On June 9th, the 35th Annual Non-Equity Joseph Jefferson Awards Ceremony were held to acknowledge excellence in Chicago theater. The Joseph Jefferson - or "Jeff" -was established in 1968 but, why is it called that? Who was Joseph Jefferson?
Joseph Jefferson III was born in Philadelphia on February 20, 1829 to a family of actors, theater managers and scenic designers. He made his first appearance on a Chicago stage in 1838 at the age of nine when Chicago theater was in its infancy. (See An Actor's Tale, Part Two for an excerpt from Joseph Jefferson's Autobiography on his trip to and arrival in Chicago)
The first public professional performance in Chicago took place in 1834, three years before Chicago incorporated as a city. It cost fifty cents for adults, twenty-five for children, and was staged by a Mr. Bowers, who promised to eat “fire-balls, burning sealing-wax, live coals of fire and melted lead.” Somehow, he also did ventriloquism. Other traveling showmen passed through over the next two years; a circus pitched its tent on Lake Street in the fall of 1836. But it was not until 1837 that the first local theater company—the Chicago Theater—was established.
Harry Isherwood [Chicago's first impresario] co-managed this pioneer ensemble. Though famously dismayed to see a flock of quail crossing a rain-pelted wooden sidewalk on his first morning in town (a sign, he thought, that Chicago was not yet ready for culture), Isherwood and his partner, Alexander McKinzie, nevertheless obtained an amusement license from the city council. They took over the recently abandoned dining room of the Sauganash Hotel,
and—sometime in late October or early November—began offering plays, including such titles as The Idiot Witness, The Stranger, and The Carpenter of Rouen. The bill changed every night and the season lasted about six weeks, after which the company went on tour.
When they returned to Chicago in the spring of 1838, Isherwood and McKinzie set the company up in an old wooden auction house known as the Rialto. There was opposition to their presence: a formal petition cited the risk of fire; moral objections were made as well. Even so, the city council voted to grant the troupe a new license. On September 3, 1839, two Chicago Theater shows—The Warlock of the Glen and The Midnight Hour—became the subjects of Chicago's first published theater review.
The ensemble members included Joseph and Cornelia Jefferson and their nine-year-old son, also called Joseph. The child sang comic songs, filled out crowd scenes, and played the Duke of York. He grew up to become one of the iconic performers of his time, a stage comedian widely, intensely, and fondly identified with several roles, especially that of Rip van Winkle.(Encyclopedia of Chicago)
“Who was Joseph Jefferson?”
Introduction to RIP VAN WINKLE by Arthur Hobson Quinn
Book: The Man Who Was Rip Van Winkle: Joseph Jefferson and Nineteenth-Century American Theatre by Benjamin McArthur
Rip Van Winkle played by Joseph Jefferson (1896)
Harry Isherwood photo - The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts / Billy Rose Theatre Division
Sauganash Hotel - Chicago Landmarks