National Theatre (Washington, D.C.)
Location within Washington, D.C.
|Address||1321 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
|Owner||Quadrangle Development Corporation|
|Operator||SMG and Jam Theatricals|
|National Theatre Corporation|
The National Theatre is located in Washington, D.C., and is a venue for a variety of live stage productions with seating for 1,676. Despite its name, it is not a governmentally funded national theatre, but operated by a private, non-profit organization.
This historic playhouse was founded on December 7, 1835, by William Corcoran and other prominent citizens who wanted the national capital to have a first-rate theatre. The theatre's initial production was Man of the World. The theatre has been in almost continuous operation since, at the same Pennsylvania Avenue location a few blocks from the White House. Its name was changed at times to "Grover's National Theatre," and "Grover's Theatre," as management changed. Famed actor Joseph Jefferson managed the theatre at one time. The structure has been rebuilt several times, including partial reconstructions after five fires in the 19th century. The current building, at 1321 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, was constructed in 1923, opening in September of that year.
Located three blocks from the White House, the theater has entertained every U.S. President of the United States since Andrew Jackson. On April 14, 1865, Tad Lincoln was attending a performance of Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp at the theatre when his father, President Abraham Lincoln, was assassinated.
Like many theatres in the U.S. prior to the civil rights movement, the National Theatre was racially segregated. Black actors were allowed to appear on stage, but African Americans audience members were relegated to a special section. During the Washington run of Porgy and Bess in 1936, the cast, led by Todd Duncan, protested the audience's segregation. Duncan stated that he "would never play in a theatre which barred him from purchasing tickets to certain seats because of his race." Management would give into the demands and allow for the first integrated performance at National Theatre. A movement to integrate the playhouse was spearheaded by actor Helen Hayes, educator Gilbert V. Hartke, O.P., Washington art impresario Patrick Hayes, and Washington Post theatre critic Richard L. Coe. When that effort failed, they persuaded Actors Equity performers to refuse to play at the theatre. Rather than desegregating, the New York management discontinued live performances in 1948. One prestige attraction, the Washington premier of the British film The Red Shoes, was presented. Then the theatre remained dark until it reopened as an integrated theater in 1952.
In 1970, the theatre came under the management of the Nederlander Organization. In 1974, the not-for-profit National Theatre Corporation was established by Roger L. Stevens, Maurice B. Tobin, Donn B. Murphy and others to save the failing enterprise, in the wake of racial riots, and a downtown made unfashionable by the growth of the surrounding suburbs.
The theatre underwent a major renovation in 1982-1983, when the original wing housing dressing rooms was replaced with a modern structure. The refurbished structure opened in concert with the redevelopment of that part of downtown Washington, D.C., that included The Shops at National Place, the 774 room flagship JW Marriott Hotel, and National Press Club. Stage designer Oliver Smith supervised the interior design.
The development and construction process caused widespread protests, outcry and a court case from local historic preservationists over the planned razing of the adjacent Munsey Trust Building. Built in 1905 by noted architects McKim, Mead and White of New York City for newspaper syndicate publisher Frank A. Munsey who was known as the "Dealer in Dailies" and as the "Undertaker of Journalism" in the early 20th Century. Overshadowed by his more famous contemporary with similar reputation, William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951), he preceded the contemporary press baron from Australia, Rupert Murdoch who later expanded to Great Britain and then the USA. Munsey also organized the "Munsey Trust Company" in 1913 in Baltimore, which later reorganized two years later as "The Equitable Trust Company" which became one of the leading financial institutions in the Maryland area by the 1990s but was later subsumed in a series of bank mergers. His local newspapers included "The News" and the "Baltimore American" (sold to Hearst in 1923, which merged to become the daily "Baltimore News-Post" and the Sunday "Baltimore American" until combined in 1964 as "The News American") which was closed in 1986 after being the largest and most popular newspaper in "Charm City". A similar early skycraper, the tallest in Baltimore, also was the "Munsey Building" which built in 1911 at North Calvert and East Fayette Streets, across from Battle Monument Square (symbol of Baltimore) as the then tallest structure in the city, had printing presses on the first floor visible through large department store style windows which were later replaced by an ornate brass and marble banking lobby and offices for Equitable Trust. By the 2010s, it was converted into luxury apartments and condos.
The 1835 stone foundations and brick stage house still exist, although the rock work is now reinforced with steel caissons to resist erosion by the Tiber Creek, which flows beneath the building. From the stage, President Ronald Reagan saluted the refurbished "neighborhood theatre" in January 1984.
The many performers who have appeared at the theatre include Pearl Bailey, Ethel Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore and John Barrymore, Warren Beatty, Sarah Bernhardt, Claire Bloom, Edwin Booth, John Wilkes Booth, Fanny Brice, Carol Channing, George M. Cohan, Claudette Colbert, Katharine Cornell, Hume Cronyn, Tim Curry, Denishawn, Ruth Draper, Todd Duncan, Maurice Evans, Lillian Gish, Ruth Gordon, Valerie Harper, Julie Harris, Rex Harrison, Helen Hayes, Audrey Hepburn, Katharine Hepburn, Joseph Jefferson, James Earl Jones, Lucille La Verne, Eva LeGallienne, Jerry Lewis, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, Eartha Kitt, Ian McKellen, Mary Martin, Ethel Merman, Rita Moreno, Helen Morgan, Rosie O'Donnell, Laurence Olivier, Annie Oakley, Geraldine Page, Robert Redford, Debbie Reynolds, Chita Rivera, Will Rogers, Rosalind Russell, George C. Scott, Kevin Spacey, Sting, Jessica Tandy, Norma Terris, Marlo Thomas, Lily Tomlin, Franchot Tone, Rip Torn and Liv Ullmann. Winston Churchill once spoke from the stage.
The National Theatre has recently expanded its activities to include not only Broadway musical performances but also concerts, lectures, opera, ballet, seminars and receptions. The National Theatre Corporation is a non-profit organization that is responsible for the operation of the theatre. Tom Lee, is the Executive Director of the National Theatre Corporation. The National Theatre Group manages the daily activities of the theatre and provides content for the main stage. The Managing Director of the theatre is Sarah Bartlo.
- Underused National Theatre is ready for its next act
- "Porgy and Bess: Today in History, September 2". Library of Congress. Retrieved 2007-12-06.
- "It's Show Time". Washingtonian. September 1998.
- The Broadway Battle Flares in Washington
- Harris, Paul (20 September 2012). "New bookers for D.C. National". Variety. Retrieved 2013-08-22.
- Stage for a Nation - The National Theatre - 150 Years by Douglas Bennett Lee, Roger L. Meersman, Donn B. Murphy, 1985
- Burning of a Theatre, New York Times, 29 January 1873.
- What If the Lincolns had Attended the Play at Grover's (National) Theatre?