Cover image for America's Longest Run: A History of the Walnut Street Theatre By Andrew Davis

America's Longest Run

A History of the Walnut Street Theatre

Andrew Davis

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$46.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-03578-9

$29.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-03053-1

424 pages
7" × 10"
44 b&w illustrations
2010

Keystone Books®

America's Longest Run

A History of the Walnut Street Theatre

Andrew Davis

“The book is beautifully produced with a lush, velvet cover that sits as comfortably in one’s hands as, no doubt, patrons sit in the theatre’s lush seats. Readers throughout the country will enjoy this book; although it is a case study of only one significant theatre, it is a comprehensive, fascinating introduction to American culture and society as depicted through the history of its entertainments.”

 

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Winner of the 2010 Best Book on Theatre and/or Performance prize as sponsored by the American Theatre and Drama Society.

America’s Longest Run: A History of the Walnut Street Theatre traces the history of America’s oldest theater. The Philadelphia landmark has been at or near the center of theatrical activity since it opened, as a circus, on February 2, 1809. This book documents the players and productions that appeared at this venerable house and the challenges the Walnut has faced from economic crises, changing tastes, technological advances, and competition from new media.

The Walnut’s history is a classic American success story. Built in the early years of the nineteenth century, the Walnut responded to the ever-changing tastes and desires of the theatergoing public. Originally operated as a stock company, the Walnut has offered up every conceivable form of entertainment—pageantry and spectacle, opera, melodrama, musical theater, and Shakespeare. It escaped the wrecking ball during the Depression by operating as a burlesque house, a combination film and vaudeville house, and a Yiddish theater, before becoming the Philadelphia headquarters for the Federal Theatre Project. Because Philadelphia is located so close to New York City, the Walnut has served as a tryout house for many Broadway-bound shows, including A Streetcar Named Desire, The Diary of Anne Frank, and A Raisin in the Sun. Today, the Walnut operates as a nonprofit performing arts center. It is one of the most successful producing theaters in the country, with more than 350,000 attending performances each year.

“The book is beautifully produced with a lush, velvet cover that sits as comfortably in one’s hands as, no doubt, patrons sit in the theatre’s lush seats. Readers throughout the country will enjoy this book; although it is a case study of only one significant theatre, it is a comprehensive, fascinating introduction to American culture and society as depicted through the history of its entertainments.”
“Davis describes the remarkable growth and development of the Walnut over the past several decades. This narrative is among the book’s most useful contributions to the institution’s history. Another important feature of Davis’s chronicle may be found in the way that it documents the central role of the nondramatic in the various activities that took place in and around nineteenth-century American playhouses.

“America’s Longest Run provides a rare opportunity to survey the development of an important American institution that has borne witness to much of the nation’s history.

“Davis’s work will be a welcome addition to the library of anyone interested in the history of Philadelphia or the American theatre.”

Andrew Davis is a specialist in the American popular theatre. He holds a PhD in Performance Studies from New York University and teaches at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles.

Contents

List of Illustrations

Prologue: America’s Oldest Theatre

1 The Beginnings of Theatre in Philadelphia, 1682–1809

2 Circus and Spectacle at the Walnut Street Theatre, 1809–1820

3 The Era of the English Star, 1820–1829

4 The Walnut in the Age of Jackson, 1829–1840

5 The Marshall Era, 1840–1849

6 Respectability, 1849–1860

7 The Civil War Years, 1860–1867

8 The Last Years of Stock, 1867–1879

9 A Combination House, 1879–1895

10 The Syndicate Years, 1896–1920

11 Boom and Bust, 1920–1940

12 A Tryout House, 1941–1954

13 The Shuberts in Decline, 1954–1969

14 Performing Arts Center, 1969–1982

15 A Subscription House, 1982–1999

16 The State Theatre of Pennsylvania, 2000 and Beyond

Notes

Bibliography

Index

Prologue:

America’s Oldest Theatre

It is easy to overlook the building that stands on the northeast corner of Ninth and Walnut streets in Philadelphia’s central city. In a city full of historic buildings, there is little to draw your attention to this particular structure. Its marble façade and Greek columns make it look more like a bank than a theatre. But this is the Walnut Street Theatre, America’s oldest and—Philadelphians will tell you—most distinguished theatre. This building has served the city of Philadelphia for more than two hundred years. A bronze marker, placed there by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, announces the Walnut as “the oldest playhouse in continuous use in the English-speaking world.” That is reaching a bit. The Walnut is certainly the oldest theatre in the United States, and it predates any of the London theatres: Covent Garden dates back to 1856, rebuilt after a fire, and Drury Lane was constructed in 1812 after a similar disaster. The honor of the oldest operating theatre in the English-speaking world rightly belongs to the Theatre Royal in Bristol, England, which has been standing since 1766. The basis for the claim that the Walnut is oldest playhouse “in continuous use” is that the Theatre Royal was shuttered for most of World War II. By that measure, the Walnut has been in continuous use only since the Great Depression, for it too was dark for several years.

