Walnut Street Theatre
The Walnut Street Theatre of Philadelphia holds the title of the oldest continuously operating theatre in the English-speaking world. The theatre opened in 1809 and has since become the most subscribed theatre company in the world. Its stage has held some of the most influential actors and actresses of the 19th and 20th centuries: Edwin Forrest, Audrey Hepburn, Jack Lemmon, Jessica Tandy, and many others debuted at the Walnut Street Theatre throughout its history. The theatre was appointed the State Theatre of Pennsylvania in 1964, and today it puts on more than 20 productions each season.
Backstory and Context
On February 2, 1809 the building that would become the Walnut Street Theatre opened as “The New Circus” and featured a sawdust ring for equestrian acts. A few years later, an 80-foot dome was added to the top of the building, making it the tallest structure in the city at the time. However, the equestrian circus did not last long – a stage and orchestra pit were added beside the riding ring by English architect William Strickland in 1811. The newly created theatre was termed the “Olympic Theatre” and in 1812 its first production, The Rivals, had President Thomas Jefferson and the Marquis de Lafayette in attendance. In 1829 the theatre was renamed the “Walnut Street Theatre,” but quickly changed back to the “Olympic” in 1822 when the interior was restored to its circus roots.
John Haviland revived the theatre in 1828 when he oversaw major renovations to the interior and exterior of the building. The Walnut became the first theatre to install gas footlights in 1837 and the first to have air-conditioning in 1855. The theatre was renovated once again in 1920 by architect William H. Lee who added an ornate chandelier which hung from the center of the building’s dome for 47 years.
After being named a National Historic Landmark and the State Theatre of Pennsylvania in 1964, the theatre was purchased by the Haas Foundation in 1969 and turned over to the newly created Walnut Street Theatre Corporation. Architect F. Bryan Loving directed the multi-million dollar “Grand Renovation” that the foundation funded. In 1971 the theatre reopened as a full-fledged performing arts center with the capacity to feature opera, theatre, music, dance, and film. In 1983-84 the Walnut Street Theatre Company and Walnut Street Theatre School were formed and continue to operate today.
Many of America’s most notable actors of the 19th and 20th century have appeared at the Walnut Street Theatre. These actors include: Edwin Booth, Edwin Forrest, Helen Hayes, George M. Cohan, Edward G. Robinson, George C. Scott, Jack Lemmon, Mike Nichols, Claudette Colbert, Jane Fonda, Julie Harris, Audrey and Katharine Hepburn, Ethel Waters and Jessica Tandy. The Walnut was home to many “pre-Broadway try-outs” that went on to become theatre classics.[i] Among these were A Raisin in the Sun, A Streetcar Named Desire, Mister Roberts, and The Diary of Anne Frank. The theatre also hosted the first televised presidential debate between candidates Gerald R. Ford and Jimmy Carter in 1976; the debate was interrupted by a 30-minute sound system malfunction in which television viewers couldn’t hear the candidates speaking.
Today, the Walnut Street Theatre is the most subscribed theatre in the world with more than 55,000 subscribers annually. The theatre holds over 20 productions, 600 performances, and 350,000 attendees each season and more than 1,200 students enroll annually in the theatre school. It holds proudly to its traditions as the oldest continuously operating theatre in America.
The marker outside the theatre reads:
WALNUT STREET THEATRE. Founded 1809. The oldest theater in America and the oldest playhouse in continuous use in the English-speaking world. A National Historic Landmark. Many of the greatest actors of America and Europe have appeared on stage here.