Weekly Press/University Review Wednesday August 20, 2008
Looking back at Walnut Street Theatre’s 200-year history
By David Block
The Walnut Street Theatre will be celebrating its 200th anniversary this
season. To provide audiences with a true taste of Americana this
Bicentennial season, the five shows will be American creations: State Fair,
Hair Spray, A Street Car Named Desire, Born Yesterday, and The Producers.
“I wanted to present the best quality shows about America,” said Bernard
Havard, Artistic Director of the Walnut Street Theatre. “This year we
wanted to show all American productions, written by Americans for
Americans; that’s what I thought our 200th anniversary should be all about;
about celebrating who we are, what we are and celebrating our country.”
The Walnut Street Theatre has a rich history; in fact that’s one reason why
Havard enthusiastically took the post of Artistic Director back in 1982.
“I was attracted to the Walnut because of the history behind the theatre,”
said Havard. “I read biographies of a lot of famous people like the
Barrymores and the Booth family, who performed at Walnut. I was fascinated
by the opportunity of coming here and working at such a historic theatre.”
According to Tom Miller, Communications Manager of the Walnut Street
Theatre, there is a lot of written information and historical documentation
to back up the Walnut’s claims. Miller said that many great performers have
graced the Walnut’s stage, such as Edwin Forrest, Edwin Booth (brother of
President Lincoln’s Assassin John Wilkes Booth), Henry Fonda, and Audrey
Hepburn, just to name a few.
When the Walnut Street Theatre first opened its doors on February 2, 1809,
in the same spot where it stands today at 825 Walnut Street, its original
name was the New Circus. It hosted equestrian acts.
“Victor Pépin and Jean Baptiste Casmiere Breschard were two French
gentlemen who brought the circus over here,” said Miller. “When touring
circuses came through, there usually weren’t places to put on their shows,
so the companies would just come in and build a space, right in the city,
wherever it was available.”
Miller said that due to the recession in 1811, fewer people were attending
their circuses, so Pepin and Breschard decided to do live theatre. They
thought that live theatre would bring in larger crowds. In 1811, the
theatre was renamed the Olympic.
Its initial theatrical production was The Rivals and it was first performed
on January 1st, 1812. Sitting in the audience opening night were Thomas
Jefferson and the Marquis de Lafayette.
What’s in a name?
Even though the Walnut Street Theater has always been located at 825 Walnut
Street, it has had several name changes.
1809 – 1811: The New Circus
1811 – 1820: The Olympic
1820 – 1822: The Walnut Street Theater
1822 – 1828: The Olympic
1828 – present: The Walnut Street Theater
Edwin Forrest, one of the best known actors of the 19th century, first
performed at the Walnut Street Theatre in 1820.
“Around the 1850s,” said Miller, “shows were British, more presentational.
Edwin Forrest brought more of a visceral, human, over-the-top performance
style. American audiences ate it up, but not English audiences. At that
time, he started a playwriting competition. It had to be a show written by
an American, about an American subject. The winner would receive a cash
prize and Edwin Forrest would perform in the show guaranteeing it would be
According to Miller, when Forrest died in 1874, part of his fortune was
used to set up a home for indigent actors.
Forrest’s North Philadelphia residence was used as the home for aging
actors up until the 1980′s, Miller said. “In the 19th century, if you were
an actor getting on in years and suddenly forgetting your lines, you were
out on the street. This home was a place for actors to live out their
The Booth brothers
In the 19th century, the Booth family encompassed many talented actors,
including Edwin Booth and his younger brother, John Wilkes Booth.
Edwin Booth once saved the life of Abraham Lincoln’s son, Robert Todd
Lincoln. Robert fell onto the train tracks in front of an oncoming train.
Edwin pulled him back to safety on the platform.
According to Miller, Edwin and Edwin’s brother-in-law, John Sleeper Clarke,
purchased the Walnut Street Theatre in 1862, but only ran it for a few years.
At the time of the Civil War, Edwin Booth was a Unionist. His brother, John
was not. John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln on Good
Friday, April 14, 1865 at Ford Theatre.
After Lincoln was killed, actors were reviled across the country. The
entire profession was blamed for Lincoln’s death. Edwin Booth announced his
retirement. Members of the theatrical profession drafted a resolution
expressing regret that a fellow actor had been responsible for the shooting.
Miller said that when Lincoln’s remains were brought to Independence Hall
in Philadelphia as part of the funeral procession, most of the theatrical
community came to pay their respects.
About a year later, Edwin Booth resumed his theatrical career.
Some 20th Century Highlights
The world premiere of A Streetcar Named Desire starring Marlon Brando and
Kim Hunter was staged at the Walnut Street Theatre in 1947. The following
year, audiences saw Mister Roberts starring Henry Fonda.
In 1951, Audrey Hepburn played the lead in the production, Gigi. In 1959
Sidney Poitier appeared in A Raisin in the Sun.
In 1964, the Walnut Street Theatre was designated a national historic
landmark. On September 23, 1976, the televised Presidential Debate between
President Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter was held at the Walnut Street Theatre.
In 1999, Marina Sirtis, well known for her role as Counselor Troi in Star
Trek: The Next Generation, starred in Walnut’s production of Neil Simon’s
When Bernard Havard became Artistic Director in 1982, he revolutionized the
theatre by enticing its audiences to become subscribers.
“I’ve always been a huge advocate of subscriptions,” said Havard. “Wherever
I’ve been, I’ve raised subscription levels to record heights,” and the
Walnut Street Theatre was no exception. Today the Walnut Street Theatre has
over fifty seven thousand subscribers.
“We have a long term relationship with our subscribers,” said Miller. “We
give discounts to our subscribers, discounts on tickets, discount parking
and subscribers can exchange their tickets up to 24 hours before a
For more information about the Walnut Street Theatre visit
www.walnutstreettheatre.org or call 215 574 3550.