Late 19th and early 20th century Hartford offered the public many theater and concert venues to choose from, but if one wanted to see the newest shows from New York, there was really one place to go: the Parsons Theatre on Prospect Street. Parsons Theatre was to turn-of-the-20th-century Hartford what the Bushnell is today.
According to advertisements from the era, Parsons Theatre was “Strictly a First-Class Theatre in all its Appointments”. Like the Bushnell today, it played host to travelling companies, performing shows that had first become popular in larger cities such as New York. Among the many shows that came to Hartford was “The Little Minister”, written by J.M. Barrie, with Maude Adams as Babbie. Some years later, in a 1934 film adaptation, the role of Babbie was played by Katherine Hepburn. In 1904, George M. Cohan premiered his musical Little Johnnie Jones at Parsons; the show introduced the songs “Give My Regards to Broadway” and “Yankee Doodle Boy.”
Parsons Theatre continued to operate through the 1920s, but fell onto hard times and closed in 1931 after a combination of issues including changes in management and the economic hardships of the Great Depression. The building was eventually torn down in 1936 and the site where it once stood is now a part of Northeast Utilities.
About the time Parsons closed its doors, the Bushnell opened for its inaugural season. The Bushnell, new, modern, and larger, was the next leap forward for Hartford’s theater scene. In the Bushnell, former patrons of the Parsons Theatre found a new home for the city’s performing arts. All sorts of works, from Shakespeare to Sondheim, have been performed at the Bushnell, continuing the tradition of theatrical excellence started by the Parsons Theatre at the close of the 19th century.
A playbill from the 1898 production of “The Little Minister” at Parsons Theatre is currently on view in the Nawrot History Nook outside the Research Center at the Connecticut Historical Society together with other theatrical memorabilia.