Skip to main content

Benjamin Butler Davenport Papers

Identifier: MA.00073

Scope and Contents

Correspondence, photographs, and autographs received by Butler Davenport from numerous actors, producers and others relating chiefly to his theatrical productions in New York City. Correspondents include Maria De Barrill, David Belasco, Henrietta Campbell, Katharine Cornell, Augustin Daly, Lillian Gish, Emma Goldman, Eva Le Gallienne, Sarah Cowell Le Moyne, Tyrone Power, Mary Shaw and Lee Shubert. Several letters included in the collection are addressed to Clyde Fitch and others.


  • 1884-1959


Conditions Governing Access

There is no restriction on access to the Davenport Papers for research use. Particularly fragile items may be restricted for preservation purposes.

Conditions Governing Use

Requests for permission to publish material from the Davenport Papers should be directed to the Archives and Special Collections. It is the responsibility of the researcher to identify and satisfy the holders of all copyrights.

Biographical / Historical

Benjamin Butler Davenport, playwright, producer, actor and theater manager, was born in New York City in 1871. His theatrical career began in his teens when he apprenticed for one year with Augustin Daly's repertory company. However, five years later, family financial difficulties forced him into the real estate business in Stamford, Connecticut (1901-1908). In 1909 he started a project to build a new playhouse on 63rd Street in New York City to house a repertory stock company producing modern American plays. This project failed, however, when a backer abandoned the project. In 1910 Lee and J. J. Shubert produced his play "Keeping Up Appearances," an autobiographical work about a cruel father that was presented in a naturalist style. After it failed at the box office, Davenport returned to real estate in Connecticut, where he also founded a small acting company.

In 1915 Davenport opened a new, small theatrical venue, the Bramwell Playhouse, at 138 East 27th Street in New York City. In 1923 it was renamed the Davenport Free Theatre with a new mission to operate as "the First Free Theatre in the World," supported solely by voluntary contributions. The casts and crews of its productions were comprised mainly of young volunteer student actors; Davenport himself often played leading roles. This theatre, known popularly as the Free Theatre, usually offered ten productions a year in a constantly changing repertoire. It remained Butler Davenport's workplace (and also his home, for he occupied an apartment above it) for the rest of his life. Though it was occasionally forced into selling tickets, the Davenport Free Theatre continued into the 1940s. Thereafter it subsisted on income from leases by commercial productions.

Butler Davenport, who remained single all his life, died in New York City in 1958 at the age of 86.

[Source: Daniel Krempel, "Davenport, Benjamin Butler." American National Biography Online, Feb. 2000.]


2 Linear feet (4 archives boxes)

Language of Materials



Playwright, producer, actor and theater manager. Papers contain correspondence, photographs, and autographs from numerous actors, producers and others relating chiefly to Butler Davenport's theatrical productions in New York City.


The papers consist of one series of correspondence, arranged alphabetically by correspondent's name. In the folder list, all items are addressed to Benjamin Butler Davenport unless stated otherwise.

Related Materials

Clyde Fitch (AC 1886) Collection (bulk 1883-1909)

Margaret Blaisdell Byrd. New York City Music, Opera and Theater Scrapbooks, 1899-1962

Sheridan de Raismes Gibney Papers, 1925-1992

Peter Nelson
Language of description
Script of description
Encoding funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Repository Details

Part of the Amherst College Archives and Special Collections Repository

Amherst College Archives & Special Collections
Robert Frost Library
61 Quadrangle Drive
Amherst MA 01002-5000
(413) 542-2299