Whether the Walnut is older than Bristol’s Theatre Royal is a small matter. The Walnut Street Theatre’s significance is secure. The Walnut has been at or near the center of American theatrical activity since Thomas Jefferson was president of the United States. While there have been seasons when the Walnut was dark, it has been serving the people of Philadelphia as an entertainment center for more than two hundred years. That is no mean accomplishment, particularly when you consider its origins. The Walnut was not a particularly prestigious theatre. It was not built as a theatre at all. The arena that opened on February 2, 1809, was announced as the New Circus. There was no stage, merely a sawdust ring, with three tiers of boxes surrounding it, in the style of European circuses. It was a temporary arena, built to house an equestrian show whenever the circus was in town. This was before the circus tent came into use, when circuses played in wooden arenas in various cities where they appeared. The Walnut—or what would become the Walnut—was one of several structures built by Victor Pepin and Jean Breschard in Boston, New York, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. The others were made of wood and were torn down within a few years. Philadelphia fire regulations required that it be built of brick. And so it lasted.

The building that now occupies the lot at Ninth and Walnut streets bears little resemblance to the arena constructed on the western periphery of the city back in 1809. The original building had a plain brick façade and a peaked roof. Its most striking feature was an immense dome that rose some eighty feet into the air. Topped by a flagpole, it was the tallest structure in the city. The dome was removed in 1820 to improve acoustics, while the Greek revival façade along Walnut Street comes from an 1828 renovation.

From the beginning, the Walnut was a populist house. The fashionable set patronized the Chestnut Street Theatre (spelled Chesnut in those days), located diagonally across from Independence Hall, on Chestnut just west of Sixth. Built in 1794, the Chestnut was the most elegant and palatial theatre in the United States. Philadelphians were justifiably proud of the Chestnut and its acting company, which rivaled anything New York City had to offer. The theatre’s managers amassed the largest library of music and plays and the largest collection of costumes this side of the Atlantic Ocean, and it contributed to Philadelphia’s status as “the Athens of the United States.”

At the Walnut, on the other hand, they stabled horses. Circus was the popular entertainment of the time. There was no vaudeville or burlesque or musical comedy or minstrelsy. All of these entertainment forms developed out of the early American circus, and eventually all of them would play at the Walnut. The circus appealed to the less sophisticated set, and the emphasis at the Walnut was on entertainment and spectacle. Even when a stage was added at one end of the equestrian ring, the Olympic, as it was then called, was best known for grand historic spectacles and hippodramas—melodramas that featured action on horseback. The public flocked to see these attractions, particularly when they featured a patriotic theme.

Why should the people’s theatre survive, when other, more prestigious theatres did not? Luck had something to do with it. Fire claimed many of the early theatres. In an era when the stage was lit by oil or gas lamps, there was always the danger that an open flame might catch a piece of wardrobe or curtain. If this happened during a performance, the loss of life could be catastrophic. As frightened theatergoers stampeded to the exits, people were more likely to be trampled to death than overcome by smoke and flame. The night the Walnut offered its first legitimate theatrical production—January 1, 1812—word arrived from Virginia that just such a tragedy had occurred at the Richmond Theatre. Seventy-one people lost their lives in the crush to escape the burning building. The governor of Virginia was among the dead.

Such a horrific loss of life never occurred at a Philadelphia theatre, but fire claimed many of the early theatres. Philadelphia historians Thomas Scharf and Thompson Westcott estimated that one of every three theatres built in Philadelphia between 1799 and 1871 was destroyed by fire. Fire ripped through Ricketts’s Circus on a cold December night in 1799, destroying the first circus building in America. The Chestnut Street Theatre went up in flames under suspicious circumstances in 1820. The acting company moved over to the Olympic Theatre, christening it the Walnut Street Theatre. In 1824 a fire swept through Vauxhall Gardens, an open-air theatre at Broad and Walnut, where the public could imbibe refreshments and enjoy variety entertainment. Some of this public, which had enjoyed too many of these refreshments, set fire to a hot-air balloon that was supposed to ascend into the sky that day. The National Theatre, located at Chestnut and Ninth, went up in flames on another day of celebration—July 4, 1854. Gilmore’s Auditorium, two doors east of the Walnut, burned down four times between 1863 and 1892. Nine firemen were killed during the 1867 fire when the walls collapsed.

