Manhattan’s Chatham Street Theatre (Chatham Street is now called Park Row) in the 1840s offered cheap admission, and was attended by New York’s lower classes. J. Hudson Kirby (1810-1848) acted in the play Mike Martin, and became famous for his death scene. Some of the theatregoers would fall asleep during the performances, but they would tell their companions, “Wake me up when Kirby dies!”
“Wake me up when Kirby dies” soon applied to any impressive scene by any actor. The old theatre term is no longer used and is of historical interest today.
Wikipedia: Chatham Theatre
The Chatham Theatre or Chatham Street Theatre was a playhouse on the southeast side of Chatham Street (now Park Row) in New York City. It was located at numbers 143-9, between Roosevelt and James streets, a few blocks south of the Bowery. At its opening in 1839, the Chatham was a neighborhood establishment, which featured big-name actors and drama. By the mid-1840s, it had become primarily a venue for blackface minstrel shows. Frank S. Chanfrau restored some of its grandeur in 1848.
By this time (1840s—ed.), the Chatham Theatre was performing poorly. It became a circus for a time before eventually reopening as a playhouse. Admissions were low for the time: 25¢ for the boxes, one shilling for the pit, and six pence for the gallery. The audience now consisted of the lower classes, who on holidays “used to talk, shout, and scream so that the actors went through their parts in dumb show . . . .”
10 May 1848, The Dollar Newspaper (Philadelphia, PA), pg. 3, col. 2:
DEATH OF KIRBY, THE TRAGEDIAN.—Letters have been received, by the steamer America, announcing the death of Mr. Kirby, the tragedian. Alas! the memorable expression of the newsboy in the Bowery pit, “Wake me up when Kirby dies,” finds no responsive echo. There is no more waking up to the effective death-scenes of the great actor. He has played his last act in the great drama of life, and now himself awaits the waking at the last great day. Poor Kirby, he was ever his own worst enemy. Peace to his ashes.
10 March 1849, The Literary World, pg. 230, col. 1:
“This, we repeat, is not his, though it is a common error, which is fitly rebuked in the common jest of ‘Wake me up when Kirby dies.’”
2 January 1857, The Daily Picayune (New Orleans, LA), “Stage Fights,” pg 3, col. 3:
“Wake me up, when Kirby dies!” said the pea-nut eating critic of the Chatham pit, in New York.
14 February 1877, San Francisco (CA) Chronicle, pg. 3, col. 8:
“Wake Me Up When Kirby Dies.”
Celia Logan explains the origin of the phrase, “Wake me up when Kirby dies.” Kirby was leading man of the old Chatham Street Theater, and although a good actor of his type and a favorite with the boys, he made no especial fame until a melodrama was produced entitled Mike Martin, in which he played the character of ‘Thunderbolt.” It fell to his lot to be shot on the roof of a house. When he received his death wound he leaped from the roof to the stage. In order to make a realistic effect, he concealed in his sleeve a small sponge soaked with red paint. When the shot was fired he instantly clapped this sponge to his forehead, and the red drops running over his face gave the appearance of a ghastly wound, and that, coupled with his bold leap and well-acted death, made a great sensation. He was nightly encored and compelled to die over again The boys would often drop to sleep in the early part of the play with a request to a companion to wake them up when Kirby died.
August 1886, The Art Amateur, “Dramatic Feuilleton” by Stephen Fiske, pg. 48:
In the same programme is “Wilbert, the Deformed,” with J. H. Kirby as the hero. This is the actor about whom the phrase, “Wake me up when Kirby dies,” was originated, because his stage deaths were so terrific.
The Oxford Companion to American Theatre
By Gerald Bordman and Thomas S. Hischak
Oxford: Oxford University Press
KIRBY, J. Hudson (1810-1848), actor. The idol of the cheap theatres of his day, he was born in London and came to America apparently in 1837, making his debut at Philadelphia’s “Walnut Street Theatre. He first appeared in New York at Wallack’s National Theatre in 1838 when he played Antonio to J. M. Wallack’s Shylock. Kirby might have made a career in better roles, but he chose to star in the tawdry, overwrought melodramas of the time. He was particularly adept at handling a noisy audience, his voice ringing out above the din. Kirby’s scene-chewing technique gave rise to the expression “Wake me up when Kirby dies.”