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Tombstone’s Bird Cage Theater

Eddie Foy, a famous vaudeville actor who performed at the Bird Cage Theater.

Eddie Foy, a famous vaudeville actor who performed at the Bird Cage Theater.

Tombstone’s most celebrated theater was the Bird Cage. In its heyday between 1881 and 1889, the theater offered gambling, liquor, vaudeville entertainment and ladies of the night. In 1882, ~The New York Times~ referred to the Bird Cage as “the Roughest, Bawdiest and Most Wicked Night Spot between Basin Street and the Barbary Coast.”

It was open 24 hours a day and was the scene of at least 16 gun and knife fights over the years.  By the time the doors were shut permanently in 1889, there were 140 bullet holes in the walls and ceiling.

In the basement of the Bird Cage, a large private room and bar was outfitted for high-roller poker games. The longest poker game in history was played in that room. The minimum buy was $1,000 and the game played around the clock for eight years, five months and three days.

Eastern businessmen Adolph Busch and George Randolph Hearst played alongside famous gamblers such as Diamond Jim Brady, Bat Masterson and Doc Holliday.  As the game played out, a reputed $10 million exchanged hands, of which the house took 10 percent.

The Bird Cage’s ladies of the night plied their trade in cribs, some of which were suspended from the ceiling. Fourteen cribs also lined the sides of the gambling hall, seven on each side of the room. The “ladies” drew the drapes while entertaining their clients with champagne, kisses and other favors of their trade.

The Bird Cage’s hand-painted stage and orchestra pit paid tribute to the many great entertainers who performed there: Nellie Boyd, Robert McWade, the Shakespearean actor Frederick Warde and Lola Montez.

Eddie Foy, another great vaudeville actor, also graced the stage of the Bird Cage Theater. He was born Edwin Fitzgerald on March 9, 1856, in Greenwich Village, New York.

Foy was the consummate stage comedian and a versatile performer. He contributed to the development of popular theater from the Civil War to the Roaring Twenties. His repertoire included poverty-inspired Irish two-acts and lavish musical comedies.

Foy’s impoverished childhood in New York’s Bowery and Chicago toughened him for the uphill climb as a vaudeville artist at Western outposts. He played some of the roughest houses in the West, including San Francisco’s Belle Union.

In Dodge City, Kansas, his habit of poking fun at the rough miners, gamblers and gunfighters got him doused in a horse trough, but his immediate return to the stage endeared him to the audience, and after that he could do no wrong. He viewed the Western stage as an essential escape for men who spent grueling days on the frontier.

Just after the Bird Cage opened in 1881, Foy had an encounter at the bar with Arthur J. Lamb, a writer and composer. Lamb had turned to Foy and asked him, “What do you think of Tombstone, Eddie?”

Foy replied, “They should have called it a coffin, long and narrow.”

Lamb laughed as he pointed to the cribs overhanging the casino and said, “This place reminds me of a bird cage, you can see those girls with the feathers in their hair, serving kisses and champagne and giving other favors. Those women are like birds in a gilded cage.”

Foy replied, “Sounds like a title to a song.”

Lamb began writing the words on a napkin and when Foy read the lyrics, he insisted, “That’s a song that only a woman should sing.”

Lamb gave the lyrics of “She’s Only a Bird in a Gilded Cage” to Harry Von Tilzer for musical arrangement. Von Tilzer insisted that he would not write the music unless Lamb made it clear that the girl in the song was a rich man’s wife, not his mistress. Later, the famous singer Lillian Russell made “She’s Only a Bird in a Gilded Cage” one of the most popular songs of the 19th century.

After the death of Foy’s wife, ballerina Madeline Morando, he put his seven children (four boys and three girls) into his act so he could retain custody. They were known as the Seven Little Foys. When one of Foy’s sons, Bryan, visited Tombstone in the 1930s, he recalled with nostalgia the days they had spent there and almost bought the entire town.

Tombstone’s boom turned to bust in 1889, and the Bird Cage was sealed and boarded up with all its furnishings intact for the next 50 years. In 1934, the theater re-opened to the public and became one of Tombstone’s unique historical landmarks.

— Jane Eppinga. Photo courtesy author.

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