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Dakota Datebook

The Most Stupendous Spectacle of the Century

In the early 1900s Marc Klaw and Abraham Lincoln Erlanger were among the biggest names in entertainment. Based in New York City, they produced Broadway shows and owned a chain of theaters. They also took shows on the road to major cities across the country.

Ben-Hur was the pinnacle of their work. It was called the greatest spectacle of the Twentieth Century. The production almost didn’t happen. Author Lew Wallace doubted it would translate well to the stage. He couldn’t imagine how the pageant of the chariot race could possibly be portrayed in the confines of a stage. He also worried that audiences would not like Jesus being portrayed by an actor. But Klaw and Erlanger convinced Wallace they could do it. They said Jesus would be represented by a beam of light, and they had a plan for pulling off the chariot race. After Wallace watched the premier, the author asked in amazement, “My God, did I set all this in motion?”

The staging of Ben-Hur was a massive undertaking. It required a cast of hundreds and elaborate sets. Camels and horses were trained to run on treadmills as a cyclorama rotated the scenery in the background. The show opened on Broadway in 1899 and went on to run in various locations for twenty-one years. It is estimated that over twenty million people saw the show.

North Dakotans were thrilled to learn that the extravaganza was coming to Fargo – the biggest show there ever. It was originally scheduled for three days, but there was great interest in North Dakota, South Dakota, and Minnesota, creating an extraordinary demand for tickets – far more than could be accommodated in three shows. The managers of the Fargo Opera House pleaded with Klaw and Erlanger to add more shows. On this date in 1909, the producers announced that Ben-Hur would be extended to cover the entire week – seven evening shows and two matinees.

The shows were completely sold out. One ticket request came from Chicago. After only one performance, the Fargo Forum and Daily Republican pronounced the show the “greatest scene on modern stage.” It was a rare treat for people on the Great Plains to enjoy the same spectacle seen by audiences in New York City and San Francisco.

Dakota Datebook written by Carole Butcher

Sources:

Hope Pioneer. “Ben-Hur Season at Fargo Extended.” Hope ND. 2/18/1909. Page 2.

Fargo Forum and Daily Republican. “Man in Chicago Reserves Seats.” Fargo ND. 3/6/1909. Page 11.

Fargo Forum and Daily Republican. “Ben-Hur.” Fargo ND. 3/3/1909. Page 4.

General Lew Wallace Study and Museum. “The Sacred Circus: Ben-Hur on the Stage and the Rails.” https://www.ben-hur.com/the-sacred-circus-ben-hur-on-the-stage-and-on-the-rails/  Accessed 1/14/2020/

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