History of The Walnut Street Theatre

Celebrating its 200th anniversary in 2009, the historic Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia‘s Washington Square
West neighborhood is the oldest theatre in the United States. It also holds the honor of being the oldest theater in continuous operation in the English-speaking world, having been in operation non-stop since it was opened in 1809.

The Beginnings

Built by the Circus of Pepin and Breshcard at the corner of Ninth and Walnut Streets, The Walnut Street Theater is a National Historic Landmark, with a stage designed by architect William Strickland. In 1828, one of most famous architects of the day, a man by the name of John Haviland, designed renovations to both the exterior and interior of the theatre, and the present facade is based on his original design. The theatre was originally named The New Circus, was later changed The Olympic, became The Walnut Street Theatre for two brief years before returning the The Olympic, then was changed back to its current name again in 1828.

After an 80-foot dome was added to the theatre in the early 1800s, The Walnut Street Theatre was briefly the tallest building in Philadelphia. The theatre went on the claim many firsts, including being the first to install gas lights, and the first theatre to install air conditioning in 1855. The Walnut Street Theatre is also where the the curtain call got its start, a tradition that is now found in every theatre throughout the United States and beyond.

The Walnut Street Theatre has treated audiences to a medley of entertaining productions, including circuses,

lectures, music and dance, opera, vaudeville, motion pictures, and plenty of live theater. Many of America’s most notable and famous actors of the 19th and 20th centuries appeared at The Walnut Street Theatre over the centuries, including the Barrymores, Will Rogers, The Marx Brothers, Henry Fonda, Sidney Poitier, Katharine Hepburn, Marlon Brando, Audrey Hepburn, Lauren Bacall, Robert Redford, Jack Lemon, and William Shatner along with many others.

The theatre changed ownership many times throughout its colorful history, and for a time was owned by Edwin Booth, whose brother would later go on assisinate President Lincoln in Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC.

The Walnut Street Theatre was bought by the Shubert Organization in the 1940s, and many plays destined for Broadway were tried out in the theatre. Some of them are now classic, well-loved productions, including The Diary of Anne Frank, A Streetcar Named Desire, and A Raisin in the Sun. When Mister Roberts opened at the theatre in 1948, Henry Fonda wore his own Navy uniform in the play. His daughter Jane Fonda went on to appear at The Walnut Street Theatre in There Was a Little Girl, in 1960.

The audience itself has included some of America’s most famous personalities. During opening night of one of The Walnut Street Theatre’s very first theatrical productions, The Rivals, President Thomas Jefferson was in attendance along with the Marquis de Lafayette.

In 1969, after a long run as a non-profit production company, The Walnut Street Theatre Company was purchased by a non-profit organization. It then became the new Walnut Street Theatre Corporation, and in 1976 became the site of the first debate between presidential candidates Jimmy Carter and Gerald R. Ford. Later, in 1984, Walnut Street Theatre School was established. More than 1,200 students enroll in the school every year, and the company currently offers five productions every season. The Walnut Street Theatre has the honor of being the most subscribed theater company in the world.

Right Around The Corner

The Walnut Street Theatre is just one block away from the Morris House Hotel. Make a night out of it by dining at our M Restaurant and then staying with us afterwards after your dinner and theatre outing. Also, when you mention you are a theatre subscriber we give you our theatre discount.


By |2016-03-29T03:56:38+00:00January 21st, 2014|Philadelphia Hotel: Things To Do|0 Comments

About the Author:

Luke Wistar Morris was part of the Morris family who built what is now the Morris House Hotel. Luke had many interests including brewing beer, and was an engineer in Philadelphia. Follow Luke on Google+

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