The Baboon

8:58 PM

One of the last remaining Omaha theaters from the days of Vaudeville is the Orpheum, downtown on 409 S 16th Street. As its name suggests, it was part of the Orpheum circuit, and so has a storied history of performers, including native son and daughter Fred and Adele Astaire, who danced there during their vaudeville days.

But the Orpheum was built on the remains of an earlier theater, the Creighton, named in honor of city father John A. Creighton, who helped found Omaha after a youth spent battling desperadoes in Montana. (This is true; after one assault by bandits, he escaped with just a broken leg, and the local paper declared "We believe that the only way to kill John Creighton would be to cut his head off and then carry away the body.")

The theater had its own stock troupe, but also hosted visiting acts, and this is how we come to the story of an escaped baboon.

The baboon belonged to a Professor Fred Macart, who trained animals and had a traveling show consisting of dogs and monkeys. He toured to Omaha in January of 1899, appearing at the Creighton, and failed to keep control of his performers. One performer in particular: A trained baboon that was usually kept chained up in the dressing room.

Somehow, she threw her chains, a fact that was discovered by a hapless stage manager named Stewart, who opened the door to the dressing room and was immediately attacked by the baboon. The animal was muzzled, and so simply flung Stewart to the ground, and then proceeded to assault whatever stagehand was available.

The baboon fled to an attached saloon, the Lewis, and leapt on the bar. As the bartender fled, the animal seized a bottle of whiskey and two bottles of beer and then retreated back to the dressing room. There, the baboon consumed some or all of the whiskey and then flung the bottle through a mirror. This excited her enough to send her from room to room, smashing mirrors wherever she saw them.

Finally, Professor Macart arrived and managed to calm down the baboon, who fell asleep with a towel around her head.

The baboon was likely Babe, whose role in the show was essentially that of a stagehand. moving stage properties about during the act. Babe had some behavior problems, including a streak of jealousy that caused her to attack Macart’s wife on two occasions. In London, Babe attacked her with such fury that she tore Mrs. Macart's clothes off. This led to the policy of keeping Babe chained and muzzled, but the Creighton wasn’t the first time she managed to escape that. In 1895, in New York, she got loose and again attacked Mrs. Macart, shredding her clothes and biting at her face. “I would very soon make a subject for a baboon funeral,” Professor Macart told the New York Herald, “but Babe is too valuable to us.”

Macart, it turns out, was a bad bet as an animal trainer. In 1906 in Los Angeles another baboon, a massive beast whose name, thanks to Macart, was a racial slur, broke free on stage and terrorized the audience, receiving a punch in the face from an audience member. This caused Macart’s other monkeys to go into a frenzy, seizing and smashing things.

Who was Fred Macart and who was his wife? A 1919 obituary in the Riverside Daily Press gives his story, and it’s worth reprinting in full, because, while he wasn’t good with baboons, he was great with autobiography:

“‘Prof.’ Fred Macart, who was the first man to do the triple jump over the elephants in the old days when P.T. Barnam was in the circus business, died yesterday at his home in Santa Monica. He was 70 years of age and leaves a widow, who, under the name of ‘the woman with the iron jaw,’ used to send thrills through the circus-going crowds of the old days by her ridge-pole ride down a taut wire with her teeth in a vice-like grip on a bit of leather attached to a pully. He was born in London, a scion of the Macart-Genet family, which for 300 years practically controlled the wild animal business of Europe.”

About the author

Max Sparber is a playwright and historian who lives in Omaha, Nebraska.