Stories from PA History
Pennsylvania Show Business
Pennsylvania Show Business
Chapter 1: The Theater

Charles Willson Peale's oil on canvas painting of Nancy Hallam, depicts the actress performing a scene from Shakespeare's Cymbeline. Hallam is situated in front of a grotto entrance, dressed like a man to fool an unwanted courtier.
Nancy Hallam as Imogen, by Charles Willson Peale, Annapolis, 1771.
"Too oft, we own, the stage with dangerous art
In wanton scenes, has play'd a Syren's part,
Yet if the Muse, unfaithful to her trust,
Has sometimes stray'd from what was pure and just;
Has she not oft, with awful virtue's rage.
Struck home at vice, and nobly trod the stage?
Then as you'd treat a favourite fair's mistake,
Pray spare her foibles for her virtues stake:
And whilst her chastest scenes are made appear,
(For none but such will find admittance here)
The muse's friends, we hope, will join the cause,
And crown our best endeavours with applause."

                      Prologue to first performance of Hallam's Company in Philadelphia, 1754.

Flyer, 1778, Southwark  Theatre Performance, Philadelphia.
Playbill for performance of The Liar, at Philadelphia's Southwark Theatre,...
Applause was hard to come by in colonial Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania's Quaker founders were no friends of the theater, or of bearbaiting and bullbaiting, cock fighting, equestrian performances and horse racing, tight-rope dancing, or the other amusements, whose "very mischievous effects" as the Common Council had warned after the first recorded theatrical performance took place in Philadelphia in 1749, encouraged idleness and drew "great sums of money from weak and inconsiderate persons."

When Lewis Hallam's Company arrived from London in 1754, distressed local citizens forced them to move outside Philadelphia on the other side of South Street, where they constructed Pennsylvania's first theater. By 1760 Hallam's troupe had won sufficient local favor to open the larger Southwark Theater at 4th and South Streets - again outside the city's borders. The next year, the Privy Council in England struck down the Pennsylvania legislature's attempt to ban all theater in the colony. No friend of distractions or extravagances, the first Continental Congress in 1774 banned all theatrical performances "and other marker expensive diversions and entertainments." The prohibition remained in marker place until 1789.
Image of Ricketts on horseback.
Etching of Mr. Bill Ricketts, "the Equestrian Hero," circa 1796.

While resident in Philadelphia as the new nation's first president, George Washington attended the Southwark Theater in a box specially fitted with cushioned seats, red drapes, and the United States" coat of arms. The president was also a great fan of riding. So when Englishman markerJohn Bill Ricketts brought his circus and trick-riding act to Philadelphia in 1792, Washington took great pleasure in riding through the countryside with the famed British equestrian. For the next few decades Philadelphia was the theatrical capital of the nation. Opened in 1794, the Chestnut Street Theater west of Sixth Street was for a while the largest in North America. The markerWalnut Street Theater, still in operation today, in the 1830s became the first American theater to replace candles with gaslight.

Image of the front of the theater.
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Philadelphia's "New Theatre" on Chestnut Street, Thomas Birch, circa 1800.
Theater in the early republic offered a broad mix of entertainments. Houses interspersed their plays - Shakespeare was always a favorite - with acts by jugglers, dancers, singers, trained animals, one-act farces, and other diversions. For decades the American stage was dominated by imports from England, both plays and actors. By the 1820s, however, nationalistic Americans were seeking their theatrical independence, and they found their champion in the person of the stocky, full-throated, histrionic, and always exciting Philadelphian marker Edwin Forrest. In 1848 Philadelphia theatergoers used hisses and a shower of rotten eggs to drive rival British actor Edwin Macready from the stage of Philadelphia's Arch Street Theater.

Image of Play bill for Signore Blitz, advertising the show particulars. One afternoon and evening only.
Signore Blitz …the great Magician and Ventriloquist with his learned Canary...
In the middle decades of the 1800s, Pennsylvania's economy was booming. The anthracite industry was taking off in the northeast, and western Pennsylvania was the world's leading producer of oil. Railroads were threading the state - and nation - together, carrying the raw materials and finished products of the Commonwealth's booming iron, textile, timber and other industries to market and mill. They were also carrying a growing collection of traveling stock companies, elocutionists, minstrel troupes, ventriloquists, humorists, and other entertainers to lodge halls, converted barns, and other makeshift theaters sprouting up across the state. Among them was "Professor" markerLyman Howe, who in the 1890s toured northeastern Pennsylvania showing a working coal mine and phonograph "concerts" before putting together early traveling shows of motion pictures.

