The Bird Cage Theatre opened on December 26, 1881, It was owned by Lottie and William "Billy" Hutchinson. Hutchison, a variety performer, originally intended to present respectable family shows like he'd seen in San Francisco that were thronged by large crowds. After the Theatre opened, they hosted a Ladies Night for the respectable women of Tombstone, who could attend for free. But the economics of Tombstone didn't support their aspirations. They soon canceled the Ladies Night and began offering baser entertainment that appealed to the rough mining crowd.
Bar, theatre, and poker room
Once inside, customers could buy a drink at the long bar. The bar was made in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, shipped on the Star of India around the tip of South America to the west coast of Mexico, then wagon trained the rest of the way. The main hall contained a 15 by 15 feet (4.6 by 4.6 m) stage about 5 feet (1.5 m) above the main floor, and an orchestra pit. The stage was lit by a row of gas jets along the front side. There were fourteen boxes on two balconies on either side of the main hall. A dumbwaiter at the end of the bar was used to hoist up the whiskey, beer and cigars to the patrons in the box seats.
In the basement, legend says that a poker room was 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, George Hearst, and Adolphus Busch of the Busch Brewery.
One of the first acts at the Birdcage was Mademoiselle De Granville (real name, Alma Hayes), also known as the "Female Hercules" and "the woman with the iron jaw". She performed feats of strength, specializing in picking up heavy objects with her teeth. Other acts included the Irish comic duo Burns and Trayers (John H. Burns and Matthew Trayers), comic singer Irene Baker, Carrie Delmar, a serious opera singer, and comedian Nola Forest. Lizette, "The Flying Nymph", flew from one side of the theatre to the other on a rope. One of the more elaborate acts featured "The Human Fly" in which women dressed in theatrical tights and brief costumes walked across the stage ceiling upside down. This act lasted until one of the clamps supporting the performers failed and she fell to her death.
Entertainment included masquerade balls featuring cross—dressing entertainers, like comedians David Waters and Will Curlew, in outrageous female costumes, performing outlandish antics, bawdy skits, and singing vulgar ballads. Each evening entertainment began with a variety show at 9:00 pm and lasted until 1:00 am or later. When the stage show ended, the wooden benches where the audience sat were stacked on the side. The orchestra performed and the audience danced and drank until the sun rose. Miners could drink and dance all night if they chose.
In March 1882, miners in the Grand Central Mine hit water at 620 feet (190 m). The flow wasn't at first large enough to stop work, but constant pumping with a 4 inches (100 mm) pump was soon insufficient. The silver ore deposits they sought were soon underwater. Hutchinson sold the Birdcage to Hugh McCrum and John Stroufe and they sold it again in January 1886 to Joe Bignon. Bignon had managed the Theatre Comique in San Francisco and performed as a blackface minstrel and clog dancer. He refurbished the building and renamed it the Elite Theatre. He hired new acts interspersed with the bawdy entertainment the miners were used to. Bignon's wife, known as "Big Minnie", was 6 feet (1.8 m) tall and weighed 230 pounds (100 kg). She wore pink tights and sang, danced, played the piano, and sometimes acted as madam to the prostitutes and bouncer.
The large Cornish engines brought in by the mine owners kept the water pumped out of the mines for a few more years, but on May 26, 1886, the Grand Central Mine hoist and pumping plant burned. When the price of silver slid to 90 cents an ounce a few months later, the remaining mines laid off workers. Many residents of Tombstone left. The Bird Cage Theatre closed in 1892.
The Bird Cage Theatre operated continuously, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, for eight years, from 1881 to 1889. It gained a reputation as one of the wickedest theaters between New Orleans and San Francisco, 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 found throughout the building.
The building was not opened again until it was purchased in 1934, and the new owners were delighted to find that almost nothing had been disturbed in all those years. 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 said to be haunted and has been featured in the paranormal investigation shows Ghost Hunters in 2006, Ghost Adventures in 2009 and 2015, and Ghost Lab in 2009, and Fact or Faked: Paranormal Files in 2011.