Concert Saloon Bill of 1862
|This article does not cite any references or sources. (September 2009)|
In 1862 in New York City, "concert saloons" were the fare for evening entertainment for the male population of the thriving metropolis. To cut down on the growing decadence and crime that came with it, the Concert Saloon Bill was passed to rein in loose morality in the city.
The concert saloons targeted by the bill were of a type described by one contemporary as "a gin mill on an improved plan."
The improvements, designed to entice the mostly male clientele to spend their money on drink, consisted of free or cheap variety entertainment and "pretty waiter girls" (some of whom doubled as performers) in short, low-necked dresses.
Prostitution was growing in lower Manhattan in those days, but despite the prurient reports carried by the New York Times, the concert saloons were actually in the business of selling liquor, not sex. Douglas Gilbert, a noted vaudeville historian noted when writing about the female employees of variety halls:
"Although the nature of their work made for looseness, few of the actresses and wineroom maidens were promiscuous. Ladies of the evening had their own racket, picking up where the wine-room girls left off."
Most New York concert saloons of the 1860s were not nearly as grand as the Canterbury Music Hall, which presented lengthy variety bills in a theatrical setting with a small orchestra rather than a mere piano player. As variety producer Tony Pastor recalled in a 1907 interview:
"The variety show had it origin in the days of the American Civil War. Not much was required in those days in the way of scenery and other stage accessories. Small halls and even stores were used as variety theatres. Drinks were served. Smoking was allowed, and everything was free and easy.
Annoyed by this cut-rate competition, owners of "legitimate" theaters made common cause with puritanical temperance advocates and Republican Party reformers to lobby for the 1862 law, which forbade the combination of stage entertainment, liquor sales and "pretty waiter girls."
Enforcement quickly put the Canterbury (referred to by the New York Times as "the most prominent of the plague-blotches in our daily life") out of business. Other concert saloons did away with performances and/or waitresses to avoid prosecution. In the end, however, the concert saloons proved hard to suppress. In 1865, police superintendent John A. Kennedy reported that there were still 223 of them in the city employing 1,191 waitresses.
The campaign against the concert saloons did, however, help speed the establishment of true variety theaters in which owners made their money from the box office rather than the bar. The shift from concert saloon to variety theater also encouraged producers to try to broaden their audience by attracting female customers. Tony Pastor took the lead on this front with "Ladies nights," as well as promotional give-aways of flour, coal, sewing machines and silk dresses.