I was told that there used to be a theater on Camp Street. Is this true?
Indeed it is true, and it was built by one of the most talented men to hit New Orleans in the 19th century: James Caldwell. Caldwell was born in England in 1793 and came to America as an actor. He arrived in New Orleans in 1819 as part of a theatrical troupe and decided to stay.
The theater you're asking about sat on Camp Street between Gravier and Poydras streets; it was called the Camp Theater or the American Theater. Its cornerstone was laid on May 29, 1822. The formal opening was on Jan. 1, 1824.
The first theaters in New Orleans featured productions in French. But by 1817, a company came to New Orleans that produced plays in English. This delighted the English-speaking population, especially those living in the Faubourg St. Mary. Caldwell was inspired to erect a theater in which only English language plays would be performed.
Affectionately called the "Old Camp" by the public and the actors who played in it, the theater could seat 1,100 people on stuffed seats. It was constructed at a cost of $120,000. While he was building the theater, Caldwell sent to England for a "gas machine" to provide light for the chandeliers, and this theater became the first building in New Orleans to be illuminated with gas.
This unique theater acquired an excellent reputation throughout the country, and most of the stars of the day came to New Orleans to appear on the stage of the American Theater. Caldwell and his successors assembled competent companies and provided novelties along with standard repertory. A member of Caldwell's company in the early years was Edwin Forrest, who became one of the country's leading tragedians.
Caldwell managed the theater for eight years before leasing it to others. In 1833, he began to concentrate on civic and entrepreneurial projects, which included building more theaters. He also developed real estate and founded the gas business in the rapidly growing the city. He established the New Orleans Gas Light Co. and the first commercial gas plant in the Deep South. His plant produced gas made from coal, and New Orleans became one of the earliest American cities to have a public gas system.
Caldwell ultimately disposed of his playhouse on Camp Street, and in 1840 it was rebuilt as the Camp Street Exchange.
Among his great achievements was construction of the magnificent St. Charles Theatre in 1835, which cost $350,000. It was the first large and important theater in the South, with 47 boxes, 4,000 seats, and a 4,200-pound gas chandelier boasting 250 lights. Sadly, that theater burned in 1842.