Birdcage Theater

The Old West Photo Writing Prompts

Bird Cage Theatre, Tombstone, Arizona, USA

Imagination Prompts Straight Out of the 1880s

By Chris Dunmire | Updated April 2, 2019

One of the Old West's most famous landmarks, the Bird Cage Theatre, still sits proud at the corner of 6th and Allen Streets in Tombstone, Arizona. Though the 1880s are more than a century away, take an imaginative time travel tour to the sights, sounds, smells, and experiences of this historic entertainment spot through your writing using the vehicle of the prompts and pictures below.

Writing Prompt 1: You win some. You lose some.

Pictured: The poker table of the longest game still stands.

Poker GameThe Bird Cage Theatre contains much intrigue. The tour guides will tell you that the Theatre was the most expensive place in the area for a man to be entertained, famously for being the site "of the longest poker game in western history, a house game where players had to buy a $1000 minimum in chips for a seat in the game."

Yes, that was a lot of money in the 1800s, and the game ran for over 8 years! "Today that poker table [of the longest game] still stands as it was left with its chairs on the dirt floor." Imagine you were a player in this game. How often did you play? How much did you win? Lose? What's the draw of playing?

Writing Prompt 2: Bullet Holes

Pictured: Bullet Holes in the Theatre's Ceiling

Bullet Holes in the Theatre's CeilingThe Bird Cage Theatre had its heyday between 1881 and 1889. According to the Theatre, "The New York Times referred to it in 1882 as the wildest, wickedest night spot between Basin Street and the Barbary Coast." Not only was it a night spot, but a day spot too. "In 9 years this lusty-den of iniquity never closed its doors 24 hours a day." It was the site of 16 gunfights and still has bullet holes in the ceilings and walls.

Can you imagine what life was like for those who worked for this establishment? The bartenders, entertainers, painted ladies? How about for its patrons? Taking on the point of view of a worker or patron, write about a day you heard gunshots and made the holes in the ceiling. What happened? Was anyone hurt?

Writing Prompt 3: Faces of the Past

Pictured: Former Bird Cage Employees

Former Bird Cage EmployeesWalls in the Birdcage Theatre are hung with dozens of photos of those who've been connected with the Bird Cage as employees or other business professionals in the past. How does it make you feel to see the faded images of those who've come long before us, who are now long gone? If you were to travel back in time to meet any of them, what would you want to know about their lives? Why they did the work they did? What was their daily routine like? What advice might you give to them? If you were in their shoes, how would your life be the same? Different?

Writing Prompt 4: Raising the Bar

Pictured: The Bird Cage Theatre's original custom-made cherry wood bar and back bar still stands today.

Raising the Bar"The bar is flanked by a dumb waiter that sent drinks upstairs to the ladies of the night and their men friends. Today it exists as Tombstone's only remaining bar of the 1880s in its original building."

As I approached Birdcage's bar, the woman standing behind it remarked, "Wyatt Earp's DNA is on this bar." Theoretically, what she said was true. This was a popular spot for the Earp's, Doc Holiday, and all of the other famous names that go along with Tombstone's "The town too tough to die" image.

Imagine you are standing at the bar in the 1880s. Which of Tombstone's greatest heroes or villains would you like to sit and chat with for a drink? What would you ask Johnny Ringo? Doc Holliday? China Mary?

Writing Prompt 5: Little Egypt

Pictured: The original painting of Fatima, who played the Bird Cage in 1881.

Fatima/Little EgyptWhen you first walk into the lobby of the Birdcage Theatre, a larger-than-life sized painting, "Fatima", hangs tall on the wall. The painting's inscription reads:

"FATIMA"(later known as Little Egypt) [real name Farida Mazar Spyropoulos]. The original painting of Fatima who was an Oriental Belly Dancer, she played the Bird Cage in 1881. This was a gift from her to the Bird Cage to hang in the bar. It has hung in this spot since 1882."

The theatre's guide points out several repaired knife and bullet holes visible in painting, noting they are "scars" inflicted by drunken patrons from the theatre's wild past.

Isn't it noteworthy how artwork, such as this painting, and many other famous art pieces hanging in museums have a life of their own that transcends generations (and sometimes centuries) of our own limited human life spans? What does that teach you about the value of art as a mode of communication, as a self-contained piece of history with its own story to tell? What is the story this painting tells? What story did Fatima want to convey when she sat for this painting?

Writing Prompt 6: Players

Pictured: Casino hall and cribs, theatre stage, and historic memorabilia.

Casino FloorFixed inside the Bird Cage Theater is a stage for entertainers, a gambling casino and dance hall, and 14 bird cage crib compartments suspended from the ceiling lining both sides of the dance hall where "soiled doves" or ladies of the night plied their trade to willing customers (it was legal back then).

Looking at the remaining photos here of the casino hall and cribs, the theatre stage, gambling paraphernalia, and historic memorabilia, create a story of characters and events that could have unfolded one popular evening at the Bird Cage Theatre.

Original Bird Cage CribsBird Cage Stage

Back Stage Historic MemorabiliaGambling Paraphernalia

Copyright ©2017, 2019 Chris Dunmire. All rights reserved.

Birdcage Theater

About the Birdcage Theatre

Though operated today as a self-guided tour museum, it's said to be "Tombstone's only historic landmark in its original state, preserved from its beginning in 1881, maintaining its lighting fixtures, chandeliers, drapes and gambling tables on the casino floor." (1) (2)

Tourists visiting Tombstone today make a special effort to see the Bird Cage Theatre, not only for its historic curiosities, but also because it's claimed to be haunted and the site of paranormal activity.

Quotes are cited from the Bird Cage Theatre's visitor brochure. Learn more about the theatre at Wikipedia Birdcage Theatre.

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