Western Life

Gem Theatre Deadwood

The Gem Theatre in Deadwood, South Dakota was a saloon that had a conflicting past and a lot of history attached to it. So much so, that HBO ended up making a successful series on it which ran for 2 years and is now about to release a movie about it too. This saloon was owned by Al Swearengen. Originally, Swearengen called it the Gem Variety Theatre and it was opened on April 7th, 1877 at the corners of Wall and Main Streets.

The Audience:

The audience that the Gem Theatre, or more importantly Swearengen, decided to target was the population of the mining camps. In this time, mining camps hired workers and paid them close to nothing. Boys began working from the age of 12 with the pay of 50-75 cents for the day and moved on in their adulthood with little increase in payment. Such an audience was an easy target for Swearengen and he used various marketing techniques to reel them in. Firstly, he had a band on the balcony called the Gem Band that was there to call in and attract the audience. Secondly, he used the tactic of “prize fights”. However, there were never any prizes involved in the fight, rather it was just a way to attract low paid and greedy workers. Lastly, he used the technique of stage entertainment. He would call upon comedians, singers, dancers and primarily prostitutes, to entertain the lonely men from the mines who spent their entire day in solitary and darkness.

The Management:

The front of the Gem Theatre was a bar and a theatre area, where special performances took place. Behind that were rooms, where illegal activity took place and men slept with prostitutes. Swearengen used to advertise for legitimate and non-sexual jobs like cleaning, waitressing and other such jobs. However, he would usually choose those women who were penniless and alone, and had no other support or income. He would then force and beat them into prostitution. Many of them escaped or tried to run away from the theatre, but if they did so they would be penniless in a cruel world. So most women resorted to staying and working for Swearengen. The women were beaten, treated like objects and men would even at times kill them. The violence and viciousness against these women was at its peak.


Swearengen and his Gem Theatre earned around $5000 per night and sometimes it went up to $10,000 as well. Swearengen forged alliances with many of Deadwood’s prominent and powerful men who then provided him with legal immunity and a solution to other problems. This made him safe from the hands of the law and he could do what he pleased with the women and the theatre that he run.


The Gem Theatre burnt down in the summer of 1879. However, it was then repaired. Later in September of 1879, another major fire engulfed the saloon. Swearengen built a grander and larger saloon wowing all those in the area. The fate of the Gem Theatre was such that a fire in 1899 burnt it down once again. When the Gem was at its peak and glory it was revealed to be magnificent and grand by the press, but after Swearengen refused to rebuild it as he did not have enough money it ended up as the evil institution of the town and a shameful place.

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