Broadcast: March 24, 2004
This is Faith Lapidus.
And this is Steve Ember with EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English. Today, we visit one of the most famous theaters in the United States. It is Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C.
Ford’s Theater is both a happy and sad place. It is happy because it brings music shows and other theater productions to Washington, D.C. Ford’s Theater is also a sad place in American history. This is where the actor John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln.
Today, the theater is a living memorial to President Lincoln’s love for the performing arts. It is also a museum operated by the National Park Service.
For a few minutes, we would like you to imagine that it is the evening of April fourteenth, eighteen-sixty-five. You are one of the one-thousand-seven-hundred men and women who have come to Ford’s Theater tonight. You have come here to see a popular and funny play, “Our American Cousin.” The famous actress Laura Keene has brought her theater company to Washington to perform it.
The play will begin in a few minutes. People are walking into the theater to their seats. The inside is bright with candlelight. As we look towards the stage, we see something unusual.
To the right and above the stage is a special small area called the State Box. It contains seats that President Lincoln uses when he comes to the theater. For tonight’s performance, John Ford, the owner of the theater, has ordered that the State Box be decorated with flags. Near the bottom of the box and in the center is a painting of America’s first President, George Washington.
President Lincoln likes to go to the theater. But he has not had many chances to attend recently because the nation was involved in the Civil War. Five days earlier, however, the forces of the southern states surrendered to end the war. People in Washington are celebrating. Tonight the president and Missus Lincoln want to enjoy the funny play performed by Laura Keene and her company of actors.
President Lincoln arrives after the play has begun. The actors stop performing and the people in the theater stand and cheer. The band plays a song to honor the president. Minutes later the play continues.
President and Missus Lincoln have invited two guests to sit with them in the State Box. They are army Major Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris.
The play is funny and Mister Lincoln laughs. He leans forward a little and places his hand on one of the flags to hold it down because it blocks his view of part of the stage.
The actor John Wilkes Booth enters the theater. He is there to kill the president. He strongly believes that killing Abraham Lincoln will stop the Union victory in the Civil War. He believes it might help the Southern states renew their efforts to fight the war.
The people who work in the theater know Booth well. He is also a friend of John Ford, the owner of the theater. No one stops Booth. He slowly walks up the stairs that circle to the right side of the theater. He stops for a minute and watches the play and then walks to the closed door of President Lincoln’s box.
Booth listens carefully to the words of the play. He knows it very well. He has chosen the exact moment in the play when the people watching will begin to laugh.
Booth quickly opens the door to the box, enters the small room and closes the door behind him. He reaches in his pocket and pulls out a small gun. He aims it at the president.
On the stage, Laura Keene and an actor are speaking lines from the play:
“I am aware, Mister Trenchard, you are not used to the manners of good society, and that alone will excuse the impertinence of which you have been guilty.”
“Don’t know the manners of good society, eh? Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal -- you sockdologizing old man-trap.”
(SOUND EFFECTS) (MUSIC)
President Lincoln died the next morning. Doctors could do nothing to save his life. Ford’s Theater was immediately closed. For a few days, police held Mister Ford while they investigated the murder of the president. John Wilkes Booth escaped Washington on horseback. But he was found twelve days later in Virginia. He was shot to death when he refused to surrender.
Three months later, Mister Ford was preparing to reopen the theater. But the powerful Secretary of War Edwin Stanton placed troops outside the building and would not permit it to be opened. The government offered to pay Mister Ford each month for the use of the theater. He had no choice but to accept the money.
In August, the War Department began work to change the theater into an office building. In less than one year, part of the held War Department information. Another part of the building was the Army Medical Museum. Still another part was the Library of Medicine. In eighteen-sixty-six, the government bought the building from Mister Ford for one-hundred-thousand dollars.
In eighteen-ninety-three, a terrible accident took place in the building. Three floors fell down. Twenty-two government workers were killed. Sixty-eight were injured.
For many years after that, the government used the building as a storage area. In nineteen-thirty-two, it opened a small museum to honor President Lincoln. The National Park Service took control of the building.
As the years passed, many people thought it would be a good idea to rebuild the theater. They wanted it to look as it did the night President Lincoln was assassinated. They wanted to make the theater into a memorial to honor President Lincoln.
In nineteen-forty-six, a member of the United States Senate introduced legislation that called for rebuilding the theater. However, it was not until nineteen-sixty-four that Congress agreed to provide more than two-million dollars to rebuild the old theater.
Rebuilding Ford’s Theater was difficult. The building plans for the theater had been lost many years earlier. However, photographs greatly helped the rebuilding process. The police had taken many photographs of the theater and kept them as evidence during the investigation of President Lincoln’s murder.
These photographs included the stage, the president’s special box seats, and the seating area for the public. Many of these photographs were used to help rebuild the theater to make it look like it did on April fourteenth, eighteen-sixty-five.
The rebuilding effort began in January, nineteen-sixty-five -- almost one-hundred years after President Lincoln’s death. It was finished in December, nineteen-sixty-seven.
The re-opening ceremony took place on January thirtieth, nineteen-sixty-eight. American actress Helen Hayes walked on to the stage of the newly reopened Ford’s Theater. She was the first actress to stand on the stage since President Lincoln watched Laura Keene in the play, “Our American Cousin.”
Today, Ford’s Theater is a popular place for visitors in Washington D.C. People on holiday come to see the famous theater. Many buses bring school children to the theater to learn about President Lincoln.
The small museum is under the theater. It shows the clothing Mister Lincoln wore that night long ago. It has the small gun Booth used in the assassination and many photographs. It also has a likeness that was made in stone from President Lincoln’s face.
Visitors can walk into the main theater to see the stage. They can sit in a chair for a few minutes and look up at the State Box where President Lincoln sat. It is decorated with flags the way it was then. Near the bottom of the box, between the flags, is the painting of George Washington. Experts believe it is the same one that hung there the night of the assassination.
Many actors say Ford’s Theater is a difficult place in which to perform. Most say they do not look at President Lincoln’s State Box when they are on stage. But the memory of what happened there is always present.
A new musical play is opening at Ford’s Theater March twenty-fifth. “Children of Eden” will be performed at until June sixth. It is a funny play about family relationships. It includes many different kinds of music. It is not difficult to imagine that President Lincoln would have enjoyed a play like “Children of Eden.” He loved going to the theater.
This program was written by Paul Thompson. It was produced by Mario Ritter. This is Steve Ember.
And this is Faith Lapidus. Join us again next week for another EXPLORATIONS program in VOA Special English.