By Mike Scott
It was, by all accounts, a triumph for Sarah Bernhardt. That wasn’t unusual. Performances by the world’s most revered actress of the day were always declared triumphs.
But when The Divine Sarah stepped onto the stage of the Greenwall Theatre in the French Quarter, it was every bit the victory for the then-new theater’s namesake, one Henry Greenwall.
A German-born theater impresario who had been raised in New Orleans since the age of 5, Greenwall as a young man moved to east Texas, where he set about establishing his own theater circuit.
By 1888, he was back in New Orleans to run the Grand Opera House on Canal Street – and to lay the groundwork for his own masterpiece, on the site of a Legendre Drug Store at Iberville and Dauphine streets.
In a suitably theatrical flourish, Greenwall scheduled a groundbreaking ceremony for the stroke of midnight on Dec. 31, 1903. Sweetly, he selected his wife to lay the first stone.
Ten months later, on Oct. 20, 1904, his eponymous Greenwall Theatre was ready for its first show, a performance of the play “The Wife.”
The real star of the show, however, was the building. Designed by the local Stone Bros. architects, it was described by The Daily Picayune as “what is without a doubt one of the most complete, comfortable and perfectly-constructed theaters ever built in this country.”
Among its amenities was a primitive air conditioning system, whereby air was blown over ice, thus cooling it, and into the theater.
Declared to be “as near fireproof as the art of man can devise,” the theater was built on an iron frame coated with concrete. The walls were concrete clad in marble, the floors and stage were concrete covered with a thin wood veneer, and stairs were concrete covered in slate.
The stage curtains: asbestos.
Outside, the building was covered with pressed brick and terra cotta, with a grand, marble-lined entrance – covered by a large, glass canopy – opening onto the corner of Iberville and Dauphine.
Inside, through the swinging leather doors leading from the lobby to the auditorium, the theater boasted 2,300 seats, spread out between the ground level, a balcony, a gallery and 12 boxes. The walls of the auditorium were covered with detailed frescoes.
Just before the opening-night production, Greenwall himself was said to be “on the verge of tears.”
“The people of the city had done so much for him that he wished to leave them a monument of art,” The Picayune wrote.
A year and a half later, in March 1906, that “monument of art” would be graced by the world’s most famous actress as Bernhardt arrived for a seven-night stand. It was billed as the farewell tour of “The Divine Sarah,” but it would be a long farewell, the first of four such “retirement” tours she made.
In true New Orleans style, the affection for her locally was expressed in culinary fashion with the Sarah Bernhardt Cake – ostensibly invented by the old Dixiana Bakery at North Broad and Bruxelles Street – which was popular for decades, available at local bakeries well into the 1990s.
That cake would outlive the Greenwall.
Henry Greenwall – “the dean of the Southern stage,” as the Picayune called him – died at the age of 80 on Nov. 27, 1913, in the apartment he shared with his family over the theater lobby. Within months, the Greenwall went dark for what was described as “poor business reasons.”
In 1915, it was reopened by new owners and operated as a vaudeville venue known as The Triangle. Two years later, it was sold to the Orpheum chain and rebranded The Palace, which showed new-fangled motion pictures as well as vaudeville acts.
By 1935, The Palace changed management and became a theater for Black audiences only. By the late 1950s, it had closed for good.
That’s around when reader Jimmy Anselmo remembers it. He also remembers its ultimate fate.
“My dad had an apartment across the street in the mid-1950s,” Anselmo wrote. “As a little boy I would rummage through the old building, and it was in good shape. I’m perplexed as to why this beautiful old building was allowed to be torn down.”
The reason, as it turns out: parking.
With parking at a premium throughout the French Quarter and CBD, the old theater met with the wrecking ball to make room for a five-level, $400,000 garage. Mayor Vic Schiro cut the ribbon on the new garage – declared New Orleans’ “most modern” and “convenient to everything” – in May 1963.
Today, that parking garage still stands at the corner of Iberville and Dauphine. It is 58 years old – exactly the age of the Greenwall when it was torn down.
Thanks to Jimmy Anselmo for suggesting the Greenwall Theatre as a topic. Do you know of a New Orleans building worth profiling in this column, or just curious about one? Contact Mike Scott at email@example.com.
Sources: The Daily Picayune archives; American Heritage