Bicentennial Bash at Ford’s Theatre

Ford's Theatre new orchestra seating

Renovated Ford's Theatre

On Monday, February 16, the folks at Ford’s Theatre celebrated their Grand Reopening with a birthday bash for Abraham Lincoln’s bicentennial, and DC Metblogs was invited to get a behind-the-scenes tour of the sparkling new theatre.

Warren Brown prepares some CakeLove for Lincoln's Birthday Bash

Warren Brown prepares some CakeLove for Lincoln's Birthday Bash

The renovation took 18 months to complete.  The theatre itself was renovated and generally spruced-up with new painting, lighting, carpets, and seating; and a new lobby/museum/gift shop was added, with new restrooms and elevator access.

The experience starts with entry into the spacious new lobby, next door to the old box-office lobby which opened right from the seats to the street.  The new lobby has artifacts on display, including the coat that Lincoln wore to the theatre on the night he was assassinated (April 14, 1865).  It was made by Brooks Brothers, just for the President to wear, and has fancy shields-and-eagle stitching in the lining.  Neat!  Just beyond the display is the gift shop, which offers far more books than kitsch, I’m pleased to report.   (Kitsch can be found just across the street at the Old Town Trolley depot.  Trust me.)   And why not?  Lincoln is apparently the most popular subject of biography in the universe.  OK, maybe that’s a little strong, but he’s pretty popular.

For this special occasion, Warren Brown and the folks from CakeLove were on hand to offer Presidents’ Day patrons some of their delicious cupcakes as a complimentary grand-reopening  treat.  Since I was already getting pretty special treatment, I left my cupcake for another kid to enjoy.   (More on my visit after the jump.)

New displays in the lobby tell patrons what's happening

New displays in the lobby tell patrons what's happening

Lincoln's Coat!

Lincoln's Coat!

Restrooms, elevators, and box offices complete the new space.  Anyone who has shivered in the cold on 10th Street waiting for a performance can attest to how welcome this new lobby addition will be to theatre patrons.

Inside the theatre itself, new carpet and paint welcome patrons to the house.  And yes, Virginia, the seats have been replaced.  That sound I heard inside the house was the sound of no one grumbling about uncomfortable chairs!  The new seats are definitely upright — no stadium-seating recliners or cupholders here — but they are thickly padded and definitely more comfortable than the old, creaky chairs which were unloved by theatre-goers for years!  When replacing the chairs and renovating the house, care was taken to minimize obstructed views due to supporting columns and seating placement.

The Presidential Box

The Presidential Box

As the Park Service ranger took the stage for his speech to the general tourist population, my wonderful guide took me up the stairs to the balcony level and we took a look at the door that Booth used when he made his way to the Presidential box.  From the other side of the balcony, we got a great view into the box, and I learned that the bunting and flags which are on the box were put there by the theatre’s owners on the day of the fateful performance!  Evidently, when the proprietors learned of the President’s intention to visit that night, they rushed to their homes and gathered all the flags they could find, as well as some of their most comfortable furnishings, and brought them back to decorate the box for the Lincolns.   I had always wondered about that!

Bird's Eye View

Bird's Eye View

As a special behind-the-scenes treat, I was taken up to the closed-off third level and got a bird’s eye view of the whole theatre.  This level was once where the cheap seats were located, and they consist of simple wooden risers.  Nowadays, these risers are hidden behind theatre lighting, and are populated by technicians instead of audience members.   Also on this level is a brand-new boardroom space at the front of the house just above the balcony itself.  It’s a beautifully finished and spacious room with appropriate Lincolnia on display, overlooking Tenth Street and the Petersen house where Lincoln eventually died of his gunshot wound on April 15, 1865.

If you weren’t able to visit Ford’s this weekend, never fear!  The theatre is open for tours from 9 AM to 5PM every day (except Christmas).  Tours are free, but do require a timed-entry ticket.  Same-day, timed tickets are available at the box office starting at 8:30 AM on a first-come, first-serve basis.

To get ready for your visit, visit the Ford’s Theatre website.  It has a complete schedule of Ranger programs, 0pening and closing times, the theatre’s performance schedule, and a pretty great 360-degree video tour of the theatre.   And the bicentennial events aren’t over with President’s day:  at the website, you can also find out about the theatre’s new “Living Lincoln” program, a weekly series of lectures, readings, and performances, which will “explore the many aspects of President Lincoln’s personality and life” throughout the spring of 2009.

Have you been past Ford’s a million times but never gone inside?  Have you been there before and don’t know what all the fuss is about?  Have you only read about the place in school?  Now that the long renovation is complete, it’s your chance to see history, up close, for yourself.

Special thanks to the kind folks at Ford’s for arranging my visit with City Captain Patrick Pho; and to Rachel, my friendly and helpful guide.

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