Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Scots Celebrate Robert Burns in the Newly Opened Auditorium Theatre, 1890

The Auditorium Theater in Chicago was dedicated on December 9, 1889, and the Scottish people held one of the first events in the new building on January 25, 1890. It was a celebration of Robert Burns.  The headlines read “Scotch Citizens pack the auditorium to do the Bard Honor.” The Auditorium was said to seat 9,000 and was the largest building of its kind in the world.

The Highland Association rented the auditorium for the occasion. The Chicago Daily Tribune reported, “well-to-do Scotchmen - and there are scores of them in Chicago - bought boxes and sat in them with their wives and families; middle-class Scotchmen and Scotchwomen occupied the vast parquet and parquet circle, transforming the spacious hall into a sweeping upland of smiling faces.” Young people chose the balcony so that every seat was filled and there was standing room only.

The paper gave an interesting list of those on the platform and indicated they are all Scottish, including Mayor Cregier. Among the other names listed were: General M. M. Trumbull, Peter McEwen, F. B. Williams, George Stewart, Colin Bell, A. G. Hodge, John McLean, John McKinnon, Dr. Reynolds and the Rev. W. Kettle.

The Orator of the evening was the Rev. Dr. Lorimer and his theme was Robert Burns, the Poet of the People. “For Robert Burns, the poor man, the speaker had only words of praise; for Robert Burns, the songster who stirred men’s hearts to a marvelous degree, praise became something warmer and dearer. But higher than all, Robert Burns, the teacher, the poet-philosopher, who spurned the trappings of a monarch’s court and took off his hat to a picture of George Washington, who taught men to soar above narrow-mindedness and in a universal brotherhood to recognize the attributes of an all-merciful Heaven-for such a Burns, Dr. Lorimer’s words were eloquent almost to veneration. And that other side of the poet’s character - the rollicking, ne’er-do-weel, amorous country swain - even that was shorn of its unpleasantness by the kindly portrayal of the orator.”

The highlight of the evening was the singing of young Blatchford Kavanaugh. Not sure of his age, but he was a child and became quite famous for his singing. That evening he sang “Cuddle Doon,” “Annie Laurie” and later in the program dressed in Highland costume sang “Ye Banks and Braes o’ Bonnie Doon.” A reporter wrote that “it looked for a while as if the audience would be crazed with delight.” If you search the Internet there is more information about the child Blatchford Kavanaugh. He must have been an amazing singer. I do not know what happened to him as an adult.

There were other songs, singers and Highland dancers. Of all the dancing, the Highland fling drew the greatest applause. It was a great evening of entertainment and must have been quite a sight to see the Auditorium filled with “Scotchmen in broadcloth and Scotchmen in tartan kilt, Scotch lassies in bran noo gownes, and Scotch guidwives in go-to-meeting clothes . . . ”

Chicago had a large Scottish population. In fact, some have said it had the largest Scottish population of any major American city. We still have a large population of Scottish Americans scattered throughout the greater Chicago area. We would ask all of them to support the Illinois St. Andrew Society and The Scots of Chicago and keep alive their heritage.

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Wayne Rethford
President Emeritus

If you don’t know history you are a leaf that doesn’t know its part of a tree.

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