William James Davis


William James Davis celebrating a birthday with his two granddaughters.

William James Davis


William James Davis, a leading manager of several popular Chicago theaters, operated and managed the Grand Opera House, Columbia Theater, and Illinois Theater. Davis grew up near Ann Arbor, Michigan on February 8, 1844. Before entering the theater industry he served as a clerk in the Civil War. Later, after moving to Chicago, he found opportunity in the theater industry and eventually married an opera singer, Jessie Barlett. Due to illness, Barlett passed away after several years of marriage. He later married his second wife, Mary O’Hagan, and together they had one son named William Davis, Jr.

It was during his career as a theater manager that William James Davis came head to head with Jane Addams. In the spring of 1911 Davis was supporting a state bill, Child Actor Bill 233, that would have excluded child actors from the child labor laws of Illinois. Addams testified before the Illinois Senate Committee, arguing for the necessity of labor protection for child actors. Davis considered his theater stages a haven for children, but Addams contended that child actors were the victims of exploitation. Addams recognized how theaters were more concerned with growing their profits from cheap labor than nurturing the talent and art of these children.

William James Davis died May 16, 1919 at the age of 75.