Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

It all started with the circus.

Early in the nineteenth century, the New Circus, as it was called, was located at the corner of Walnut and Ninth Streets in Philadelphia, several blocks west of the State House (now Independence Hall). On February 2, 1809, an advertisement in the newspaper Aurora announced that “Messrs. Pepin and Breschard, Professors of the art of Horsemanship and agility, having had the honor of performing before the principal courts of Europe, beg to inform the public that they will open this evening.” The program was to include a pupil, Mr. Signe, on horseback, offering “several comic attitudes” and vaulting over his horse; eleven year-old Master Diego performing with hoops; and a tumbling down. Jean Breschard’s horse Conqueror would fetch objects on command. The show would also feature comic sketches of a French tailor in London and a Canadian peasant. Victor Pepin, a native of the United States, was to leap over four ribands, while Breschard juggled apples, oranges, forks, and bottles as he rode astride two horses. The evening’s extravaganza

Admission for the 5:30 P.M. performance varied. A reserved box seat went for one dollar; a pit seat around the ring, seventy-five cents; and a place in the gallery for a half dollar.

The troupe organized by Pepin and Breschard first arrived in Boston in 1807, but the town council objected to the partners building an arena, and so they set up in nearby Charlestown. Since they only performed in fair weather, the arena apparently was erected without a roof. Cold weather did not stop them from giving shows from December through spring of the following year. On February 1, 1808, the impresarios purchased property in Philadelphia from John Brown at the northeast corner of Ninth and Walnut Streets to build an amphitheatre. The troupe left Massachusetts in May 1808, and per­formed in New York for seven months in an open arena they had built on Broadway. One month after leaving New York they opened at their new building in Philadelphia.

Unlike their first two structures, the Philadelphia amphitheatre was an imposing brick building with an eighty­-one foot Oriental-style dome topped by a tall flagpole. The exterior walls “presented no architectural beauty or ornament,” wrote Charles Durang, who believed the same walls were still standing in 1855. The original interior ring beneath the dome was actually not a circle but slightly elliptical, measuring thirty-six by forty feet, with a water pump to one side. In addition to the ring and seats, the building contained offices, living quarters, and stables. It was commonly known as the Circus.

Don Luis de Onis, Spanish Consul to Philadelphia, may have helped Pepin and Breschard secure the property and possibly supervised construction of the amphitheatre. He probably knew the French equestrians who had trained horses for the Madrid bullfights, and may have encouraged them to come to America. Victor Pepin had been born in Philadelphia, son of a French soldier who had fought with the Canadian militia during the American Revolution, after which he and his family lived briefly in Philadelphia before returning to France.

Pepin and Breschard’s Circus was popular and competed with two other theatres in the city. After four successful months, the touring troupe moved to Lancaster, and then on to another new arena in New York before returning to Philadelphia. They would continue to tour and build circus arenas in York, Baltimore, and Richmond, Virginia. The arenas were christened “Olympic,” an allusion to the athletic festivals of ancient Greece.

By fall 1811, the partners optimistical­ly announced they had added a coffee room to the Circus in Philadelphia. However, a tragic fire in a Richmond theatre, a depressed economy, and threat of war with England were dampening the public’s appetite for amusements. As astute managers and energetic perform­ers, Pepin and Breschard constantly added new and unusual elements to their shows to attract audiences. Brief come­dies and dramas, usually utilizing equestrian and acrobatic skills, had become increasingly important and popular in their programs. The partners introduced a season of dramas with interludes of horsemanship in Philadelphia. During the winter of 1811-1812, they added a stage to the circus arena and named it Olympic as well. A young Philadelphia architect, William Strickland – whose reputation later attracted national acclaim – designed the stage and painted the backdrop curtain with a handsome scene.

The Olympie’s opening play on the night of January 1, 1812, was the classic restoration drama The Rivals followed by a shorter piece, The Poor Soldier and an equestrian interlude. The 1812 season, which included the first American performance of William Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale, continued until May. When special dramas, such as pieces by Shakespeare, were on the bill, riding demonstrations were not given. During other shows the equestrian segment came either between the shorter plays or at the conclusion of the program. In spring, Victor Pepin and Jean Breschard took some of the circus performers on the road again, leaving the Olympic largely to the acting company. During the next few years the shows at the Olympic would alternate between circus and stage productions.

