History of Melodramas At Knott's Berry Farm's Bird Cage Theatre

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History of Melodramas At Knott's Berry Farm's Bird Cage Theatre

Jeff Heimbuch |
March 12, 2018

As a tribute to Knott’s past, the Bird Cage Theater will once again be the home of musical comedy melodrama during the Knott's Boysenberry Festival, March 16 - April 8. Cheer the Hero and Boo the Villain in a special presentation at Knott’s Legendary Bird Cage Theatre. America’s Longest Running Melodrama returns with an original, audience interactive, comedy with a surprising Boysenberry twist! Author Jeff Heimbuch takes us on a trip down memory lane in this blog post about the history of the legendary Bird Cage Theater at Knott's Berry Farm that helped launch the career of Steve Martin.

While Knott’s Berry Farm’s Ghost Town offers plenty of adventures for everyone, none has a history richer than the wonderful Bird Cage Theatre. After opening its doors for the first time in 1954, the theatre has played home to hundreds of shows, from spreading holiday cheer during Merry Farm to the beloved melodramas, which return during this year’s Boysenberry Festival.

The Theatre’s history at the Berry Farm goes back to when Walter Knott first laid eyes on the original Bird Cage Theatre, located in Tombstone, AZ, for the first time. Knott was a fan of the Theatre’s history and wanted to preserve it. He proposed transporting the building out of the desert, much like he did with many other authentic Western, memorabilia, and into his theme park for guests to enjoy. However, he was unable to do so when the Theatre was declared a historic landmark, and thus, not able to be moved to the Berry Farm.

But that didn’t deter Knott. A stickler for historical accuracy, as evidenced by the replica of Independence Hall that can be found nearby, Knott built a replica of the theatre in Ghost Town.

Well, he built most of a replica, as the venue was only a front façade, which leads guests into the open, outdoor space behind it. There were plans to make it a complete building, of course, but for some reason or another, that didn’t happen. Instead, a tarpaulin covered the area.

Once inside, guests would sit on wooden folding chairs along the tiered levels to watch the show. However, It wasn’t the most convenient or comfortable of theatrical environments, as the actors often had to shout their lines over the rain or rippling tarp in high winds. The summer heat was frequently trapped in there as well, but that didn’t stop the audience from enjoying the show.

The very first production performed there was Uncle Tom’s Cabin staged by Whittier College drama students during the summer of 1954. However, by the next year, the famed melodramas took up residence when vaudevillians George Stuart and Woodie Wilson became owners of the trope that would call the Bird Cage Theatre home.

Mae Mennes would play the hundred-year-old calliope just outside the Theatre to lure guests in to see the clichéd heroes and over-the-top villains that became staples of nearly every show Stuart wrote. Audiences were encouraged to cheer for the good guys and boo for the bad. The fun didn’t end there, though, as when these shows ended, other acts would continue to entertain. Everything from singers, magicians, and even ventriloquists graced the stage. Sometimes, even Stuart and Wilson would step out to do a bit of their own.

The Theatre has also helped launch the careers of several pop culture icons, such as Dean Jones (That Darn Cat! and The Love Bug series), Skip Young of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, and perhaps most famously, Steve Martin.

Martin started performing at the Bird Cage Theatre in 1963 when he was 18 and stayed until he was 22. He honed the craft of acting there while making $2 a show, at twenty-five shows a week.

The Stuart and Wilson partnership continued until Wilson’s passing, but even though, Stuart continued to carry the torch. However, in 1991, Knott’s Berry Farm bought out the trope. The melodramas continued on until Knott’s closed the Bird Cage Theatre in 1997.

For the past several years, the Bird Cage Theatre has only opened for special events, such as showings of The Gift of the Magi during the Holiday season. However, the melodramas will make a grand return during this year’s Boysenberry Festival! You can catch them from March 16th through April 8th. Don’t miss them!