Birdcage Theater

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The Old West Photo Writing Prompts

Bird Cage Theatre, Tombstone, Arizona, USA

Imagination Prompts Straight Out of the 1880s

By Chris Dunmire | Posted June 1, 2017 | Updated September 8, 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 with the pictures and prompts below. Recommended movies to immerse yourself in the fascinating history of this town "too tough to die" include Tombstone and Wyatt Earp.

Bird Cage Stage

Intro Writing Prompt: Setting the Stage

Pictured: Original Bird Cage Theater Stage and Orchestra Pit

Pictured here is the original theater stage and orchestra pit used in the 1880s at the famous Bird Cage Theater in Tombstone, Arizona.

The phrase "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages" springs from William Shakespeare's play As You Like It. Many entrances and exits on this stage in Tombstone have entertained and entranced; singers, dancers, musicians, acrobats, and novelty performers, all front and center with the aim to express creative talents to an audience's delight.

In an era long before technology could manipulate and enhance what is seen and heard, especially in live performances, the raw talent of individuals was on display in full magnificence, accented by real-time imperfections that made them truly authentic and unique. Blemishes and stumbles were not edited out but were weaved within performances as nuanced threads of color and texture without skipping a beat.

What benefits can we find in the gifts of improvisation with no 'do overs'? What can we learn from accepting 'what is' as it unfolds in all its marred glory on the stage of life? How do we build and maintain courage to share our creative gifts in public spaces that do not assure a return of gratitude or appreciation? And why is it to our benefit to embrace the messy creative process in our art, writing, and personal performances while we learn and hone our skills through work-in-progress, not just unveiling ourselves through carefully crafted highlight reels and flawless finished products?

The Japanese teach us about the power of transforming flaws into enhancements through the art of Kintsugi, the process of repairing broken pottery with gold, silver, or platinum. The underlying philosophy of Kintsugi "treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise." When a piece is restored through this method it is more beautiful than the original to its owner who knows its personal travels and healings.

Imagine what it would feel like to embrace the beauty in imperfection. Process is a teacher that invites us to reframe experiences into insights and opportunities that fulfill and strengthen. Nothing is ever wasted in this meaningful repurposing, and Act I is just the beginning of a marvelous story we can express as we like it on the stage of existence.

Poker Game

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

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

The Bird Cage Theatre contains much intrigue. The docents 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?

Bullet Holes in the Theatre's Ceiling

Writing Prompt 2: Bullet Holes

Pictured: Bullet Holes in the Theatre's Ceiling

The 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?

Former Bird Cage Employees

Writing Prompt 3: Faces of the Past

Pictured: Former Bird Cage Employees

Walls 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?

Raising the Bar

Writing Prompt 4: Raising the Bar

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

"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?

Fatima/Little Egypt

Writing Prompt 5: Little Egypt

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

When 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?

Casino Floor

Writing Prompt 6: Players (Mature Themes)

Pictured: Casino hall and cribs and historic memorabilia.

Fixed 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 one could pay for private entertainment with an escort for the evening.

Looking at the remaining photos here for inspiration of the casino hall and cribs, gambling paraphernalia, and historic memorabilia, create a story of characters and events that could have unfolded one popular evening at the Bird Cage Theatre. Feel free to incorporate any other themes and imagery on this page to round out your story.

Original Bird Cage Cribs

Back Stage Historic Memorabilia

Gambling 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.

Chris Dunmire inspires creativity, connection, exploration, and expression through the award-winning Creativity Portal™ Web site. more