Ford’s Theatre in Washington DC Lives by Combining History with the Arts

10:15pm on April 14, 1865, John Wilkes Booth crept into the Presidential Box, pointed his deringer at the back of Abraham Lincoln’s head, pulled the trigger, and changed the course of history.  As Lincoln slumped in his chair, Booth lept to the stage for his escape.  On the descent, Booth’s leg tangled in and tore the Presidential bunting.  He landed awkwardly, broke his leg, dropped his gun, and fled out the back stage door where his horse waited.  It’s all still there at Ford’s Theatre.  The gun that killed Lincoln, the torn bunting, the clothes Lincoln wore that evening… and the performances too.  The show must go on at this living museum and theater, and, believe me, it’s a powerful, moving experience to witness a performance looking up at the box where President Lincoln watched his last show.  Continue reading for more on the museum and theater.

Update: April 20, 2012 I visited Ford’s Theatre again on April 14, 2012, but this time with my family.  I’ve added my thoughts from this visit on the 147th anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination at the end of the original article.

In January, I was in Washington DC for a conference, and was walking back from a visit to the International Spy Museum.  I noticed the signs for Ford’s Theatre nestled among Lincoln’s Waffle Shop and the Hard Rock Cafe.  I decided to stop for a look, and was totally unprepared for what I found.

After Lincoln’s assassination, the building closed, served as government offices, and was finally restored back to a working theater that reopened in 1968.  Entrance to simply walk-through the museum is free, but does require you pick up a ticket at the front desk (presumably for crowd control).  There are also a limited number of guided tours (for an additional charge) available.

Upon entering, the lower level contains a number of interactive displays that immerse you in the era of Lincoln’s Presidency.  The threats to Lincoln are apparent from the beginning as visitors “sneak” into exhibit through a train car, just as Lincoln crept into Washington DC before his first inauguration in 1861.  The first half of the museum is devoted to Lincoln’s Presidency and the Civil War.  Models, statues, and artifacts recreate the unfinished Capitol Dome, Lincoln’s Cabinet members, the President’s office, and daily life in the White House.  Other displays illustrate the events of the Civil War and the particular relationship with Frederick Douglass.

A transition occurs as the second half of the museum focused on the events leading up to April 14, 1865.  You learn about Ford’s Theatre itself, Lincoln’s love of the arts, and the growing conspiracy, led by Booth, to rid the nation of Lincoln.  The display and details on the band of conspirators was totally engrossing – culminating with the actual gun used by Booth to kill the President.

It’s hard to reconcile that such a petite, single shot weapon could play such a large role in history.  The deringer held just one lead ball that weighed no more than an ounce, but, obviously, deadly when fired at close range.  The next series of cases contain more personal artifacts from that fateful night – the original door from the President’s box, the clothes Lincoln wore, a bloodstained pillow where an unconscious, dying President rested his head, the decorative banners torn by Booth’s boot, and the cut boot removed from Booth’s broken leg.

By the time I walked up the steps to the theater itself, my heart was in my throat.  Displayed on the hallway walls was a timeline of the events of the day for Lincoln (blue wall on right) contrasted with Booth (gray wall on left).  A tick, tick, ticking clock added to the effect that we were marching towards history.

At the end of the hall, is the theater where I see, a sign… closed.  What?  After learning so much about this night, I had to see inside the theater itself.  However, actors were currently rehearsing for that evening’s play.  A play?  In Ford’s Theatre?  [At this point, I didn’t actually know it was still used as a performance space.]  Hmmm, I decided to check to see if tickets were still available for the show.  They were, and I purchased a $15 obstructed view ticket for that evening’s performance of “Necessary Sacrifices.”  In the meantime, I walked across the street to the Petersen House where Abraham Lincoln spent the night before he ultimately passed away at 7:22am on April 15, 1865.

I returned that evening for the 7:30pm performance, and was led to my seat behind one of the pillars holding up the balcony.  No worries, I knew what I was getting, and I still had a fine view of the stage.  However, minutes before the show opened the house manager approached me.  She said a number of seats in the front two rows were available, they would like to fill them, and asked if I would like to move.  The play was an original, world premiere, production, exploring the relationship between Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.  Sitting in the front row, seeing an actor bring Lincoln to life, and gazing up at the box where the President died was incredible.  I felt as though I was transported to 1865, and the events of the day were unfolding around me.

If you are a “history buff,” I highly recommend a visit to Ford’s Theatre, and if you go – try to take in one of the performances for the full experience.  In addition, there is a brand new building added to the Ford’s Theatre “complex” that opened on February 8, 2012.  The Center for Education and Leadership contains new galleries and artifacts showing the aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination including the funeral train, as well as Lincoln’s legacy and evolution into a pop culture icon.  I definitely want to head back and bring my family to see the Ford’s Theatre as well as the new museum building.  For more photos of my experience at the Ford’s Theatre, check out the full photo gallery featured below.

Update: April 20, 2012

I returned to the Washington DC area over Spring Break with my family, and decided to take them all to Ford’s Theatre on Saturday, April 14 – this was a different experience than my visit in January.  First, spring break in Washington DC is busy!  The cherry blossoms are out, as is the National Cherry Blossom Festival, and with the blossoms come the tourists (including my family).  This meant the theatre was crowded.  When we arrived around 9:45am on Saturday morning, there was a long line that stretched down the block, and many of the day’s programs were already sold out.  Fortunately, we reserved our tickets the day before, had them in hand, and were guaranteed entry to the museum.  Important: remember to plan ahead if you want to visit during the height of the tourist season.  Our ticket was for a 10:00am entry followed by the 10:30am performance of “One Destiny.”

Michael Bunce and Stephen F. Schmidt perform in “One Destiny,” photo provided by the Ford’s Theatre

 

As expected by the line outside, the museum was packed with guests making it a little difficult to get up close and see all the displays.  However, that inconvenience was made up for by the performance of “One Destiny” in the theatre.  The performance is a 35 minute, one-act play, where actors portray two men, Actor Harry Hawk and Ford’s Theatre co-owner Harry Ford, who were in the theatre on April 14, 1865.  They walk the audience through the day’s sequence of events, personalize the implications of how Lincoln’s death will change their lives, and ask the tough question – could they have stopped their colleague John Wilkes Booth from shooting the President?

Michael Bunce and Stephen F. Schmidt in “One Destiny,” photo provided by Ford’s Theatre

 

The play was a wonderful way to get a different perspective on the historic event, and was enjoyed by our entire family.  “One Destiny” is presented by the Ford’s Theatre Society each fall and spring in rotation with ranger programs on stage.  June 12-30, 2012 the theatre will also have evening performances of “One Destiny” so that Washingtonians and others in the area can experience the show.  Ford’s has performed “One Destiny” over 450 times since 2007.  I would definitely recommend the show for ages 8+, and would encourage everyone to see it if you have the opportunity.

Disclosure: Ford’s Theatre generously provided 2 complimentary tickets for our family to see “One Destiny.”  However, all opinions in the article are my own.  So have you been to see Ford’s Theatre?  Leave a comment below and share your thoughts and experiences.  For more travel news and features, be sure to follow Adventures by Daddy on twitter and “like” our facebook page too.

About Dave Parfitt

Married, father of two girls, and living in the heart of the Finger Lakes. I'm a runner with a PhD in neuroscience and a passion for travel.