In our tours of the Study, we often mention the mechanism that allowed the chariots to race on stage with eight horses galloping at full speed. This was an amazing feat for a stage production in the first decade of the 20th century. This was not, however, the only reason the Broadway presentation of Ben-Hur electrified audiences. There were a number of other tricks and mechanical devices that wowed the crowd.
First, as Scientific American pointed out in their August 25, 1900 issue, the wait time between the falling and raising of the curtain between scenes in Ben-Hur generally varied from between five and thirty seconds—although the arrangement for the chariot race sometimes took as long as eight minutes. In other complicated productions of the day the change of each scene routinely took between five and fifteen minutes! An interruption of the story long enough for many in the audience to loose interest. In Ben-Hur, the fast pace of the show was virtually uninterrupted.
In order to accomplish this change of scene on stage in front of the audience without dropping the curtain, the “crash” machine kept crashing to cover the noise of movement on stage as the actors and stage hands used split second timing in the pitch black dark of the theater. The second the lights went out, the galley slaves with their oars fell flat to the floor and their benches were immediately pulled into the wings, Ben-Hur leapt to the dais with Arrius and pins were removed to allow the dais to be converted into a rocking bit of flotsam. One set of stage hands raised the backdrop scene of the galley ship to reveal the shipwreck scene, while another group of hands brought a large canvas from the back of the stage forward to the footlights, pulling it over the galley slaves laying on the floor. The galley slaves, covered by this tarp used their oars, arms and legs to simulate the rolling waves of the ocean. All of this was accomplished in the dark, among the props and scenery without stepping on anyone in about seven seconds!
|Lew Wallace meeting with Joseph Brooks and|
William Youngrepresentatives of the Broadway
producers, Klaw and Erlanger in front of
General Wallace's Study.
One of the scenes that left little to the imagination was the chariot race. Cue the chariots! Horses on treadmills had been used before Ben-Hur, but never with the sophistication that was used in this production. The effect of the treadmill that allowed the eight horses to race at full gallop was heightened by the addition of belts turned at 90 degrees to the floor near the horses’ hooves, so that as they ran—faster or slower—these belts looked like the ground was moving at pace with the horses. To further the effect of the racing horses, a combination of powders was forced up through the treadmill by blowers under the floor to resemble dust.
With “crash” machines, rapid scene changes, and powder spewing horses, it’s no wonder the stage play electrified an estimated 20,000,000 people for over 20 years on several continents—making Lew, Susan, Henry, Harper Brothers, and the Broadway producers several fortunes. It also forever changed the way Broadway would present it's blockbuster productions.