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July 27, 2017

Scandal in the Theater

Scandal in the Theater

By: David Heighway, Hamilton County Historian

Thursday night is the opening of the 25th annual production of Noblesville Shakespeare in the Park.  I’ve covered theatrical subjects before, like the Shakespeare Club, playwrights (men and women), marriages, and circuses.  Since theater is always a reliable source for scandal, we might take a look at that as well.

A juicy scandal occurred when a traveling troupe visited Noblesville in late November of 1890 and put on a production in the Wild Opera House.  These troupes would go from town to town to perform a specific popular play that would guarantee an audience.  “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was one such play.  However, this company was doing “The Black Crook”, the most notorious play of the 19th century.

It had premiered in 1866 and is considered by some to the first American musical.  It was enormously popular with large casts and grand spectacle.  However, one of the main features of the show was a collection of chorus girls in tights and “revealing” costumes.  People were shocked and it was condemned from the pulpits.

The company performing in Noblesville was not a top-tier troupe, but still managed to be scandalous.  No one admitted to attending the show at an earlier performance in Huntington, Indiana – despite there being a full house. The local newspaper called it “the filthiest, vilest show that ever inflicted [sic] the town”.

The situation in Noblesville revolved around the actress Julia Darter.  She had left her husband Charles to be performer on stage.  He did general labor in Indianapolis and was a house painter at that point.  In Noblesville, the cast was staying at two different hotels, Becker’s (where the Clock Shop is today) and Wainwright’s (which is now the parking lot at 8th and Conner).  Charles had visited Julia two weeks before the incident, trying to convince her to give up this “immoral” life.  He was unsuccessful, which set the stage for a more dramatic confrontation.

Charles showed up at the Becker hotel on December 5 and started going through rooms at random.  He found Julia in the room

that she shared with another actress and demanded that she return to him.  When she refused, he drew a handgun and pointed it at her.  The other actress fainted, and Julia, taking advantage of the distraction, ran out the door.  She ran upstairs rather than downstairs, which threw him off her trail.

He went downstairs and couldn’t find her, so he changed his plan.  He ran down Conner Street to the Wainwright hotel to find the troupe manager, Tom M. Brown.  Charles threw the door open of the main room of the hotel and began shooting, barely missing a local judge.  Brown escaped out of a side door.  Charles was grabbed and arrested by City Marshal Frank Barnett.

There was quite a bit of fallout from this.  Charles’ mother visited him in jail, and claimed that he suffered from insane fits.  He asked for Julia to visit, which she did, but refused to reunite with him.  The local paper included a snide remark in paper about another actress collapsing in shock and needing four strong men to carry her to her room.  (The show required a lot of petite dancers, and they were making it clear that she wasn’t one.)  The parents of another actress came and tried to talk her out of the theater life.  She also refused and said she would stay with the troupe to the next stop in Lebanon.  One gets the sense that the city was glad to see to this troupe leave.

Charles Darter was eventually acquitted by reason of insanity.  The couple was divorced in 1898.  Julia stayed in show business and was known her balancing act on top of a revolving globe.  She retired from the stage sometime around World War I.