond Jim Brady, Adolphus Busch, Doc Holliday, Bat Masterson, and Wyatt Earp. The poker game in itself was played continuously 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It continued from 1881 to 1889 for a total of 8 years. It is estimated that approximately $10 million dollars was exchanged in the game during the 8 years that it lasted and that the Bird Cage retained 10 percent of that money.

With such a colorful history, it is no surprise that the Bird Cage is said to be haunted. "Visitors and employees both claim to have seen the ghosts of former brothel workers as well as dowdy men dressed in cowboy hats. Some people have even reported being pushed or shoved by unseen forces. Disembodied laughter and music can often be heard in the dead of night". 

I don't believe in such malarky, and yet... when this photo was snapped, there was no man sitting in that chair!

I'm sorry if I scared you too much, and hope you have enjoyed your visit to the original Bird Cage Theatre.


Nanook said...


What a wonderful place. The Tombstone location is being upstaged by the very tail end of a 1960 Rambler, with [probably] a Corinthian White, 1963 Ford blocking the windows of the Bird Cage Theatre. And parked in back, we have a Provincial White, 1962 Oldsmobile.

I love the painted curtain, with the exposed rope, which appears to be part of an oddly-rigged "tab" curtain.

Thanks, Major.

TokyoMagic! said...

And not a single bird cage in sight. That pyramid-shaped object on top of the scale in that last pic (lower right corner) is a "cordless" toaster.

Knott's temporarily brought back a melodrama in their Bird Cage Theater and it's running right now, but only for the duration of the park's "Boysenberry Festival." The show is actually quite good! However, Steve Marin isn't in it. Unfortunately, neither is Lauren Tewes.

Chuck said...

I guess the people who owned the original Bird Cage must have made enough money from that poker game to build more than just a facade for their tent. If only Knott's Berry Farm were successful enough to earn $1,000,000 over an eight-year period...

Major Pepperidge said...

Nanook, it is remarkable that the builders of the original Bird Cage Theatre had the foresight to include plenty of free parking.

TokyoMagic!, hey, you’re right! No bird cages! What a ripoff. Worst vacation destination ever. The lack of Lauren Tewes is another affront to theme park fans everywhere.

Chuck, something tells me that the story about the 8 year poker game has been embellished just a bit over the decades! Reading it, one imagines people sitting around a circular table 24/7 - one person will leave to take a nap, and another person will instantly fill that vacant seat!

JC Shannon said...

Knott's Berry Farm, ghosts and classic cars. This post has everything. You know, it is from movies and TV that most know about Tombstone and the Birdcage, but Knott's version was way ahead of it's time. Who knew? The story of the 24 hour poker game is not the only thing that was embellished or fabricated about Tombstone. Most of the stories came from east coast reporters or penny-dreadfulls of the day. Fun fact, Morgan Earp got his first job as a lawman on Butte Montana's police department. Thanks to pardner Pepperidge for today's scans.

Melissa said...

Okay, that's it, when I die I'm going to go haunt the bullet-hole cowboy gambler whorehouse theater instead of all the dull places I've been in my life. I'll hang out behind the bar with the ghost of that nice, bespectacled lady and we'll throw shot glasses of ectoplasm in tourists' faces.

Major Pepperidge said...

Jonathan, ha ha, when I create a post, I am always careful to add thrills, romance, action, pathos, and screwball comedy. What more does anybody need? As for questionable stories about the old west, I wonder if the whole “deadman’s hand” (aces and eights) is a total fabrication by a creative writer?

Melissa, it definitely sounds more fun than sitting on a cloud and playing a harp. Unless Harpo is there with you.

Melissa said...

Major, is that a "Deputy Seraph" reference I see before me?!?

I recently reread Harpo's autobiography Harpo Speaks, and I highly recommend it if you haven't had the pleasure. If I did have to choose one Marx brother to hang out with postmortem, Harpo would be the one.

Anonymous said...

I remember seeing this building during our visit to Tombstone, lo so many years ago. We didn't go in, undoubtedly due to the bad vibes of the building's sordid history. I did notice the name similarity to Knotts.

The progression of various uses and occupancies seem characteristic of buildings on the American frontier. Nearly every building in Nevada, for example, has been all of those things, usually simultaneously.

The story of the card game is pretty fascinating. Seems there is a promotional opportunity there for some casino to set up an attempt to break the record. But no modern establishment could match that list of players. Getting Bono, Igor Stravinsky, Elon Musk, Ross Perot, Paul Bocuse and Salvador Dali all to wander in at once would be hard to arrange.

Thanks, Major.