Those that were not destroyed by fire fell victim to the wrecker’s ball. The Southwark Theatre was taken down in 1913. The fact that it was the oldest surviving theatre building in North America was not enough to save it. Built in 1766, the Southwark served the people of Philadelphia for fifty years. The Southwark had not been used for theatrical performances since 1817. A fire partially destroyed the building in 1821, making it unusable as a performance space. It was rebuilt as a hayloft and for many years housed a distillery. Another great historic building, the Arch Street Theatre, was razed in 1936. It was one of half a dozen historic theatres that yielded to the wrecker’s ball during the Great Depression. At the time of its demolition, the Arch was the second-oldest theatre in America, dating from 1828.

The Walnut Street Theatre was set to be demolished several times during the course of two centuries of operation. The first time was in 1827, but the owners decided to renovate instead. Plans were made to construct a fashionable new building on the lot in 1920, but zoning laws would have reduced the size of the theatre that could be built. There was thought of tearing it down in 1956, when it was being run as a tryout house by the Shubert Organization. The Shuberts had run into antitrust problems; a federal judge had ordered them to divest themselves of some of their properties, and they decided that the Walnut had to go. Only the intervention of the wife of the theatre’s manager saved it from the wrecking ball.

Until the 1960s, no one paid much attention to preserving historic theatres in the United States. Older theatres were considered something of an embarrassment. They have a way of looking dowdy a few decades after they were built, as paint peels, upholstery fades, and ideas of what is stylish and chic change. We might preserve historic sites like Independence Hall or the elegant homes of the nation’s founding fathers. But theatres, despite the glamour attached to them, were treated more like factories. They were judged by utilitarian standards, and when their usefulness ended they were abandoned or torn down. That the Walnut has remained standing for so many years, through wars and economic downturns, is a testament to its usefulness.

By 1964 people had begun to appreciate the historic nature of the Walnut. That year, the Interior Department declared the Walnut a National Landmark. This meant, among other things, that the original structure was protected. By that time, however, there was very little of the original structure left to protect. All that remained were three of the outside walls. The roof and the interior of the building were renovated sometime between 1820 and 1920. Owners were still free to make changes to the interior, and in 1970 they gutted the inside to give it a modern, up-to-date look.

It is not the architecture that gives the Walnut Street Theatre its historical significance, however, but the events and productions that have taken place within its walls. Like the Civil War battlefields that are hallowed by the lives of soldiers that were lost there, the Walnut is hallowed by the men and women who have given their lives to the theatre.

Most of the great figures in American theatre appeared at the Walnut in the nineteenth century—Edwin Forrest, Junius Brutus Booth, Charlotte Cushman, Edwin Booth, Joseph Jefferson, Mrs. Drew, Richard Mansfield, Minnie Maddern Fiske—most of them returned season after season. Popular entertainers also appeared—General Tom Thumb, Harrigan and Hart, Lotta Crabtree, Buffalo Bill Cody, and Lillian Russell, among others. European stars were booked into the Walnut during their American tours—Edmund Kean, Charles and Fanny Kemble, Rachel, Lola Montez, Tommaso Salvini, and Lillie Langtry.

The twentieth century brought such distinguished stage stars as the Barrymores, Eva Le Gallienne, Walter Hampden, Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne, Dame Judith Anderson, Maurice Evans, Helen Hayes, Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee. Many of the stars we remember today made their names in film. Lillian and Dorothy Gish, William S. Hart, Gloria Swanson, Douglas Fairbanks, Will Rogers, W. C. Fields, Mae West, Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney, the Marx Brothers, Boris Karloff, Claudette Colbert, Henry Fonda, Kirk Douglas, Marlon Brando, David Niven, Sidney Poitier, Jack Lemmon, Jane Fonda, Robert Redford, and Gene Hackman are just a few of the Hollywood celebrities who have graced the Walnut’s stage. Some of them appeared at the Walnut before they became stars; others returned to the stage after successful Hollywood careers.

