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Tombstone's Bird Cage Theater

Updated on June 30, 2015

The famous Bird Cage Theatre opened December 25, 1881 by William “Billy” Hutchinson and his wife Lottie during the height of Tombstone’s silver boom. And over the following eight years it never closed. The popular night spot was a combination brothel, gambling hall, theater and saloon which entertained such legendary characters as Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and Bat Masterson.

Due to town sitting upon countless silver mines, holding millions of dollars in riches Tombstone became a haven for outlaws, as federal marshals had no jurisdiction in Arizona at the time. The population jumped to 15,000 and saloons and brothels sprang up all over town. There were 101 saloons on Allen Street alone.

The Bird Cage Theatre was first known as the Elite Theater Opera House and for a while conducted business as a legitimate theater. It had 14 “cribs”-small brothel rooms, furnished with a bed, table and curtains for privacy. The cribs were suspended from the ceiling, seven on each side, and in these prostitutes plied their trade.

Circa 1935

The Bird Cage Theatre operated continuously 365 days a year and became known as one of the wildest places in the country. The New York Times described it as “…the wildest, wickedest night spot between Basin Street and the Barbary Coast.” More than 120 bullet holes throughout the building can attest to that fact. It’s been reported as many as 26 murders were committed on the premises.

The longest running card game at the Bird Cage was a poker game that was played 24 hours a day, for eight years, five months, and three days. The game had a minimum buy-in of $1000.

It is said a total of over 10 million dollars changed hands during the marathon with the house taking ten percent. Doc Holliday, Bat Masterson, Diamond Jim Brady, and entrepreneurial notables such as Adolph Busch and George Randolph Hearst all played in the game at one time or another.

Lillian Russell 1861 –1922

How the name was changed to the Bird Cage Theatre is a controversial subject. The story goes
the name was changed after Arthur J. Lamb wrote his famous melody, "A Bird in a Gilded Cage," while frequenting the bar one night. Lamb was inspired while observing the ladies in the cribs conducting business. “They look like birds in a cage…they haven’t got a chance,” Lamb remarked. But some contest this version since they claim Lamb would’ve been only 11 or 12 years old at the time.

Anyway, he presumably he gave the song to Lillian Russell, who premiered it onstage. The crowd loved it so much she had to make eight encores. “A Bird in a Gilded Cage” became one of the most popular songs of the nineteenth century, and Hutchinson changed the name to “The Bird Cage Theatre.” Today it is a popular tourist attraction and museum.

There is an interesting tale told about one of the prostitutes who plied her trade at the Bird Cage. "Margarita” was sitting on the lap of a gambler named Billy Milgreen, when one of her co-workers, who went by the name of "Gold Dollar” entered. Seeing Margarita on the lap of her best customer and "boyfriend,” Gold Dollar stuck a stiletto into her chest, intending to cut her heart out. She had almost completed the task when she heard the marshal coming.

She fled out the back door covered in blood and hid the knife out back. Because the murder weapon couldn’t be found, no murder charges were filed. However, more than a century later, it was found behind the theatre and is now displayed at the museum.

Many famous entertainers of the day were said to have performed at the Bird Cage over the years, including Lillian Russell, Eddie Foy, Sr., Lotta Crabtree and Lillie Langtry. In 1882, Fatima allegedly performed her belly dancing routine.

It was also here, Wyatt Earp carried on his illicit affair with Josephine Sarah Marcus, who was supposedly an employee at the Bird Cage as a singer and dancer. Although others suspected she also sidelined as a prostitute.

When ground water began seeping into the mines in the late 1880s the town went bust, along with the Bird Cage Theatre. The poker game ended and the building was sealed up in 1889 with all of its original contents. For the next three decades it sat vacant. Amazingly, its bar, furnishings, fixtures, and drapes were not sold.

The old adobe building is an original Tombstone building. Most of the original buildings were destroyed by one of two fires that took place during the 1880's. The building is also rumored to be a hotbed of paranormal activity. Tales of supernatural activity began to surface in 1921, when a high school was built across the street for the town’s few remaining residents. School children reported hearing laughter and music. They also said they could smell stale cigar smoke coming from inside the abandoned building.

Visitors have frequently heard disembodied talking, whispering and singing voices. There has also been the apparition of a singing woman. Other things tourists and guests have encountered are ghosts in period clothing who look so lifelike they’ve been mistaken as part of the show. Patrons have even seen images of the saloon's past complete with saloon girls, boisterous loud patrons and cigar smoke.

Finally it was purchased in 1934 by a family named Hunley. The new owners were happy to find almost nothing had been disturbed over the years. The Hunley’s reopened the Bird Cage Theatre as a tourist attraction with all of furnishings and artifacts kept in their original condition. Even a coin-operated music box still works. It has been a tourist attraction ever since, and is open to the general public year-round, from 8:00 am to 6:00 pm daily.

The theater is currently owned by Bill Hunley, the fourth generation in his family to operate the theater. The Hunley family has done an excellent job preserving the historic artifacts. Original wallpaper and red velvet draperies still hang in the brothel cribs, and the grand piano still stands unmoved from the spot it held in the orchestra pit.

The Black Mariah, a funeral carriage used to carry deceased persons to Boothill Cemetery, now occupies a prominent position on the Bird Cage Theater’s hand-painted stage. It was the first "vehicle” to have curved glass. It is trimmed with gold and reportedly worth about two million dollars. Ruffled-up beds and scattered clothes are authentic, as well as original faded carpets, drapes, and furniture.

Bill Hunley says he has also experienced paranormal activity inside the theater. The most significant occurred one morning over a decade ago. A several hundred pound dice table was somehow moved the night before…while the theater was vacant. It was placed in front of a door sign reading: “Don’t Disturb Our 26 Resident Ghosts.” It took eight men to move it back to its former position.

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    • profile image

      Harold Hunley 

      2 years ago

      I have been to Tombstone a couple of times, visiting the Birdcage. It is definitely worth your time, if you are in the least interested in the American West.

    • JY3502 profile imageAUTHOR

      John Young 

      7 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      Thank Ya kindly sir.

    • Alastar Packer profile image

      Alastar Packer 

      7 years ago from North Carolina

      Bravo JY! Birdcage it was then. Super great article and subject. That building and it's history is nothing short of absolutely fascinating. Look at all the famous wild west figures that came through there. As far as the paranormal goes, if that place doesn't have it , no where does. Welldone JY...up, up and away!

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