Walnut Street Theatre
Walnut Street Theatre of Philadelphia
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The Walnut Street Theatre at 825 Walnut Street on the corner of S. 9th Street in the Washington Square West neighborhood of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is the oldest continuously operating theatre in the English-speaking world and the oldest 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. The company wants to build a theatre-in-the-round next door, where the parking lot currently is.
Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford debate domestic policy on September 23, 1976 at the Walnut Street Theatre
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 The Rivals in 1812 (President Thomas Jefferson and the Marquis de Lafayette were in attendance). 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. 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.