Ben-Hur on Broadway

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 lose interest. In Ben-Hur, the fast pace of the show was virtually uninterrupted.

Even before the chariot race, the audience had already received a bit of Broadway magic with the sea battle and wreck of Arrius’ ship. The scene opened with Arrius on a dais at center stage and the galley slaves rowing below him. At the climax of the battle, the theater was suddenly plunged into total darkness and the audience heard panicked screams and the crashing and grinding of timbers courtesy of a “crash” machine. Within seconds, the lights were brought up and Ben-Hur and Arrius were “adrift” at sea. The actors were up in a raft several feet off the floor in front of a dramatic shipwreck scene, lighted with special electrical effects. The raft itself was hinged to allow a rocking motion in two directions.

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 Young, representatives of the Broadway producers Klaw and Erlanger, in front of General Wallace's Study.
Lew Wallace meeting with Joseph Brooks and William Young, representatives 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.One of the most evocative special effects was the presentation of Jesus. Lew Wallace would not permit an actor to portray Christ–a central figure to the storyline. After much discussion and debate, it was decided that whenever the script called for Jesus to move the story forward, a strange and ethereal light would appear on stage and a voice that permeated the theater would be used. This unique solution left much to the imagination of the audience which made each performance a personal experience heightening the spiritual impact of the play and it eliminated any controversy about putting Christ on stage. It should also be pointed out from the producers point of view that it eliminated the need to pay an actor to play Jesus on stage as well.

Beyond the racing of the chariots and the paced rotation of the back and side scenes of the “arena”, the dramatic wreck of Messala’s chariot at the climax of the race was accomplished with a trick chariot. While Ben-Hur’s chariot wheels were actually in contact with the treadmill, Messala’s chariot rested on a yoke with springs that kept the wheels slightly above the treadmill. A motor was used to spin his wheels. At the critical moment, another small electric motor blew the wheels off of Messala’s chariot, the basket and rider dropped onto the springing yoke and the treadmill and adjacent flooring carrying Messala jerked back 15 feet allowing Ben-Hur to win. According to William S. Hart, who played Messala, this complicated mechanism worked all but one of the 400 times his horses raced.

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.

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