Myths & Legends of the Bird Cage Theater
By Buck Bannister on August 20th, 2008
The Bird Cage Theater on Allen Street in Tombstone, AZ has captured the popular imagination for years.
Gunfights, saloon brawls, rowdy cowboys and miners kicking up their heels at dance halls and brothels – that is the popular notion of Tombstone, Arizona in its heydays in the 1880’s and 1890’s. At the center of this Wild West tale of debauchery and violence has always stood the mythic Bird Cage Theater.
The Bird Cage Theater stands at the Eastern end of Allen Street, the most notorious street in the town of Tombstone. Today it seems an almost solitary figure, the last edifice on a street filled with Wild West themed restaurants and shops, separated from its neighbors by a vacant lot to one side and a street to the other. It retains its pink façade with turquoise lettering and a simple almost understated entrance off a wooden sidewalk.
Yet, the Bird Cage manages to capture the popular imagination thanks to Hollywood, legends, and the thousands of tourists passing through its doors. Tourists listen to lurid tales of murder and mayhem. In the street nearby, re-enactors, dressed as 1880’s gunfighters, stage elaborate battles with their six guns and rifles. How much of this romantic and violent image is reality and how much is myth?
There are many popular myths and tales of how the Bird Cage Theater received its unique sobriquet. One popular story is that the little theater was originally called the “Elite Theater.” Sometime, shortly after opening, Eddie Foy a popular comedian and entertainer of the period commented that the girls who plied their trade in the boxes above the main floor seemed like “birds in cages.” According to this legend, the owner of the theater, Billy Hutchinson, thought the name would be much better and changed the name of the venue from the Elite Theater to The Bird Cage Theater.
Unfortunately, not a word of that legend is true. The name of the theater was originally The Bird Cage Theater from the moment it opened its doors on December 26, 1881. Original newspaper advertisements from the period clearly show the name of the theater as The Bird Cage.()( )
Joe Bignon and his wife Minnie changed the name briefly to The Elite Theater in 1883 after purchasing the business from Billy Hutchinson. However, the name did not stick and they changed it back to The Bird Cage Theater.
Another legend too good to die concerns the popular song “She’s Only a Bird in a Gilded Cage” which, according to tourist brochures and the popular imagination lyricist Charles Lamb wrote after an innocent comment by Eddie Foy about the girls working the boxes or “cages” that formed the balcony of the theater.
Unfortunately, the time line for the music simply does not work. According to the legend, the famed Lillian Russell who was performing at The Bird Cage sang the song. There is no evidence that Russell ever appeared at the theater and her career was not launched in a variety hall in Arizona but in New York City where she had already performed to popular acclaim as a balladeer.
Furthermore, Lamb’s words were not set to music until 1900, longer after The Bird Cage ceased to function as a swinging center of prostitution and Wild West fun. Original versions of the song had the main character the wife of a very rich man who kept her on a short leash. At the insistence of the publisher and musical composer, the story was altered to make her a more tragic figure as the rich man’s mistress.
Yet, the story persists, handed down as truth by tour guides and local tourist brochures.
I’m Your Huckleberry!
Doc Holliday sits at his Faro table inside the Bird Cage Theater. Johnny Ringo of the “Cowboys” outlaw gang walks by and Doc says through a boozy haze: “Care to buck the tiger, Johnny? It’s the gutsiest game in town.”
Johnny Ringo then whips off his bandanna and replies: “Care to grab the other end of this bandanna? It’s the deadliest game in town.”
The famed Handkerchief Duel has gone down as a great western legend. Indeed, handkerchief duels were fought at times in western towns. The premise was that two gunfighters would grab opposite ends of a handkerchief or bandanna and open fire. Normally, the result was two dead bodies.
Doc Holliday and Johnny Ringo, two mythic figures from the legendary O.K. Corral fight engaging in a duel in the middle of The Bird Cage Theater would seem too good a story to pass up.
Certainly, Hollywood has gotten in on the act. In the movie “Tombstone,” we find Val Kilmer and Michael Biehn about to go at it on screen. T-shirts available for purchase in The Bird Cage Theater Museum perpetuate the story. Tour guides recite the tale in dramatic tones.
However, was any of it true? The answer, as with many historical questions, is yes and no. Doc Holliday and Johnny Ringo did have a run in a few months after the O.K. Corral fight. However, there is no evidence it was over a game of Faro and no evidence those beautifully scripted lines were ever uttered. The “almost” duel happened in the middle of Allen Street. No handkerchiefs or bandannas were involved, a number of people witnessed it, and the quick action of the police averted bloodshed.()
Sadie Earp and her Illicit Rendezvous
A photo long believed to be of Sadie or Josie Earp but in reality a pinup girl from 1914.
Josephine Sarah Marcus happened to be an entertainer. She had run away from home as a teenager and joined a dance troupe touring Arizona. She was caught by her family in Prescott, Arizona. Unfortunately, for her family she had already met Johnny Behan who would become the sheriff of Cochise County.()
Johnny pledged marriage and Sadie joined him in Tombstone in 1880. Although they lived together, they did not marry. Johnny also had a roving eye. He did persuade her to leave her life as a dancer and entertainer and become his “girl.”
