OPERATION TIME: 1881 to present
The Bird Cage Theatre belonged to William “Billy” and Lottie Hutchinson. Opening on December 26th, 1881, the name came from the fourteen boxes called “cages” that were located on the two balconies on either side of the central hall. The cages were mostly used for prostitutes, and drapes could be drawn in front of them for while they entertained their clients.
Down in the main hall, there was a stage and orchestra pit for live shows to be performed. It is rumored that the theater’s name actually came from the early 20th-century song A Bird in a Gilded Cage, and that the theater’s original name was the Elite Theatre Opera House.
Shortly after the theater opened, the theater was visited by Eddie Foy, Sr. and Arthur J. Lamb, a songwriter. While there, they talked in the bar about the prostitutes. Allegedly, Arthur J. Lamb said they were like “birds in gilded cages”, and he worked out the song on the saloon’s piano.
It was later performed to by an unknown singer (believed to be Lillian Russell), and she was called out for encore performances eight times. However, it would be impossible for the story to be true, as Lamb was born in 1870, making him eleven or twelve.
The most widely accepted version of the story is that the theater was named the Bird Cage Theatre when it opened, and it was named the Elite Theatre briefly after Joe and Minnie Bignon bought it in 1882. It was later changed back. For eight years, the Bird Cage Theatre was operated continuously for twenty-four hours a day and 365 days a year.
As time progressed, the theater earned a reputation as one of the country’s wildest places. In 1882, The New York Times reported that it was the “wildest, wickedest night spot between Basin Street and the Barbary Coast”, mainly because of the 120 bullet holes that riddle the walls.
Many renowned entertainers from the 19th century performed at the Bird Cage over the years, such as Lotta Crabtree, Lillie Langtry, and Eddie Foy, Sr. Entertainer Fatima performed her belly dancing routine at the theatre as well. Legend has it that the basement poker room had the longest-running poker game in history. It played continuously for eight years, five months, and three days, with $10,000,000 changing hands throughout the game (with the house taking 10%). It is doubted that the players stayed awake all this time, and much rather that players took turns.
Some of the poker marathoners were Bat Masterson, Diamond Jim Brady, George Hearst, and Doc Holliday. During the late 1880s, the town’s mines began to be flooded, causing the Bird Cage Theatre to lose its clients. The poker game came to an end after the long run, and the building was closed and sealed up in 1889.
Eventually, the Bird Cage Theatre was purchased in 1934, and almost nothing had been altered in the 45-year span. Now, the theater is open as a tourist attraction year-round from 8:00 AM to 6:00 PM daily.
As for the haunting of the theater, the sounds of a woman singing and the voices of a crowd can be heard. Shadows of unidentified spirits believed to be the victims of shootouts have been seen along the walls. A woman’s apparition in white has been known to appear, items move by themselves, and many EVPs of music have been recorded.
In Popular Culture
- The Bird Cage Theater was featured on Ghost Hunters in 2006.
- In 2009, the theater was featured on both Ghost Adventurers and Ghost Lab.
- Fact or Faked: Paranormal Files investigated the theater in 2011.
- Forgotten USA. “Tombstone – Bird Cage Theatre,” www.ForgottenUSA.com
- Wikipedia. “Bird Cage Theatre,” www.Wikipedia.org