Standing at the corner of Ninth and Walnut Streets in Philadelphia for two hundred years, Walnut Street Theatre's National Historic Landmark structure has housed two centuries' worth of American popular entertainment. Most noteworthy American actors of the 19th century and many from the 20th century have appeared on stage at the Walnut. Some of the Walnut's shining stars include: Edwin Forrest, Edwin Booth, Edmund Kean, the Drews, the Barrymores, George M. Cohan, Will Rogers, The Marx Brothers, Helen Hayes, Henry Fonda, Katharine Hepburn, Marlon Brando, Jessica Tandy, Audrey Hepburn, Sidney Poitier, Lauren Bacall, George C. Scott, Jane Fonda, Robert Redford, Julie Harris, Jack Lemon, and William Shatner. Over the years audiences have clapped and cheered for circus, opera, vaudeville, lectures, music, dance, motion pictures, and of course, the live theatre productions for which it is best known today.
When the theatre opened its doors on February 2, 1809, the pounding of hooves mingled with the shrieks of delight from the crowd as teams of horses circled a dirt riding ring. The theatre's career as an equestrian circus did not last long, however, and by 1812 the building had been converted to a legitimate theatre, featuring a real stage where the ring had stood. The Walnut's first theatrical production, The Rivals, had President Thomas Jefferson and the Marquis de Lafayette in attendance on opening night.
Walnut Street Theatre is home to many firsts in the American theater scene. In 1837, the Walnut was the first theatre to install gas footlights, and in 1855, the Walnut became the first theatre to install air conditioning. The first copyright law protecting American plays had its roots at the Walnut. The curtain call, now a tradition in every theatre, started at the Walnut with the post-play appearance of noted 19th Century actor Edmund Kean.
The Walnut remained a significant player on the American theatre scene throughout the twentieth century. Purchased by the Shubert Organization in the 1940s, the theatre was home to many pre-Broadway try-outs of plays that would go on to become American classics, such as A Streetcar Named Desire starring Marlon Brando, A Raisin in the Sun featuring Sydney Poitier, and The Diary of Anne Frank featuring Susan Strasberg.
The Walnut began its most recent incarnation as a self-producing, non-profit regional theatre when Bernard Havard took the helm in 1982, founding the Walnut Street Theatre Company with a vision of once again creating theatre in a space that is so steeped in the American theatre's traditions and history. Today, you can experience the realization of that dream when you attend a live performance.
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Photo by Mark Garvin