In the Summer of 1881, Sadie found Johnny with another woman and promptly left him. Although there are many stories that she turned to prostitution and worked as a prostitute at The Bird Cage, there is no concrete evidence. The only account from the period that would indicate she had taken up the world’s oldest profession is a story that Doc Holliday told to Denver reporters that intimated he had paid for Sadie’s services himself.
We do know that around the time of the famous shootout involving Wyatt Earp and his friends that he and Sadie began a relationship that would last the rest of their lives. Whether this relationship began in the high end brothel rooms beneath the stage of the Bird Cage Theater or happened much more simply, is hard to say. However, what is certain is that there is not nearly enough evidence to point to a bed in the restored brothel room within The Bird Cage and state definitively that “this is where Sadie and Wyatt Earp had their illicit affair.”
What of the famed picture though? In Tombstone and even at The Bird Cage Museum you can purchase photos of a woman wearing a V-neck low cut, diaphanous gown. Her eyes are heavily made up with smoky dark tones. She looks down at the camera through half-closed lids and her ringlet hair is draped with a long veil. According to the gift shops in Tombstone and many residents, this is Sadie Earp in her glory days. Some claim that Johnny Behan had the photograph taken of her himself.
Unfortunately, the story is not true. Even a cursory examination of the photograph shows stark inconsistencies with this story.
The woman in the photograph is wearing an outfit that is more indicative of the Art Nouveau fashions of the early 20th Century. Certainly, if one compares this photograph with what was considered erotic art of the 1880’s it is strikingly different. However, a comparison with the erotica of the early 20th Century shows it is strikingly similar.
The hairstyle of the woman in the photograph is certainly more in line with early 20th Century fashion rather than 1880’s fashion. As well, her eye makeup would have seemed extremely strange in the 1880’s.
Finally, there is evidence that the photograph was originally part of a series of erotic cards produced around 1914. Sotheby’s sold the original some years back and accurately dated the photograph as 1914. It seems to be an anonymous model who posed for the Pastime Novelty Company of Brooklyn, New York. Some copies bear the name Kaloma and a date of 1914.
The Reality of The Bird Cage
If so many legends and myths about The Bird Cage Theater are false, what was the reality of this place that still captures the popular imagination?
Certainly, the theater could be rough. However, evidence suggests that it was not a place given to daily gun battles, knife fights, or brawls. The establishment stayed open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Patrons were treated to ongoing variety acts, dances, sensual pleasure, and gambling. Indeed, it seems almost the precursor or a modern Las Vegas casino!
The girls at The Bird Cage worked as both entertainers and prostitutes. They plied their trade in the boxes above the main floor. Each box was fitted out nicely for a quick rendezvous and women received tokens for every drink they got their companion to buy. Certainly, this system was the precursor of the modern “Champagne Room” in Gentleman’s Clubs today.
The entertainment consisted not only of the showgirls but also of variety performers from around the country and world. Animal acts, jugglers, singers, dancers, minstrel shows, daredevils, wrestlers, boxers, and even female impersonators performed on the stage of this desert showplace.
Contrary to popular belief The Bird Cage and Tombstone were not the wild and woolly places of popular imagination and Hollywood. Tombstone in the 1880’s boasted some of the best restaurants in the west outside of San Francisco. Patrons could even get oysters that were shipped in from the coast.
Scheifflin Hall, just across town hosted classical singers, plays, and operettas. Tombstone, itself boasted a popular amateur theatrical company who often took their shows on the road to Tucson.()
Maybe the true beginning of the end for Tombstone’s historical past was in 1929 when the few remaining residents instituted “Helldorado Days” a sensational and often false presentation of life in Tombstone during its Golden Age in the 1880’s and 1890’s. Since that time myth seems to have reigned supreme on the streets of Tombstone.
The Tombstone City Hall has been condemned for use and recently had a roof collapse due to heavy rains and disrepair.
Today, the city is listed among the most endangered historical towns in America. To look at it one might wonder why. There seems to be a booming tourist economy and the buildings appear in good shape. Unfortunately, many of the buildings lining Allen Street are reproductions. The original ones remaining with the exception of The Bird Cage and a few others have been gutted and refitted as stores, restaurants or bars.
Many of the most historic buildings are in disrepair. The City Hall located on Fremont Street has been condemned and recently had a roof cave in after a monsoon rain. It is doubtful this beautiful building will be spared the wrecking ball. What will spring forth in its place? Another tourist restaurant built to look like Hollywood’s idea of an 1880’s era building? Possibly.
The town recently has been attempting to make strides in the problems that placed it on the list of Threatened Historic Districts in 2004. Yet the work is long and overcoming the desire to please tourists by making history fit their notions is a long road. ()
Perhaps it is with ego we look back on the residents of Tombstone and envision them as simple people full of violence and lacking culture or refinement. Certainly, the evidence suggests that the reality of their existence was much more interesting than our two dimensional view of them as characters from a dime novel.
- Arizona Daily Star, August 18, 1882. [ ]
- Tombstone Epitaph, December 21, 1881 [ ]
- Tucson Weekly Citizen, January 22, 1882. [ ]
- Harriet and Fred Rochlin, Pioneer Jews, Houghton Mifflin, 1984. [ ]
- Diary of John W. Parsons [ ]
- http://tps.cr.nps.gov/nhl/detail.cfm?ResourceId=88&ResourceType=District [ ]