Walnut Street Theatre is the oldest theatre in America, celebrating 200 years in 2009. 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, Ethel Waters, Audrey Hepburn, Sidney Poitier, Lauren Bacall, George C. Scott, Jane Fonda, Robert Redford, Julie Harris, 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. A few years later, an 80-foot dome was added to the theatre, making it the tallest structure in Philadelphia at that time. 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.
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. Mister Roberts, starring Henry Fonda, opened at the Walnut in 1948. Fonda, recently discharged from the Navy, used his own uniform in the play. His daughter, Jane Fonda appeared in There Was a Little Girl in 1960. In 1961, Neil Simon’s first Broadway play, Come Blow Your Horn debuted.
The Walnut’s rich history is evident backstage as well, as it is one of only a few remaining “hemp houses” in the country. To this day it continues to operate the original grid, rope, pulley, and sandbag system that was in use nearly two centuries ago. The theatre’s hand-painted fire curtain, which still hangs above the stage, displays a reproduction of the The Liberty Bell’s First Note, 1753, originally painted by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris.
In 1964, Walnut Street Theatre was designated a National Historic Landmark. Then in 1969 the theatre was renovated again to become a Performing Arts Center. During this period a variety of live entertainments were represented at the Walnut including dance, music, and theatre. In 1976 the Walnut hosted the first televised Carter-Ford presidential debate.
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. With over 56,000 subscribers annually, the Walnut Street Theatre is the most subscribed theatre company in the world.
With such a vibrant history the Walnut Street Theatre has been the home of a lot of interesting facts. Among those making the leap from vaudeville to the legitimate stage were the Marx Brothers, who debuted their first stage show, I’ll Say She Is, at the Walnut in the summer of 1923. Screen legend and beauty Katharine Hepburn made her only appearance at the Walnut in a new play by Philip Barry, Without Love, which opened March 23, 1942. She had previously collaborated with Barry on The Philadelphia Story. Jack Lemmon did not impress Philadelphia Inquirer critics in his first dramatic role in Face of a Hero, which played at the Walnut in 1960. The Clash, one of the leading and most controversial of Britain’s new wave rock bands, played one performance at the Walnut as part of their second US tour, “The Clash Take the Fifth” tour, of September-October 1979. Sunday in New York brought Robert Redford into Philadelphia for the first time in 1961. Redford played a music critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer in this Walnut production, which went on to have a moderately successful run on Broadway. For a look at other facts check out here.
Here’s a look at what’s playing and coming to The Walnut Street Theatre.
November 10, 2009 â€“ January 10, 2010
You’ll celebrate the holiday season with one of Broadway’s most beloved classic musicals of all time, Oliver! This masterpiece vividly brings to life Charles Dickens’ timeless characters with its ever-popular story of the boy who asked for more. The sensational score is full of Lionel Bart’s irresistible songs including “Food, Glorious Food;” “Consider Yourself;” “You’ve Got to Pick-a-Pocket or Two;” “I’d Do Anything;” “Oom Pah Pah;” “As Long As He Needs Me” and many more. Oliver! promises to be one of the most spectacular holiday musicals to ever grace the Walnut’s stage.
The Eclectic Society
January 19 â€“ March 7, 2010
To be the big man on campus, you have to be able to play the game. In the hallowed halls of The Eclectic Society, young men come together to build character, strengthen bonds and create a better future for their fraternity. What’s that laughter we hear behind those doors? There are new recruits that need to be tested, homecoming games to be won and traditions that must be continued. It’s the 1960s. Do these men have what it takes to make things right? This new American play celebrates the spirit of young men and the mischief behind them.
March 16 â€“ May 2, 2010
It’s always time for champagne and laughter when you get together with the sophisticated and elegant Sir Noel Coward! Julia and Jane, two upper-class society ladies, have been friends for ages. They’ve shared everything. When Jane receives news that a former lover, Maurice, is coming to town, the past catches up with both women! What if their inattentive husbands find out? How do they escape this dashing, daring, French former lover? Will old passions be rekindled? Will jealousy rear its sinful head? Who will he choose? Spirits fly and laughter soars with Noel Coward’s delectable comedy Fallen Angels!
Fiddler On The Roof
It’s time to continue the “tradition” of great American musicals as we end our spectacular 201st season with one of Broadway’s greatest musicals of all time, Fiddler on the Roof. This multi-award-winning musical has captured the hearts of people all over the world and finally makes its highly anticipated debut on the Walnut stage with an all-new production. As Tevye tries to hold onto his religion, his Russian-Jewish traditions and his five daughters, he learns that life is “as shaky as a fiddler on the roof.” You’ll dance with “Matchmaker, Matchmaker;” laugh out loud with “If I Were a Rich Man;” and find tears in your eyes with “Sunrise, Sunset” and “Anatevka.” This is a story that will last forever in your heart. Let’s celebrate together. To Life! L’Chaim!
To learn more about the Walnut Street Theatre, and purchase tickets for shows, check out their website.