Long before it was a film sensation, Ben Hur was a popular novel written by General Lew Wallace. Published by Harpers and Brothers (1880), it benefited from excellent promotion. Excerpts were placed in schools to gain a young audience.
In late 1899, Ben Hur opened on Broadway as a “triumph of theatre technology”. It was, in every way, spectacular. The Klaw and Erlinger production went on tour and ran for 21 years reaching more than twenty million people.
My interest in the production came from learning about the fantastic impact Ben Hur had on Winnipeg audiences in 1909. It was staged at the Walker Theater, a splendid, opulent house that had opened just two years earlier. Billed as “fire proof” the Walker was built with fine acoustics and a massive stage that ran 80 feet wide and 40 deep.
In reading the reviews of the play that had 200 cast members, 100 crew, twelve horses and a camel, one can only imagine the excitement of being in the audience for the Winnipeg performances staged March 8-13, 1909.
It was impresario C.P. Walker’s intent to bring theatre to the common man and indeed his magnificent house welcomed patrons that ranged from the finely dressed members of the carriage trade to the draymen, railway workers, and “hello” girls who worked as telephone operators. These were the people who climbed the steep steps of the Walker to sit in the “gods” seats. During the run of Ben Hur in Winnipeg, these straight back hard wooden benches up near the roof line were filled with new theatre goers, many of whom gave over a week’s wages to experience the most gripping show that had ever come to the prairie’s centre of the arts.
The Manitoba Free Press review of the Winnipeg opening was written by “E.B” and published on March 9, 1908. This is an excerpt:
“Only the language of the superlative with frequent notes of exclamation can possibly describe all of the glories of “Ben Hur” produced at the Walker Last night. From a staging and scenic point of view it is easily the most elaborate presentation ever given in Winnipeg and it should be a matter of pride to ever patriotic citizen that only in about four theatres in the States would it be possible to as adequately mount the play as was the case last night.
“It is impossible to do otherwise than first refer to the magnificence of the mounting of the drama and the wonderful spectacular effects obtained, for they are conceived in a spirit of opulence and carried out with an elaboration of detail and a barbaric splendor calculated to almost take one’s breath away. The eye is dazzled by the wealth of color and the ear tickled with the beautiful musical accompaniment, sometimes heard as themes and again with the voices of the chorus, which was admirably trained. To the music lover the music will prove an added attraction for the compositions of Edgar Stillman Kelley are done thorough justice to by the greatly augmented orchestra.
“After the impressive prelude with a curtain symbolic of Rome and Jerusalem, and in which three wise men from the west are seen in an attitude of adoration, the curtain rises on the roof-top of the Palace of Hur, and one is immediately struck with the huge proportions of the Walker stage, and can readily believe the claim that it is made for it, that it is one of the finest on the American continent.”
Conway Tearle, who later became a screen idol, played Ben Hur in the touring show that came to Winnipeg. Mitchell Harris played Messala, Anthony Andrea was Simonides, and Alice Haynes was Esther.
The Walker Theatre was reported to be one of only four theatres on the continent that had a stage large enough to accommodate three chariots, each with four horses abreast. The horses were set on treadmills so as to allow a full gallop. Winnipeg theatre patrons smugly pointed out that no theatre in New York could accommodate more than two chariots for lack of space. E.B., the reviewer for the Manitoba Free Press was greatly impressed.
“I have left to the last, the description of the celebrated chariot race because it is no easy thing to tell about. To see three chariots each having four horses attached racing madly across the stage with the drivers lashing and cracking their whips to the accompaniment of hoarse cries of triumph and hatred and the tumultuous applause of the audience is no light task. The people in front simply hold their breath, while their eyes almost start out of their heads with the excitement of the frenzied scene, and the climax is reached when the wheel is cut off one of the chariots and the driver is thrown to the track, and the trials and tribulations of Ben –Hur are almost brought to an end through the injuries to and ruin of his enemy. Had the race continued for another ten seconds the audience would have been standing up in the seats. I have seen many exciting moments in plays but never one quite equal to this. Again there is nothing but praise for the stage management and the the stage hands for with the exception of one tiny hitch the piece went with a smoothness which was astonishing for a first night in a strange theatre. In a word, from a spectacular standpoint Ben-Hur is a gorgeous and soul satisfying experience which no person having the faintest interest in things theatrical should by any means miss.
“So much having been said of the play from a purely mechanical and scenic outlook, it must not be imagined that therefore the dramatic niceties of the production have in any way been allowed to suffer. On the contrary, a very capable company has been sent out by Klaw and Erlenger and not a lot of third raters as is sometimes the case with these spectacular pieces.”
The Walker is, thankfully, still standing. It is now known as the Burton Cummings Theatre.
A final word for film buffs. There were two early silent films (1907 and 1925) made of Ben Hur. The 1925 version, directed by Fred Niblo starred Ramón Novarro as Judah Ben-Hur andFrancis X. Bushman as Messala. It was the most expensive silent film ever made and is reported to have cost between 4 and 6 million dollars. Here is the chariot scene from Ben Hur, (1925). It is well worth seeing the whole film.