Looking at First 200 Years of Walnut Street Theatre’s Rich History

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.

The Beginning

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

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

a hit.”

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

golden years.”

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

Hotel Suites.

Selling Subscriptions

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

performance.”

For more information about the Walnut Street Theatre visit

www.walnutstreettheatre.org or call 215 574 3550.