Walnut Street Theatre
The New Circus
|Address||825 Walnut Street|
|Public transit||9th-10th & Locust:|
Walnut Street Theatre
|Architectural style||Classical revival|
|NRHP reference No.||66000693|
|Added to NRHP||October 15, 1966|
|Designated NHL||December 29, 1962|
|Designated PHMC||September 25, 1996|
|Owner||Walnut Street Theatre Company (non-profit)|
|Designation||National Historic Landmark|
|Rebuilt||1828, John Haviland|
1903, Willis Hale
1920, William H. Lee
The Walnut Street Theatre, founded in 1809 at 825 Walnut Street, on the corner of S. 9th Street in the Washington Square West neighborhood of Philadelphia is the oldest theatre in the United States. The venue is operated by the Walnut Street Theatre Company, a non-profit organization, and has three stages: the Mainstage, for the company's primary and larger productions, the Independence Studio on 3, a studio located on the building's third floor for smaller productions, and the Studio 5 on the fifth floor, which is rented out for independent productions. In May 2019, the Walnut Street Theatre announced a major expansion, to begin in 2020.
The Walnut Street Theatre was built by the Circus of Pepin and Breschard, which toured the United States from 1807 until 1815. Pepin and Breschard constructed numerous venues in cities along the East Coast of the United States, which often featured, along with performances of their circus, classical plays as well as horse dramas. The theatre was founded in 1809, going by the name of The New Circus. In 1811, the two partners commissioned architect William Strickland to design and construct a stage and orchestra pit for theatrical performances and the theatre's name was changed to The Olympic. The official website says that the name The Walnut Street Theatre was first used there in 1820, though the name was changed back to The Olympic in 1822 and to The Walnut again in 1828. A travel guidebook from 1849 indicates that in the mid-19th century, this building was called The American Theatre.
The Walnut was the first theatre to install gas footlights in 1837. In 1855, it was also the first theatre to feature air conditioning. The theatre switched to electric chandeliers and footlights in 1892. The theatre has undergone many renovations since its opening.
The first theatrical production at the theatre was Sheridan's play The Rivals presented on New Year's Day, 1812. Edwin Booth and John Sleeper Clarke purchased the theatre in 1865, and then the theatre became part of The Shubert Organization in 1941. While part of the Shubert chain, the theatre housed many pre-Broadway tryouts of soon-to-be classics, including:
- A Streetcar Named Desire with Marlon Brando (1947)
- Mister Roberts with Henry Fonda (1948)
- Gigi with Audrey Hepburn (1951)
- The Diary of Anne Frank with Susan Strasberg (1955)
- A Raisin in the Sun with Sidney Poitier (1959)
- A Man For All Seasons starring Paul Scofield (1961)
On October 15, 1966, the Walnut Street Theatre was designated a National Historic Landmark, and in 1969, the theatre was purchased by a non-profit organization and turned over to the new Walnut Street Theatre Corporation. On September 23, 1976, it was the site of the first presidential debate between Gerald R. Ford and Jimmy Carter.
The Walnut Street Theatre Company, a non-profit regional producing company, was formed in 1983 by Bernard Havard. In 1984, the Walnut Street Theatre School was established and over 1,200 students enroll annually, and 1986 saw the introduction of the Independence Studio on 3 series. To this day, the company produces five productions a season on the theatre's main stage and is the most subscribed theatre company in the world. In Fall 2008, the theater celebrated its 200th season of live entertainment.
In June 2021, a former employee of Walnut Street Theatre received a cease-and-desist letter from the theatre's lawyer after commenting on a social media post published by the Walnut with the following message:
"When will you let us know what you’ve been doing for the past 15 months to make your space safer for BIPOC, trans, disabled, and marginalized artists? What work have you been doing during this Black Lives Matter uprising? How are you going to make women feel more safe with Bernard [Havard, the theatre's President and Producing Artistic Director] at the helm? Will you ever hire a black director for the main stage? Will you diversify your board? Have. You. Done. Anything?"
The cease and desist letter claimed the former employee's inquiry falsely suggested "criminal activity", and threatened legal action should she continue to speak out against Walnut Street Theatre and Bernard Havard. In defiance of the letter, the former employee formed the organization Protect the Artist Philly which collected over 90 accounts from current and former Walnut Street Theatre employees describing racism, sexism, homophobia, pregnancy discrimination, and other forms of discrimination, workplace harassment, and abuse they experienced while working at the theatre.
