Note: A version of this essay appeared on my weblog on 5 Nov 2014.
The Grand Duke’s Theater was located at 21 Baxter Street. On this map you’ll find it almost at the bottom, just right of center.
It was attached to a stale beer joint, one of the lowest of the low type of [[saloon]] that sold the dregs from beer barrels. Stale beer joints were frequented primarily by the children who lived on the street and cobbled together a living by selling papers or flowers, shining shoes, running errands and petty larceny.
It used to be a familiar sight to see the saloons of Baxter, Mott and Mulberry streets filled with these [homeless] boys. It was only a few years ago that they had their own theatre, “The Grand Duke’s Theatre,” at 21 Baxter street, in the cellar under a stale beer dive, where really clever performances were given of an imitative character, by a company of boys; and which, by the way, was the only theatre which for years defied the efforts of the authorities to collect the license. The admission fee was ten cents, and curiosity seekers came from all parts of the city to witness the really laughable and, in many cases, meritorious character-sketches given within its damp walls. It was subsequently broken up by the police.
This paragraph is from a book by William Howe and Abraham Hummel, two criminal lawyers who dealt in sensationalism and high fees. They called their little book (1885) Danger! A True History of a Great City’s Wiles and Temptations. The Veil Lifted, and Light Thrown on Crime and its Causes, and Criminals and their Haunts. Facts and Disclosures.
Note the casual disdain for the children, and worse, the way their survival is trivialized. No mention of disease or child prostitution, maybe because they thought too much truth would be bad for sales.
In 1887 The Grand Duke’s Theater came down, according to the New York Times, to make room for a tenement. They provide a more sober short history, but one that is most likely also idealized: