Poli’s Wonderland Theatre in 1895

Holy Poli

When Poli’s New Theatre opened on Church Street in November of 1905, it was touted as the best-appointed vaudeville theater in New England. In anticipation of its opening, the Hartford Daily Courant described what they saw on a grand tour: a tiled lobby lined with 20-foot mirrors; a stage and proscenium decorated with plush fabric and brass; and ornamental plasterwork covered in over $2,000 worth of gold leaf. Angels and other figures were painted on or suspended from the ceiling, including “the heroic figures of Genius bearing the electric torches” that lit the stage. “The grand foyer is perhaps the most magnificent and beautiful of the many attractive spots in the theater. Large and roomy, with a grand marble staircase with special designed electric light stands blazing forth,” gushed the Courant. Indeed, the theater was lit by over 1,700 lightbulbs, with its own dedicated powerhouse next door.

sponsored by

Photographs | Contemporary Art: Recent Gifts and Acquisitions at the Yale Center for British Art

Shortly thereafter christened Poli’s Palace, the building also housed the offices of Poli’s Theatrical Enterprises. By that point, Sylvester Z. Poli had opened vaudeville houses all over Connecticut, but the Palace was his first to be built from the ground up. Across the street was Poli’s first vaudeville stage: the Bijou Theatre, formerly named the Wonderland Theatre. According to the Courant article, it was to stay open as the home to Poli’s stock company, while the Palace received the prestigious touring acts. To Poli, the new $250,000 theater was an expression of vaudeville’s arrival as an entertainment form distinct from the variety shows—rougher and rowdier, put on exclusively for men—at burlesques and concert saloons. Historian Kathryn J. Oberdeck made this point in a 1995 academic paper about Poli’s tireless promotion of “refinement” in his shows. She quotes Poli on his ideal theater as “a place of innocent amusement to which ladies and children may resort freely without escort.”

Poli also wanted his theater to be shared by New Haven’s Yankee elites—generally horrified by variety shows—and its working immigrant communities. “To the south, east, and north lay New Haven’s great hardware, rubber, and corset factories and the neighborhoods of Irish, German, African-American, Italian, and Russian workers employed by them; to the north and west were the city’s shopping district, the New Haven Green, and Yale University.” Church Street was at the nexus of those districts, and Poli’s first theaters were located there by design. The acts appearing therein catered to elites but also “to alternative cultural orientations that mocked highbrow pretensions” of the elites. A comedian named George Graham used his gift for multiple dialects to enact what was described in Poli’s program notes as “a gang of hoodlums who have been ‘saved’ at a Salvation Army meeting.” With the quotation marks, Poli artfully split the difference, inviting audience members coming from the north and west to laugh at the hoodlums and the rest to laugh at the prissy reformers.

Some of the best sources for identifying the acts in vaudeville’s heyday happen to be cultural historians like Oberdeck, because many of those acts—like George Graham—were such an unfiltered reflection of broad ethnic and racial stereotypes of the time. The acts evolved as waves of immigration established first one group, then another in the New Haven community at the turn of the century. A comedian named Tom Nawn performed skits as an Irish construction worker in the late 1800s but is quoted as having resigned himself to abandoning those skits in 1906, saying, “Bricks are hoisted by Italians and machinery now.’’ In Poli’s first decade as a theater manager, some singers offered up a “medley of ethnic types” that included Irish and African-American. On that last note, Al Jolson was only the most celebrated singer to perform in blackface at Poli’s theaters (and vaudeville theaters all over the country). According to a 1979 celebration of Poli’s career in Marquee Magazine, it was on Poli’s advice that Jolson left a singing trio to become a soloist, taking a knee—the famous “Mammy” pose that brought him from vaudeville to the talkies—to belt out minstrel tunes.

The shows also catered to unequivocally highbrow tastes with “gold brick” entertainers from opera or non-variety theater. But they were, ultimately, variety shows in the truest sense, with eight or nine acts—four times a day—during which audience members could walk in or out according to their fancy. Oberdeck describes a typical Poli theater program, dated 1894, as consisting of six musical acts, two comedy sketches and one acrobatic act. Other circus-type acts on other days involved animal tricks, jugglers and ventriloquists; magicians and conjurers; and daring escapes by Houdini types, including Harry Houdini himself. It was the so-called “freak acts”—even before the arias and Shakespearean recitations—that Poli originally introduced to make his shows more favorable to women and children. According to the Marquee article, a 7-foot tall woman named Ella Ewing used to walk out from the Wonderland stage, daring members of the audience to reach a dollar in her outstretched hand.

Poli first arrived in the U.S. in 1881 as a modeler for the Eden Musée, a wax museum opened in New York by his French employers. He specialized in faces, having been apprenticed to then-famous French sculptor M. Dublex, and struck out on his own when, 5 years after his arrival, he obtained permission to model the faces of the seven anarchists who had been sentenced to death for the Haymarket bombing. He and his wax figures eventually settled in New Haven when he found the perfect space there to fashion and display them. His wife, Rosa, specialized in sewing on the hair and beards. Poli’s resulting “Chamber of Horrors” was located in an already established dime museum on Church Street. He then moved to the nearby Music Hall, an actual church-turned-lecture hall owned by one-time Kickapoo Indian Medicine Show performers, according to Poli’s obituary in the Hartford Daily Courant half a century later. This became the Wonderland Theatre in 1893 and was the beginning of a lifelong career building and filling theaters.

The “gentlemen only” programs that Poli purged from Music Hall included titles like “Satan’s Beautiful Victims” and “Paris by Gaslight.” Their closest analog after the purge were singers like Bonnie Thornton, whose “risqué songs” he could nevertheless advertise as having “no trace of offensive suggestion” due to the “artistic delicacy” of her singing.” Later, after he joined an emerging vaudeville entertainment monopoly called the Vaudeville Manager’s Association, his shows were overtaken by “ensemble acts” that showcased women as attractive, expensively costumed objects of display. He also adopted the VMA’s more punitive way of assessing when an act had regressed into indelicacy.

This culminated in a 1912 incident recounted in Mae West’s autobiography, Goodness Had Nothing To Do With It (1959). Poli banned her from all his theaters because of what she shruggingly called her “wriggles” at Poli’s Palace. “Worse,” she writes, “I addressed the vaudeville audience, made up mostly of young bloods, students from Yale… in the original Mae West tone.” It was the audience, however, that Poli’s vigilance for respectability failed to account for. According to West, the Yale students had booked the first five rows of seats for the entire week of her engagement. Before the ban went into effect, they waited until just before she was due to come on, then made a show of marching to their seats singing “Boola Boola.”

After the ban, when she failed to come on, they purportedly trashed the theater. Poli, however, was used to rebuilding. We’ll get into that tomorrow.

Written by David Zukowski. Image, of the Wonderland Theatre in 1895, provided courtesy of the New Haven Museum.

More Stories