Philly's Walnut St. Theatre turns 200

January 19, 2009 4:45:49 AM PST
Over the past 200 years, audiences at the Walnut Street Theatre have taken in performances from George M. Cohan to The Clash, speeches from real presidents and make-believe kings, animal shows and opera.

Generally regarded as the nation's oldest theater, the 1,100-seat National Historic Landmark in many ways is entering its third century much as it began, with mass-appeal programming focused largely on musicals and comedy. The theater's 1840 slogan was "vox populi" and staying true to that has served it well, said its longtime artistic director.

"When in its history the theater strayed away from being a voice of the people, it generally went into bankruptcy or receivership," said Bernard Havard, who arrived 26 years ago at the Walnut with the task of turning around an institution in dire straits.

"We've been successful by returning to what was the hallmark of the theater: quality work, high entertainment and enormous customer satisfaction."

The Walnut opened its doors on Feb. 9, 1809, as an equestrian circus of trick riding circled the theater's dirt ring.

In 1812, President Thomas Jefferson and the Marquis de Lafayette were in attendance at the theater, then called The Olympic, on opening night for its first theatrical production: "The Rivals," a comedy by Irish playwright Richard Sheridan.

The centuries brought countless alterations. The facade was restored to its 1809 look but few interior elements remain from its past, beyond an 1863 carved eagle that hung above the proscenium arch and a now rare "hemp house" system of ropes and sandbags for changing stage scenery.

"We try to treat theater as a living thing, not as a museum piece," theater spokesman Thomas Miller said.

Even so, a place this old naturally has plenty of lore.

It claims many firsts, including being the birthplace of the curtain call. In 1821, the account goes, a performance by legendary British actor Edmund Kean brought the applauding crowd to its feet and coaxed Kean to re-emerge for a bow.

Then there's 19th-century stagehand John "Pop" Reed, who bequeathed his skull to be used during Hamlet's soliloquy on Yorick, the deceased court jester and "fellow of infinite jest." Reed's skull - long retired and now residing at the University of Pennsylvania's Van Pelt Library - was autographed by actors who performed with the macabre prop.

Some of the Walnut's owners were legendary, too. Edwin Booth, a noted American actor from a pedigreed theatrical family, bought the place in 1863 - just two years before his actor younger brother, John Wilkes Booth, assassinated President Abraham Lincoln.

Louis B. Mayer briefly ran the Walnut during the 1910s before heading to California and movie moguldom.

The Schubert Organization owned it from 1941 to 1969, when now-classics had their world premieres before heading to Broadway: "A Streetcar Named Desire" with Marlon Brando (1947); "Gigi" with Audrey Hepburn (1951), "A Raisin in the Sun" with Sidney Poitier (1959); "A Man For All Seasons" with Paul Scofield (1961) among others.

Despite its success, the Walnut in the 1970s was turned into a performing arts center and no longer created its own productions, instead booking acts from The Clash to the Philadelphia Chamber Orchestra and events like the 1976 presidential debate between President Gerald Ford then-Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter. The formula flopped, however, and the theater by 1982 was teetering toward bankruptcy.

Enter Havard, and a return to the Walnut playing to its strengths: regional theater producing accessible revival musicals like "Les Miserables," dramas like "Of Mice and Men," and comedies like "Brighton Beach Memoirs." Audiences responded by filling houses and buying season tickets; 56,000 people currently hold subscriptions.

"We can never afford to become arrogant or dismissive," he said. "We developed a sophisticated telemarketing program where we get instant feedback ... about the entire experience, from our customer service to the show itself."

The theater has found a strategy for success but continues looking for ways to reach new audiences, Havard said.

It now has a 1,200-student theater school, summer camp, rental space for small local theater companies and two "black box" theaters showing experimental works. Aspirations for the future include a theater-in-the-round in an empty lot next door, Havard said.

"I'm a firm believer that if you don't grow you die, both artistically and economically," he said. "We have some ambitious plans for the theater to secure its future."

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