In response to these accusations, the Walnut Street Theatre responded, "There have been allegations – which we have always taken seriously – on social media against the Walnut and its President and Producing Artistic Director. As per the company's policy, the Board of Trustees engaged a third-party investigator that found the allegations against the President to be false. We also categorically disagree with all the negative statements about the institution."
On June 18th, 2021, members of Protect the Artist Philly organized a protest in front of Walnut Street Theatre and down Walnut street in Center City, Philadelphia, ending in Rittenhouse Park. Throughout the protest, former employees and members of the Philadelphia arts community shared accounts of racism, pay inequities, and other forms of discrimination experienced at the Walnut. Protect the Artist Philly also publicly released a number of demands of Walnut Street Theatre, including the removal of President and Producing Artistic Director Bernard Havard, the hiring of a full-time Director of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Access, a living wage for all employees of the theatre, a staff and creative teams that reflects the racial diversity of the city of Philadelphia, and increased financial transparency in response to publicly available tax records that show that Havard's yearly salary is over $700,000 at the nonprofit theatre and revelations that the theatre received a Paycheck Protection Program loan of over $1.42 million following the layoff and failure to properly compensate over 120 employees of the theatre during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Walnut Street Theatre has not publicly responded to Protect the Artist Philly's demands nor has its lawyer pursued legal action resulting from defiance of the cease and desist letter.
The many famous performers who have appeared at the theatre include Ethel Barrymore, Edwin Booth, George M. Cohan, Claudette Colbert, Henry Fonda, Jane Fonda, Edwin Forrest, Julie Harris, Helen Hayes, Katharine Hepburn, Mark Indelicato, Samuel L. Jackson, Jack Lemmon, Groucho Marx, Rob McClure, Mike Nichols, George Peppard, Harold Perrineau, Robert Redford, Edward G. Robinson, Laura San Giacamo, Marina Sirtis, Lucas Steele, Jarrod Spector, George C. Scott, Jessica Tandy and Ethel Waters.
- Philadelphia portal
- List of National Historic Landmarks in Philadelphia
- National Register of Historic Places listings in Center City, Philadelphia
- "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. January 23, 2007.
- "PHMC Historical Markers". Historical Marker Database. Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission. Retrieved December 10, 2013.
- John Timpane (May 4, 2019). "Walnut Street Theatre announces a major expansion, set to start in 2020". The Philadelphia Inquirer. Retrieved May 4, 2019.
The Walnut Street Theatre announced Saturday evening that fund-raising is now underway for a substantial new wing of the building. Plans would expand the 210-year-old theater’s footprint partway into the parking lot next door and add a 400-seat theater in the round. The three-story, 35,000-square-foot addition would break ground in May 2020 and be completed in 2022.
- Havard, Bernard and Sylvester, Mark D. Walnut Street Theatre. Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2008. p.9
- "America's Oldest Theater Wants to Shut This South Philly Actress Up". Philadelphia Magazine. 2021-06-14. Retrieved 2021-06-26.
- "Philly theater artists demand change in workplace behavior at Walnut Street Theatre". AL DÍA News. 2021-06-22. Retrieved 2021-06-26.
- "Theater artists protest Walnut Street Theatre, claiming abusive behavior". WHYY. Retrieved 2021-06-26.
- Willis, Moiz Syed,Derek. "WALNUT STREET THEATRE CORPORATION - Tracking PPP". ProPublica. Retrieved 2021-06-26.
- "Walnut Fun Facts -- Walnut Street Theatre -- Philadelphia, PA -- Official Website". www.walnutstreettheatre.org. Retrieved 2019-05-24.
- Havard, Bernard and Sylvester, Mark D., Walnut Street Theatre. Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2008
- Teitelman, Edward, and Richard W. Longstreth, Architecture in Philadelphia: A Guide. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1974.
- Webster, Richard J., Philadelphia Preserved. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1976.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Walnut Street Theatre.|
- The 1849 book "A Hand-book for the Stranger in Philadelphia" - PDF scan at Archive.org (page 80 includes a brief history of this theater)
- Virtual tour - Virtual tour of the Walnut Street Theater
- Walnut Street Theatre Online - official website
- Listing and photographs at the Historic American Buildings Survey
- Listing and photographs at Philadelphia Architects and Buildings
- National Historic Landmark Listing at the National Park Service