Every kind of performing art has been represented at the Walnut—comedians like Pigmeat Markham, Lily Tomlin, and Bill Cosby; dancers like Ruth St. Denis, Martha Graham, Alvin Ailey, and Twyla Tharp; magicians from Blackstone to Penn and Teller; mimes from Marcel Marceau to Mummenschantz. Sports figures like heavyweight champion James J. Corbett and tennis great Big Bill Tilden have graced the Walnut’s stage. So have presidents—Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford held their first debate at the Walnut during the 1976 presidential election campaign. The Walnut has been host to writers like Bernard Malamud, newscasters like Mike Wallace, opera singers like Jessye Norman, activists like Yippie leader Jerry Rubin, rock icons like Sting.

While it may be gratifying to note the famous actors who have stood on the stage of the Walnut Street Theatre, much of the story of the Walnut has been carried forward by far less notable names. One of these is “Pop” Reed, the stagehand who lit the gas jets before every performance for nearly fifty years and who, on his death, bequeathed his skull to the theatre. The managers also figure prominently, among them Francis Courtney Wemyss, E. A. Marshall, and Mrs. M. Augusta Garrettson, who ran the Walnut for several years. There is John Sleeper Clarke, who purchased the Walnut with his brother-in-law, Edwin Booth, and later bought him out. These men and women spent a good portion of their careers and often their life savings in the ever-risky profession of producing live theatre.

The Walnut’s story is a classic American success story. Built by immigrants who came to America to seek their fortune, the Walnut adapted to the ever-changing tastes and desires of the theatergoing public. Today, the Walnut boasts of being the largest subscription theatre in the United States. It has not been an easy journey. Over the years it has suffered many setbacks due to economic downturns and competition from new media. The Walnut’s owners and managers lost their shirts—and sometimes their entire wardrobes—when the economy or changing tastes turned against them. Through it all, an entrepreneurial spirit has prevailed—each time one manager failed, there were always people waiting to try their hand at running the theatre.

This book chronicles the struggles and triumphs of the men and women who have made the Walnut run. While this is the story of a single theatre, it is also the history of the American stage. The Walnut is uniquely situated. Because Philadelphia is located so close to New York City, the fortunes of the Walnut have been closely tied to what was happening on Broadway. For nearly three decades it was a tryout house for Broadway-bound shows. At the same time, it shared the problems and concerns of theatres in the rest of the country, booking shows out of New York, adapting to competition from movies, and moving into the nonprofit world.

The way theatre is produced—and consumed—has changed dramatically over the past two hundred years. When the Walnut opened, theatres operated as stock companies, employing a resident corps of actors who put on a different show every night of the week. This system was replaced by the star system, with the leading European and American actors coming in, and local actors taking on supporting roles. Technology affected how theatre was produced; new technology radically changed theatre practice. Advances in lighting altered acting styles and allowed new scenic effects. The growth of railroads had an even greater impact, allowing producers to ship a full show, complete with sets and wardrobe, across the country. The Walnut, like most theatres outside New York, became a rental house for touring productions. Circuits were organized at the end of the nineteenth century to streamline distribution, and the Walnut was taken over by the Syndicate, a group of powerful producers who controlled theatrical distribution nationwide. Their power faded only with the introduction of movies, which devastated the theatre industry. New owners coped with this new challenge in any way they could, mounting trashy potboilers to lure customers away from nickelodeons. The Walnut entered its most difficult era during the Great Depression, as the owners tried every means of keeping the theatre open, offering movies, burlesque, and Yiddish theatre before briefly becoming the home of the Federal Theatre Project.

The Walnut enjoyed what many consider its golden age during World War II, when it was purchased by the Shubert Organization and became a tryout house for Broadway-bound shows. A Streetcar Named Desire had its tryout run at the Walnut before moving on to Broadway. Several other important shows debuted at the Walnut, including The Diary of Anne Frank and A Raisin in the Sun. With its fortunes so closely tied to Broadway, however, the Walnut fell on hard times in the 1960s, as Broadway began to decline. Recognizing that legitimate theatre—like other arts—could survive only with support from government and foundation sources, a group of civic leaders raised money to buy and restore the old building and converted the Walnut into a nonprofit performing arts center. Again there were difficulties. The civic leaders had no experience running a theatre and ran a deficit year after year, which was picked up by the William Penn Foundation. With the arrival of Bernard Havard in 1982, and the decision to become a producing house again, the Walnut found its purpose.

Today, the Walnut is one of the most successful regional theatres in the country. More than 350,000 people attend a show at the Walnut each year. Fifty-seven thousand people have season subscriptions—more than any other theatre in the United States. The Walnut mounts five mainstage productions each year and five second-stage or studio theatre productions. It also operates a theatre school and a community outreach program. While it is tempting to see this as the culmination of the story, in fact, the history of the Walnut Street Theatre will continue to be written as long as someone arrives each day to light the lights.

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