Columbus was created by the Ohio General Assembly as the new capital city of the Buckeye State in 1812.
At first, the new town was a village of only a few hundred residents at what was then the edge of the American frontier. The new town was overshadowed by the village of Franklinton across the Scioto River. Franklinton had been around since 1797. During the War of 1812, Franklinton essentially was the center of central Ohio.
It was not hard to see why. Columbus was a village of modest frame houses and log cabins in the middle of a dense forest. What looked to be major streets on a map were little more than paths through the trees.
By 1816, there was a modest brick statehouse, a two-story penitentiary and a few taverns but not much else.
Franklinton, on the other hand, was a thriving community, with stores, a courthouse, a church and a variety of available crafts and services.
When we look back today at frontier Columbus, it is easy to assume that recently arrived residents were compelled to live simple lives alone in the wilderness and far from the conceits and comforts of the "civilization" they had left behind.
Such was not the case. Most of the early residents of Columbus had chosen to live on the frontier. Some were tempted by the promise of inexpensive land; others saw opportunities for political and social advancement; and many were simply looking for a new life in the new land.
But a new life did not mean the old life was left behind. Many of the early pioneers of Columbus, buckskin shirts and calico dresses notwithstanding, were people of culture and sophistication. So there was a hunger for music, drama and entertainments of all sorts.
It was a need that would be met by the residents themselves, then by traveling shows, lured by the prospect of dozens of paying customers.
In 1821-22, Columbus was treated during its Independence Day celebration to performances by a local Handel Society. According to a local paper, the group performed with "a superior degree of elegance." We do not know much more about the Handel Society except that it lasted until about 1830. Other than local church choirs and the doggerel songs of local taverns, competition was scarce.
That changed when Tippo Sultan came to town. On April 21, 1827, a local paper reported that "Tippo Sultan, the great hunting elephant" had arrived:
"The performance of Tippo Sultan, together with the dexterity and intrepidity of his keeper, produces a spectacle not only curious and diverting, but in some instances both interesting to the spectator and dangerous to the keeper ... "
This turned out to be an understatement.
It was noted that Tippo and a host of other animals would perform in the yard adjacent to Russell's Tavern at State and High streets for three days in late April. Admission was 25 cents for adults, half-price for children younger than 12.
The best show took place after hours and was reported in a later local history:
"At night the 'hunting elephant' was locked up in the tavern backyard where, during one of the nights of his sojourn, he broke loose and for a while amused himself by pumping water at the well. Finally, he broke the pump handle, and looking around for some new pastime spied two barrels of flour on the back porch. Breaking into these, he, for a while, ate flour and drank water alternatively, until he converted the residue of the flour into paste. Awakened by the noise, Mr. Russell descended and was received by the elephant with a fusillade of dough. Beating a retreat, the discomfited host aroused the keeper of the frolicsome beast, who, after some effort, succeeded in getting him tied again."
Over the next few years, traveling theater companies, an "equestrian company," a "traveling menagerie" and the celebrated "Siamese Twins" all paid visits to Columbus. The twins, it was reported, held "seances" at the National Hotel. The content of the seances was not revealed.
But the biggest change in entertainment came in 1835. By 1831, the National Road and the Ohio and Erie Canal had arrived in Columbus. The advancement in transport more than doubled the population, and in 1834, Columbus was a city of 5,000 people.
That apparently was sufficient to support a theater.
A theater in Columbus opened in December 1835. A local newspaper described it as "quite a massive and splendid pile, measuring fifty feet in front on (the west side of) High Street (north of Broad), one hundred feet in depth, and thirty feet in height clear of the roof ... The audience part will consist of a pit, two tiers of boxes with a saloon at the rear."
Though it closed just six years later, the aptly named Columbus Theatre was the arts' first home in the capital city.
Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for ThisWeek Community News.