Setting the Stage

After an 18-month renovation, Ford's Theatre is reincarnated.


By Scott Kirkwood


John T. Ford arrived in Washington, D.C., from nearby Baltimore, Maryland, in 1861, with his hopes set on running a successful playhouse in the nation’s capital. His search for the perfect locale ended at an abandoned Baptist church near the corner of 10th and E Street, a few blocks from the White House. As he laid plans to host thousands of theatre-goers and some of the day’s most prominent entertainers, Ford could not have imagined that his own name would one day be connected to one of the most painful events in our nation’s history—the first assassination of an American president.

As any fifth-grader can tell you, Abraham Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865. John Wilkes Booth, a popular actor of his day, had been hatching a plot to kidnap the president for some time, when he stopped by the theater to pick up his mail and learned that Lincoln would be attending a performance of the comedy “Our American Cousin” that very evening. Weeks after Lincoln had been sworn in for a second term, and only days after the Civil War had come to an end, Booth sought vengeance for Lincoln’s role in crimes committed against the South. With every expectation that he would be embraced as a hero in the days that followed, Booth entered the president’s box, shot Lincoln, and fell from the balcony to the stage below, breaking his ankle. He avoided his pursuers for days, but federal troops eventually cornered him in Richard Garrett’s barn in Virginia, and shot him shortly after setting fire to the building. Meanwhile, Lincoln had been moved across the street to the home of a tailor named William Petersen, where he passed away the next morning. A nation mourned.

These stories and more are told at Petersen House and at a newly reopened Ford’s Theatre which now offers improved seating, upgraded lighting and sound systems, and a spacious new lobby with updated concessions, all unveiled on Lincoln’s 200th birthday in February. The 18-month renovation was made possible by a $50-million fundraising campaign led by Ford’s Theatre Society, which drew donations from the federal government, District of Columbia, and even the government of Qatar and corporations in Asia, revealing Lincoln’s enduring international appeal.

During its reopening ceremonies, the theater welcomed President Barack Obama and honored film legends Sidney Poitier and George Lucas for living out the ideals of our 16th president. Public events in the following weeks included speaking engagements with actor Sam Waterston and historian James McPherson, and a look at Lincoln’s humor from comedian and talk-show host Conan O’Brien. A new museum will open this spring. But more importantly, Ford’s Theatre is once again host to live performances, a tradition since the theater first re-opened in 1968.

“Lincoln loved the arts,” says Paul Tetreault, director of Ford’s Theatre Society. “The theater was something he used as a respite to get away from the daily trials and tribulations of his presidency—Lincoln visited Ford’s Theatre more than a dozen times. So to be able to make this theater more than just a memorial to Lincoln but a living, breathing playhouse 150 years after his death—that’s a pretty extraordinary tribute.”

The dual roles of playhouse and historic site can make life complicated for the Park Service, but Superintendent Kym Elders doesn’t mind. “The other day, a volunteer told me how difficult it was talking to visitors while a crew is setting props on the stage,” says Elders. “I told that young lady, it’s the perfect opportunity to point out that unlike a theater that’s been closed for 40 years, telling a story in an empty shell, we have ongoing productions. It’s a great detail to work into our interpretive talks and educational programs for children.”

The new-and-improved theatre could mean longer lines for those talks. But the theatre’s reopening has brought a solution to that problem as well: A new timed ticketing system allows people to plan their visit in advance so they can spend more time exploring Washington’s many historic sites, rather than waiting in line all day.

To learn about the theatre or plan a visit, see www.fordstheatre.org.

This article appears in the Spring 2009 issue.

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