But entertainment then – as it is now – proved to be risky business. Pepin went bankrupt twice, and eventually he and Breschard moved on. By 1818, the Olympic was owned by stockholders. The building was sporadically rented for various shows, and happened to be vacant when the acting company of the Chestnut Street Theatre needed a new venue immediately – on April 2, 1820, the Chestnut had burned to the ground. When it had first opened in 1797 it was considered America’s first permanent playhouse. The managers of its acting company, William Warren and Thomas Wood, were able to rent the Olympic on easy terms, perhaps because, as Wood noted, “nearly every portion of the building needed alteration.” The dome spoiled the acoustics and had to be removed, a stage built, new doors and seating installed, and safety assured, all again under Strickland’s direction. Even so, alleged Wood, the Chestnut Street Theatre’s patrons “turned up their noses at a theatre so recently a circus and at first declined to patronize it on the grounds that it was unsafe.”

The Olympic emerged as the Walnut Street Theatre when it opened for the 1820 season on November 20. A week Later, fourteen-year-old Edwin Forrest made his professional stage debut as Norval in Douglas. Billed only as a “young man of this city,” he was des­tined to become the first truly great American tragedian. But everyone, including Forrest, was eagerly awaiting the first local appearance of the celebrat­ed English tragedian Edmund Kean (1789-1833), famous for his portrayals of Shakespeare’s characters. An
erratic performer, Kean one evening provoked a spray of hisses, apples, oranges, and an assortment of “light missiles” from the audience with his eccentric behavior.

In 1822, the acting company returned to the newly rebuilt Chestnut Street Theatre, and the Walnut again became the Olympic Circus, leased by an equestrian troupe. When Joseph Cowell became the troupe’s manager he added farces and more lavish equestrian dramas such as The Cataract of the Ganges during which real water doused a troop of cavalry. Cowell was quite successful with his productions, and early in 1827 he sent most of the circus on tour, converted the entire ring into a spacious pit seating area, redecorated and refurbished public areas, recruited more actors from Great Britain, and reopened in August as the Philadelphia Theatre. The building’s circus days were just about over. It was during this tumultuous season that seven-year-old Louisa Lane made her American debut as one of the unfortu­nate princes in Junius Brutus Booth’s production of Shakespeare’s Richard III. Lane would later marry John Drew and become manager for twenty years of the Arch Street Theatre, and grandmother of siblings Lionel, Ethel, and John Barrymore.

Cowell’s alterations proved to be dramatically successful and he arranged for even more the following year. He wrote that “the celebrated John Haviland was chosen as architect, and the present Walnut Street Theatre was erected within the walls of the old building.” Charles Durang claimed the Walnut’s facade was entirely rebuilt from Haviland’s designs, and its interior completely gutted. Durang also thought Cowell “built an entire new theatre, stage and audience department, the whole resting on a new foundation and interior walls … the outward walls being deemed insecure.”

“Scarcely had the note of preparation been sounded,” Cowell announced, “when an entirely new theatre was proposed to be built … in Arch Street.” He believed Philadelphia could not support more than one theatre, and everyone would want to see the newest, and so he accepted an attractive offer and left the remodeled Walnut to be opened by new management. The subsequent rivalry among the acting companies of the Chestnut, Walnut and Arch Street’s Theatres nearly proved disastrous for all three, but by shifting, changing, and pooling performers and owners, plays and prices, they managed to survive. Such frequent management and policy changes, however, began to dim Philadelphia’s status as the country’s premier theatrical center. By 1850, the focus shifted to New York, but Philadelphia’s theatres were able to maintain fine stock companies of actors, occasionally augmented by visiting star performers.

Although women theatre managers were rare, they fared well in Philadelphia. In 1842, acclaimed American actress Charlotte Cushman assumed management of the Walnut Street Theatre. During that season she became the first actress to have played Romeo. (Her sister appeared as Juliet.) An American actress, the widowed Mrs. David P. Bowers, became the Walnut’s manager for two seasons in 1857. She added the locally popular John and Louisa Drew to her company and enjoyed such an immensely successful season that she asked the theatre’s owner to make some alterations. She installed larger, cushioned seats to accommodate women’s billowing crinolines and hooped skirts. Sadly, though, the resulting thousand dollar increase in the theatre’s yearly rent helped force her out of business.

M. Ann Garrettson leased the theatre from 1859 to 1863. Garrettson kept and augmented the stock company, but immediately booked hugely popular touring performers such as Laura Keene, James E. Murdock, and Dion Boucicault. These stars basically chose the plays they wanted with the support of the stock company. Irish and American themes were popular, along with melodramas, works by Shakespeare, comedies, and popular period pieces. The tradition of performing short pieces in addition to the main play gradually began to disappear. Early in 1865 the Walnut Street Theatre was sold to actors (and brothers-in-law) John Sleeper Clarke and Edwin Booth. The Clarke family would own the theatre until 1919.

