History:

The Bird Cage Theatre was opened on December 26, 1881, by William “Billy” Hutchinson and his wife Lottie. Its name apparently referred to the fourteen “cages” or boxes that were situated on two balconies on either side of the main central hall. These boxes, also referred to as “cribs”, had drapes that could be drawn while prostitutes entertained their clients. The main hall contained a stage and orchestra pit at one end where live shows were performed.

One apocryphal story alleges that the Bird Cage Theatre took its name from the popular early 20th-century song A Bird in a Gilded Cage. According to this story, the establishment was originally named the Elite Theatre Opera House. One day shortly after it opened, Eddie Foy, Sr. and songwriter Arthur J. Lamb were standing at the bar discussing the ladies who performed there, and Lamb allegedly said they were like “birds in gilded cages”. He then worked out the song on a piano in the saloon, after which it was sung by an unknown singer (Lillian Russell in some versions of the story) who was called back by the roaring crowd eight time. However, Lamb was born in 1870 and therefore would have been no older than eleven or twelve years old at the time of the story. Moreover, it appears that the establishment was named the Bird Cage Theatre from the time it opened. Its name was briefly changed to the Elite Theatre after it was acquired by Joe and Minnie Bignon in 1882 before being changed back to the Bird Cage Theatre.

The Bird Cage Theatre operated continuously – twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year – for the next eight years. It gained a reputation as one of the wildest places in the country, prompting The New York Times to report in 1882 that “the Bird Cage Theatre is the wildest, wickedest night spot between Basin Street and the Barbary Coast”. More than 120 bullet holes are evident throughout the building.

Aside from Lillian Russell, many other famous entertainers of the day were alleged to have performed there over the years, including Eddie Foy, Sr., Lotta Crabtree and Lillie Langtry. In 1882, Fatima allegedly performed her belly-dancing routine at the Bird Cage Theatre.

The basement poker room is said to be the site of the longest-running poker game in history. Played continuously twenty-four hours a day for eight years, five months, and three days, legend has it that as much as $10,000,000 changed hands during the marathon game, with the house retaining 10 percent. Some of the participants were Doc Holliday, Bat Masterson, Diamond Jim Brady, and George Hearst. When ground water began seeping into the mines in the late 1880s the town went bust, the Bird Cage Theatre along with it. The poker game ended and the building was sealed up in 1889.


Reported Activity:

Bird Cage Theatre in The Bird Cage Theatre was opened on December 26, 1881, by William “Billy” Hutchinson and his wife Lottie. Its name apparently referred to the fourteen “cages” or boxes that were situated on two balconies on either side of the main central hall. These boxes, also referred to as “cribs”, had drapes that could be drawn while prostitutes entertained their clients. The main hall contained a stage and orchestra pit at one end where live shows were performed.

One apocryphal story alleges that the Bird Cage Theatre took its name from the popular early 20th-century song A Bird in a Gilded Cage. According to this story, the establishment was originally named the Elite Theatre Opera House. One day shortly after it opened, Eddie Foy, Sr. and songwriter Arthur J. Lamb were standing at the bar discussing the ladies who performed there, and Lamb allegedly said they were like “birds in gilded cages”. He then worked out the song on a piano in the saloon, after which it was sung by an unknown singer (Lillian Russell in some versions of the story) who was called back by the roaring crowd eight times.[1] However, Lamb was born in 1870 and therefore would have been no older than eleven or twelve years old at the time of the story. Moreover, it appears that the establishment was named the Bird Cage Theatre from the time it opened. Its name was briefly changed to the Elite Theatre after it was acquired by Joe and Minnie Bignon in 1882 before being changed back to the Bird Cage Theatre. 

The Bird Cage Theatre operated continuously – twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year – for the next eight years. It gained a reputation as one of the wildest places in the country, prompting The New York Times to report in 1882 that “the Bird Cage Theatre is the wildest, wickedest night spot between Basin Street and the Barbary Coast”. More than 120 bullet holes are evident throughout the building.

Aside from Lillian Russell, many other famous entertainers of the day were alleged to have performed there over the years, including Eddie Foy, Sr., Lotta Crabtree and Lillie Langtry. In 1882, Fatima allegedly performed her belly-dancing routine at the Bird Cage Theatre.

The basement poker room is said to be the site of the longest-running poker game in history. Played continuously twenty-four hours a day for eight years, five months, and three days, legend has it that as much as $10,000,000 changed hands during the marathon game, with the house retaining 10 percent. Some of the participants were Doc Holliday, Bat Masterson, Diamond Jim Brady, and George Hearst. When ground water began seeping into the mines in the late 1880s the town went bust, the Bird Cage Theatre along with it. The poker game ended and the building was sealed up in 1889.

Tombstone. There have been reports of ghostly laughter, yelling and strange music. These reports date back to the 1880s. It was investigated on the TV series Ghost Adventures. It was also investigated by TAPS on Ghost Hunters.

Today the floor of the Bird Cage has been converted into a museum, but the theater’s namesake – the famous “bird cages” where ladies of the night sold pleasures to cowboys and miners – are still intact. You can see their red curtains in this photo. The old song, “She’s only a bird in a gilded cage” by Arthur J. Lamb was written for the “tainted angels” of the Bird Cage Theater. In our world, though, a visitor can walk through the museum-floor and soak in the history of this wonderful old place. Historic figures such as Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and Bat Masterson once walked on the very floorboards that you can.

The stage and original curtain are still intact, and while touring the theater one can walk through the backstage area. This theater and its famous stage has been portrayed in almost every telling of the Wyatt Earp and “Gunfight at the OK Corral” saga. Two entertaining versions are “Wyatt Earp” starring Kevin Costner, and “Tombstone” starring Kurt Russell, Sam Elliot, Bill Paxton, and Val Kilmer (who should have won an Oscar, by the way).

The Bird Cage closed its doors as a saloon in 1889, but it has not been silent. The sounds of laughing, yelling, and music have been reported to pour out of the theater at night. Visitors during the day have smelled fresh scents of cigar smoke and the sharp odor of whiskey, even though neither are allowed there now, nor have been for many years past. Testimonies by tourists and Bird Cage employees recount sightings of people wearing period clothing from the 1800s, and in particular, a man in black wearing a visor walking has been witnessed walking across the stage. Some of the sounds seem to come from the balconies above the main floor.

Walking down into the basement of the theater, the modern-day visitor is allowed to visit the rooms that held a perpetual high-stakes poker game. Rooms off of the poker room were where the higher priced ladies were said to have entertained their gentlemen guests. The longest card game here was said to have lasted 24 hours a day for eight years, five months, and three days, so perhaps some of the players haven’t finished their game. It’s no wonder that the Bird Cage’s past reverberates throughout these walls. Between the main floor and the downstairs rooms, it saw just under 20 gunfights and 26 deaths – 140 bullet holes in the ceiling and walls stand witness to these events.


Our Investigation: will be posted in late September.