December 23, 1903: Lyceum Theatre’s largest audience for 8-day run of “Ben Hur”

On this day in Duluth in 1903, the Lyceum Theatre enjoyed its largest audience who came to see “Ben Hur” during its eight-day run. The production by Klaw & Erlanger was then four years old, having made its debut on Broadway in 1900. The show had a cast of 315 and a crew of 48 (including carpenters and machinists) and traveled with twelve train-car loads of scenery. (And it owned duplicates of everything, so while the show was being performed in one town, a crew could set up in a theatre in the next.) At the Lyceum, as in many other towns, Klaw & Erlanger spent about $1,000 adding a “sub stage” to the theatre for its star performers: 16 horses. The substage would hold a treadmill upon which the horses could run during the play’s famous chariot race scene. Over 100 men unloaded the cars (which also carried camels and other livestock) and set to work building the set. For weeks before the production arrived, the Duluth News Tribune ran large photo-filled articles about the play, providing the background of all the key characters. The original Duluth run for the “gorgeous religio-historic spectacle” was to be four nights and two matinees beginning December 23, soon the dates were changed to the 22nd through the 26th, with matinees on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and the following Saturday. The first day of advanced sales brought in $6,500 (over $166,000 today)—a record for the “northwest” but a typical day at the box office for “Ben Hur.” The Lyceum’s manager estimated that the play brought in over 5,000 spectators from outside of Duluth during its run. Klaw & Elanger brought “Ben Hur” back to the Zenith City in 1905 and 1909, both times at the Lyceum. Read more about the Lyceum here.

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