PHILADELPHIA — America’s oldest continuously operating theater, Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Theater, celebrates its 200th anniversary this year, with a double-century birthday bash Feb. 2.
Along with its luminous past, Walnut Street also boasts contemporary bragging rights. Midway through a record-breaking year, the WST continues to defy the current economic gloom, running without a deficit for more than 15 years straight and operating with an uncommonly high 85% earned income. Its subscription base (north of 57,000) is one of the largest in the U.S.
WST’s anniversary season showcases five American crowdpleasers: “State Fair,” “Hairspray,” “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “Born Yesterday” and “The Producers.”
Margie Salvante, exec director of the Theater Alliance of Philadelphia, calls WST “one of the pillars of the industry in the city.”
Opening Jan. 21, “Streetcar” makes a fitting anniversary-year launch given that Tennessee Williams’ landmark drama had its pre-Broadway tryout at the Walnut in 1947, with Jessica Tandy, Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter and Karl Malden in Elia Kazan’s production.
But Brando and company were relative latecomers to the Walnut Street celeb roster.
In 1812, Thomas Jefferson and the Marquis de Lafayette were in the house for a performance of Richard Sheridan’s “The Rivals.” In 1820, Edmund Kean wowed ’em with Shakespeare, introducing the practice — then regarded as ludicrous — of the curtain call. And P.T. Barnum also got his start at WST.
Among other noteworthy legit debuts, writers Anita Loos, Philip Barry, Rogers & Hart and Lerner & Lowe all got their feet wet at Walnut Street. Arthur Miller’s first play, “The Man Who Had All the Luck” flopped at the venue; George M. Cohan jumped from vaudeville to theater; and Gibson Girl Evelyn Nesbit performed “The Wild Rose.” More starry firsts included Douglas Fairbanks, W.C. Fields, Will Rogers, Sophie Tucker, Kirk Douglas and director Joshua Logan, while Henry Fonda tried out in “Mister Roberts” in 1948 (having recently been discharged from the Navy, he wore his own uniform onstage).
Integral to the theater’s history is the Booth family — starting with patriarch Junius Brutus Booth — followed by Edwin Booth, “the Hamlet of the 19th century,” who bought the theater and whose career temporarily hit the skids when he was arrested after the Abraham Lincoln assassination by his brother John Wilkes.
Another dynasty central to Philadelphia theater lore and Walnut history is that of the Barrymores. And James O’Neill debuted his famous role as the Count of Monte Cristo, a theatrical event immortalized in his son’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” Eugene O’Neill’s “Emperor Jones” bowed at the Walnut with Charles Gilpin.
The building itself, now a National Historic Landmark, opened in 1809 as a circus, with an equestrian ring and daredevil riding. By 1812, it had been converted to a theater, and, in keeping with the 1920 renovations by William Lee, the theater still has no marquee.
WST producing artistic director Bernard Havard provided a more vital legacy 26 years ago, when he transformed the venue from a struggling rental house to a thriving not-for-profit, self-producing regional theater.
In addition to the 1,088-seat main auditorium, the 80-seat blackbox Independence Studio has its own five-show subscription season dedicated to newer works, while the fifth floor studio is rented at subsidized rates to incubate companies lacking a home.
Havard points out that during its storied past, WST has gone through bankruptcies and sheriff sales and is one of the most expensive U.S. theaters to run, having inherited seven union contracts.
Although Havard had “high flown ideas” and a commitment to Shakespeare when he arrived from Atlanta, he found he had to abandon them when the no-show rate for the classics reached 26%.
“It was a bitter pill to swallow, but I’m pragmatic,” he admits, recalling the banner on WST’s program in the 1840s: “Vox populi.”