The Walnut, along with the other city theatres, closed briefly to mourn the death of President Abraham Lincoln in 1865. When his brother John Wilkes Booth was accused, Edwin was devastat­ed. Both he and Clarke were arrested but released a short time later. Edwin retired from the stage for a time and elected to be only a silent partner in the Walnut. Clarke, a respected and popular Philadelphia performer, was once again accepted by the public. Edwin Forrest reputedly ordered that Edwin Booth’s stage sets for Hamlet at the Walnut be destroyed and new ones built for himself; in no way did he want to appear to be associated with the family of Lincoln’s assassin.

Otis Skinner, an actor noted for his versatility, regretted that “the season of 1878-79 at the Walnut Street Theatre saw the last of the stock company in that historic house.” Theatre owners and managers were finding it more profitable to book an entire season of “combination shows.” Combination shows were productions of a single play, which toured with complete cast and scenery, taking advantage of expanding railroad lines and the proliferation of theatres, in even smaller cities and towns.

Combination shows were often star vehicles, and Walnut Street Theatre stage hand for fifty years, John “Pop” Reed, had seen them all. Before he died in 1891 at the age of eighty-three, Reed requested in his last will and testament that his head “be separated from my body” and the skull “brought to the theatre, where I served all my life, and to be employed to represent the skull of Yorick” in the grave scene of Hamlet. His wish was granted, and his skull was a curiosity in the Walnut’s property room as late as 1941.

Reed’s skull elicited little publicity, possibly in deference to the more refined sensibilities of the day. This was the era of “polite vaudeville” and family entertainment. People were flocking to the city’s twelve legitimate theatres. In 1902, horse-drawn carriages and hansom cabs could be ordered at the Walnut’s box office, and a bicycle check stand was located at the stage door. Ladies were encouraged to “add to the pleasure of your men friends” by wearing small bonnets or removing large hats during performances. Women’s hats could be checked for free and a hat holder was located beneath each seat. Programs proclaimed that Theodora perfume was used exclusively in the theatre, and only Great Bear Spring Water was served. A fifteen-piece orchestra provided music before and after each show.

By the time the Walnut Street Theatre was sold by the Clarke estate in 1919, it was badly in need of yet another renovation. The new owners had decided to demolish the existing building to build a new theatre, but they discovered that property restrictions would only permit a much smaller, and less profitable theatre. Instead, they rebuilt the Walnut, again within its old exterior, and created a lavishly decorated interior. The grand re­opening on December 27, 1920, featured George Arliss in The Green Goddess.

Yet when the Great Depression hit a decade later, Izzy Hirst, owner of a string of burlesque houses in Philadelphia, was able to purchase the Walnut for seventy­-five thousand dollars. He promptly began presenting movies, burlesque shows, and some vaudeville, and booked Yiddish theatre, as well as the Federal Theatre Project’s production of The Living Newspaper.

In 1941, Oscar Serlin rented the theatre for what turned out to be an exceptionally long thirteen-week run of Life With Father. At this point the Shubert Brothers, theatrical producers who owned a number of theatres throughout the country, including four in Philadelphia, decided that the historic Walnut still had commercial potential. The Shuberts purchased the theater the following year, and it became a regular theatre for tryouts and touring road companies of their shows. Among the many productions premiered at the Walnut were A Streetcar Named Desire, Bus Stop, and A Raisin in the Sun.

Philadelphia had become a major pre­Broadway tryout town by the twenties. A convenient ninety miles from New York, its several large downtown theatres attracted sophisticated and discriminat­ing audiences. One theory – often proved correct – held that if a show could survive in Philadelphia, it would enjoy a long and profitable run on Broadway. Over the course of a fifty-year period, circumstances of geography and tradition created a dependence on the Great White Way. When Broadway suffered, so too did Philadelphia. Fewer tryouts and road shows were coming through Philadelphia, and mounting a professional production was becoming increasingly more expensive. In the 1960s, the Shubert Organization began to sell some of its theatres, including two in Philadelphia.

Few appeared interested in buying the one hundred and sixty year-old entertainment landmark, even though it had been recognized for its historical, architectural, and cultural significance. In 1952, Katherine Cornell accepted a plaque from the Council of Living Theatre recognizing the Walnut as “the oldest theatre in continuous use in the English speaking world.” Helen Hayes, who had first played the Walnut in 1927, accepted on behalf of the theatre a certificate designating it a National Historic Landmark in 1964.

