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Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Theatre the Oldest in America

first opened its doors as an equestrian circus center on February 2, 1809. More than 200 years later, the theatre still stands at the corner of Ninth and Walnut Streets in Philadelphia as a self-producing, non-profit theatre with live performances by the Walnut Street Theatre Company.

The theatre is the oldest theatre in the country, and is the most subscribed theatre company in the world. In 1964, the location was designated a National Historic Landmark… one of many in the great historic city of Philadelphia. Here’s a little more background this great historic piece of America…

Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Theatre

When the Theatre first opened, it housed a dirt floor horse riding ring for equestrian shows. A few years later, in 1812, the building was converted to a legitimate theater with a stage replacing the horse ring. The Walnut’s first theatrical production was “The Rivals”, where President Thomas Jefferson and the Marquis de Lafayette attended opening night.

The Walnut Street Theatre has undergone several renovations throughout the years…

  • A few years after opening, an 80-foot dome was added to the building, making it the tallest structure in Philadelphia at the time.
  • In 1828 major renovations were done to the interior and exterior of the building, giving it the present façade we recognize today.
  • In 1837, it was the first theatre to install gas footlights.
  • In 1855, it became the first theatre to install air conditioning.
  • During the 1880s, the building went through many renovations, including a new stage for more elaborate musical comedies.
  • In 1920, the interior was rebuilt within the old exterior using structural steel.
  • In 1969 the theatre was renovated to become a Performing Arts Center.

In addition to the history of the actual Walnut Street Theatre building, this location has quite a long history of significant happenings throughout the years, hosting many notable events, actors and plays.  Here are some the great 19th and 20th century actors who have appeared on the Walnut stage:

  • Edwin Forrest
  • Edwin Booth
  • The Barrymores
  • George M. Cohan
  • Will Rogers
  • The Marx Brothers
  • Helen Hayes
  • Henry Fonda
  • Katharine Hepburn
  • Marlon Brando
  • Jessica Tandy
  • Ethel Waters
  • Audrey Hepburn
  • Sidney Poitier
  • Lauren Bacall
  • George C. Scott
  • Jane Fonda
  • Robert Redford
  • Julie Harris
  • Jack Lemon
  • William Shatner

During the 1940s, the Walnut held many pre-Broadway try-outs of plays that would go on to become American classics, including:

  • A Streetcar Named Desire starring Marlon Brando
  • A Raisin in the Sun featuring Sydney Poitier
  • The Diary of Anne Frank featuring Susan Strasberg
  • Mister Roberts, starring Henry Fonda
  • There Was a Little Girl with Jane Fonda.
  • Come Blow Your Horn, Neil Simon’s first Broadway play

The Walnut Street Theatre’s rich history also includes such notable achievements as hosting the first televised Carter-Ford presidential debate in 1976. The first copyright law protecting American plays had its roots here, as did the traditional theatre curtain call.

Over the years audiences have attended circuses, operas, vaudeville shows, lectures, musical concerts, dances, motion pictures and live theatre productions at the Walnut Street Theatre. Not just a venue for theatrical performance, the Walnut has a history that must be experienced by anyone living in or visiting the Philadelphia area.

For more information about the theatre, tickets and schedule of shows, visit the Walnut Street Theatre online.

Philadelphia Area Transportation

Traffic in and around Historic Philadelphia can be pretty heavy, and particularly if you’re unfamiliar with travel routes and rush hour traffic patterns, it can be downright exasperating. If you want to go out for a night at the theatre without having to fight traffic to get there, consider hiring a Philadelphia car service to take control of the driving duties so you can just kick back and enjoy the ride.

It’s easy to get a no-cost, hassle-free rate quote online, just to see how affordable it can be… you don’t have to reserve your ride, just get started with a quote and book later when you’re ready to travel.

Click the button below for a fast and convenient rate quote now:

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Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Theatre the Oldest in America

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