What a beautiful book … literally! With its deep red velvet binding, it is such a good looking package that you hesitate to damage it by opening it. But, as they say you can’t tell a book by its cover, you need to delve into its text to appreciate the job that Andrew Davis has done with this elegant, entertaining and informative history.
The topic is, of course, the Walnut Street Theatre in front of which stands a plaque proclaiming that it is the oldest playhouse in continuous use in the English-speaking world. Davis doesn’t stand by that claim since he can think of at least one that has a better claim. But he’s comfortable proclaiming the Walnut Street “the oldest theatre in the United States.”
No theatre operates in a vacuum, each being part of a larger theatre community. The book, then, has to deal with the history of theatre in Philadelphia and, indeed, in America. Given that the Walnut Street house began life as a circus, the book even provides a sketch of the circus antecedents of our theatrical traditions.
The building, which opened in 1809 with a sawdust ring rather than a stage, has survived over two centuries not because any great stock was made of the cultural importance of such spaces but because, in an age when as many as a third of all theatres eventually burned down, it was a brick building constructed to meet city fire regulations.
Davis slips into a plodding season-by-season survey at times. But what seasons they must have been when the Walnut Street hosted the likes of Edwin Forrest, Edmund Kean and Junius Brutus Booth! Fortunately, Davis’ chronological clarity makes it easy to return to the text to find and check a specific observation.
The book gives glimpses of individual productions that make you long for a time machine. Imagine being able to return to 1835 to see the full military brass band and 130 extras for F. C. Wymass’s production of Hernani, or to 1848 for the premiere of P. T. Barnum’s attraction, General Tom Thumb. The 1867 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream featured memorable scenery and $35,000 worth of jewels and ornaments imported from Paris. (That would be over half a million dollars today.) The next year you could catch a touring production of The Black Crook. By the end of the nineteenth century you could have seen Buffalo Bill Cody, Sarah Bernhardt and Lilly Langtree. Each makes an appearance in the book.
The next century, the one Henry Luce famously called “The American Century,” would bring more famous performers to the stage of the Walnut Street Theatre. Eddie Foy, Ethel Barrymore (and her siblings), all of the Marx Brothers, Helen Hayes, Katherine Hepburn, Henry Fonda, Marlon Brando, Lillian Gish and Shirley Booth all trod these boards.
Notable productions played here before heading for the Great White Way: A Streetcar Named Desire, Mister Roberts, The Diary of Anne Frank, A Raisin In the Sun. Neil Simon’s first play, Come Blow Your Horn, was a hit despite the fact that a member of the audience had a heart attack and died during the opening night performance.
Musicals, too, spent time on Walnut Street before heading north. George M. Cohan sang “Give My Regards to Broadway” from this stage before he sang it on Broadway in Little Johnny Jones in 1904. Other musicals trying out here before Broadway included Bubbling Brown Sugar, Eubie! and Gigi.
There are a host of stories between these lovely covers that theatre lovers will find intriguing.
Here you can read about “Pop” Reed who spent half a century as a stage hand at the Walnut Street starting in 1824, but whose contribution continued long after his death. He willed his skull to the properties department so they would have a real one for the gravedigger scene in Hamlet.
There’s also the story of the Astor Place Riot in New York in 1849 where a feud between actors Edwin Forrest and William C. Macready which began in Philadelphia ended with bloodshed in New York. A crowd estimated at ten thousand gathered when Macready appeared in Macbeth and violence broke out. The militia was brought in to augment the police but things continued to get out of hand. Davis reports that for the first time in American history, American troops fired on American citizens, leaving twenty-eight dead on the street before the Astor Palace Theatre in the East Village.
The volume is well illustrated with some 42 plates (all in black and white printed on the same paper as the text which is a soft 50% recycled stock)./ They range from photographs of the building itself to portraits of famous performers who appeared here and production and publicity photos of some of the important shows to start here. There’s even a picture of the September 23, 1976 televised debate on this stage between President Gerald Ford and Governor Jimmy Carter which, the text recounts, included a twenty-eight minute interruption when the television feed lost audio and the candidates stood glumly awaiting a cue to resume.
If these photos spark your interest, there is another source currently available with over 200, only a few of which duplicate those in this volume. It is Arcadia Publishing’s “Images of America: The Walnut Street Theatre” by Bernard Harvard and Mark D. Sylvester (ISBN 0738557706, $19.95). If you’d rather delve deeper into theatre history a bit closer to home, Douglas Bennett Lee, Roger L. Meersman and Donn B. Murphy’s fabulous history of our own National Theatre, “Stage for a Nation” (ISBN 0819150215) is out of print, but can be found through most used book outlets on the Internet or at local libraries.