In the late sixties, Philip Klein was searching for a moderately sized performance space for his All Star Forum concert series that promoted young musicians. He enlisted the financial support of the Haas Community Fund and began considering either to build a new hall or to renovate an existing building, such as the 1824 Musical Fund Hall. A place with even greater potential was the Walnut Street Theatre. In 1969, the Shubert Organization sold the building to the newly formed Walnut Street Theatre Corporation, which also purchased an adjoining office building. With support and encouragement of the Haas Community Fund, its multi-million dollar renovation and restoration was completed on October 15, 1971. The building’s shell was reconstructed to preserve the classic facade designed by John Haviland in 1828. Interior details were preserved whenever possible, but the theatre was largely gutted. A new foot stage, measuring sixty by forty-one feet, was installed with a thirty-eight-foot wide proscenium, contemporary seating, and a full mezzanine at the balcony level. The orchestra pit was enlarged and the entire interior was acoustically shaped. A motion picture projection booth was added, along with advanced sound and lighting systems. With a seating capacity of nearly eleven hundred and boasting an unobstructed field of vision, the new Walnut Street Theatre was designed to accommodate a myriad of performing arts.

In the 1970s, the theatre sponsored the American Dance Festival, as well as a rare American appearance of Jerzy Grotowski and his Polish Laboratory Theatre. It also provided performance space for local companies such as the Philadelphia Drama Guild, Theatre Arts for Youth, and the Philadelphia Dance Alliance. In 1976, the Walnut was the site of a nationally televised debate between presidential candidates Gerald R. Ford and Jimmy Carter.

A new era for the Walnut was initiated by Bernard Havard who became the theatre’s executive director in 1982. Havard laid the foundation for the Walnut Street Theatre Company, a professional, non-profit group producing five plays a season. Today. the theatre is one of the largest regional operations in the country, with more than forty-five thousand subscribers to its mainstage season. Two studio theatres, each seating one hundred, are used for experimental pieces and boast a subscription base of more than twelve hundred. The Walnut Street Theatre School serves as a profes­sional training center for the dramatic arts.

Today, one hundred and eighty-eight years after tthe first equestrian circus took the ring, the Walnut Street Theatre remains a vibrant and vital part of the city’s cultural scene and economic community. And new outreach programs currently being developed for the Delaware Valley school systems will help insure that appreciative audiences will continue flocking to this historic theatre for many, many more years to come.



The Walnut Street Theatre Years In Review

Victor Pepin and Jean Breschard open their New Circus in Philadelphia
Renamed the Olympic Theatre with The Rivals as the first production

The first American performance of William Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale
After extensive remodeling, the Olympic opens as the Walnut Street Theatre

Edwin Forrest makes his professional stage debut
Theatre remodeled, with a facade designed by architect John Haviland
Actress Charlotte Cushman becomes the first of three female managers
Actors John Sleeper Clarke and Edwin Booth purchase the theatre
Final season of a stock company of actors at the theatre
Theatre reopens with The Green Goddess following major renovations
Izzy Hirst buys the theatre and presents movies, vaudeville, and burlesque
The Shubert Brothers purchase the theatre for pre-Broadway tryouts
Theatre acquired by the Walnut Street Theatre Corporation
Following renovations, the theatre emerges as a performing arts center
The Walnut Street Theatre Company takes over the theatre
The Walnut Street Theatre boasts the largest subscription audience in the world!


For Further Reading

Banham, Martin, ed. The Cambridge Guide to Theatre. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Ferguson, Delane Cobb. Victor Pepin, Circus Career: Descendants and Ancestors, 1760-1900. Decorah, Iowa: Anundsen Publishing Company, 1992.

Glazer, Irvin R. Philadelphia Theatres, A-Z. New York: Greenwood Press, 1968.

____. Philadelphia Theaters: A Pictorial Architectural History. New York: Dover Publications and the Athenaeum of Philadelphia, 1994.

Henderson, Mary C. Theatre in America. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1988.

James, Reese Davis. Old Drury of Philadelphia: A History of the Philadelphia Stage, 1800-1835. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1932.

Toll, Jean, and Mildred Gilliam, eds. Invisible Philadelphia: Community Through Voluntary Organization. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.

Wilmeth, Don B., and Tice L. Miller, eds. The Cambridge Guide to the American Theatre. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Wilson, Arthur Herman. A History of the Philadelphia Theatre, 1835 to 1855. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1935.

Young, William C. Documents of American Theatre History: Famous American Playhouses, 1716-1899. Chicago: American Library Association, 1973.


Geraldine A. Duchlow of Philadelphia is a histo­rian and librarian. She is head of the theatre collection of the Free Library of Philadelphia, a position she has held since 1972. She received her bachelor of arts degree from DePaul University and her master’s of library science from Rosary College. She currently serves as president of the Theatre Library Association. In addition to publishing credits, which include The Cambridge Guide to American Theatre, Invisible Philadelphia, The Shaker Messenger, and publications of the Germantown Historical Society and the Theatre Library Association, the author has organized several exhibitions devoted to theatre history.