As towns grew and prospered, local businessmen constructed handsome theaters, like Lancaster's markerFulton Opera House.To coordinate this mobile entertainment industry, ambitious showmen set up booking agencies that organized the industry into circuits. In 1853 circus impresario markerDan Rice set up his winter headquarters at Girard, Pennsylvania, a small town just east of Erie, along the railroad lines that would carry his one-ring circus across the country. By the 1860s, theaters in Titusville, Pithole City, and other oil-region towns were all part of the "kerosene circuit."

Photograph of Joseph Jefferson  from 1869.
Joseph Jefferson as Rip Van Winkle, 1869.
In the 1890s Isaac Mishler organized a circuit of theaters in twenty-four cities in eastern Pennsylvania that extended from Lancaster through Allentown up to Wilkes-Barre and Scranton. Based in Altoona along the main line of the Pennsylvania Railroad the markerMishler Theater for decades was a regular stop for big-name acts on tour, and the anchor of circuit of vaudeville theaters in central Pennsylvania.

By the 1830s New York had surpassed Philadelphia as the center of American show business. But the Quaker City continued to support a thriving entertainment industry and to be a training ground for performers. Philadelphia boasted three resident stock companies, which toured the state when their season was over in the city.
Louisa Drew in Costume as Mrs. Malaprop.
Actress Louisa Drew in costume, circa 1890.
The family of Joseph Jefferson, America's most popular comic actor of the late 1800s, for three generations was associated with the Chestnut Street Theater. At the Arch Street, Mrs. John Drew ran one of the nation's most celebrated theaters and was matriarch of the marker Barrymore Family, one of the most illustrious in the history of American show business.

By 1900, vaudeville was all the rage, and a small handful of New York theatrical barons controlled a vast national network of theaters and the booking of acts. Altoona was loved on the national vaudeville circuit. Scranton was infamous for its tough audiences and Pittsburgh for its tough theater owners. The Majestic Theater in Gettysburg and Poli in Wilkes-Barre were part of the "medium time" vaudeville circuit for performers honing their acts in preparation for the "big time." Philadelphia was known both as "Sleepyville" and as "the cradle of vaudeville," for giving so many first-class performers their start. Stars markerW. C. Fields and Ed Wynn were two of the many variety, vaudeville, and burlesque performers who came from the City of Brotherly Love.
W.C. Fields as a carnival sideshow announcer in a scene from the 1927 Paramount Pictures film, Two Flaming Youths.
W. C. Fields as carnival sideshow barker Gabby Gilfoil in a scene from the 1927...

By the 1910s, Philadelphia's African-American community had become large and diverse enough to support two black-owned theaters, the markerStandard Theater, a main stop on the "Chitlin Circuit" of African American vaudeville, and the more upscale markerDunbar Theater, which in 1923 debuted Shuffle Along, the first African-American musical to make it on Broadway. Starting her career at Philadelphia's Pearl Street Theater,markerPearl Bailey would go onto to become a Broadway star. Here, too, the great African-American singer, actor, and social activist markerPaul Robeson would spend his final years, and the markerFreedom Theater, based in the North Broad Street mansion of Edwin Forrest, would debut plays by markerAugust Wilson and other African American playwrights.

Playwright August Wilson standing in front of his boyhood home (far right) on Bedford Street in Pittsburgh.
Playwright August Wilson standing in front of his boyhood home (far right) on...
Close to Manhattan, Philadelphia in the 1920s became a tryout town for musicals and plays working out the kinks on their way to Broadway. Christened "The Genius Belt" in the 1930s for the concentration of famous literary figures, the Bucks County countryside in the 1940s marker attracted some of Broadway's luminaries, including Pittsburgh-born George S. Kaufman of the team of Kaufman and Hart, and markerOscar Hammerstein II, the great lyricist who with Richard Rodgers wrote some of America's most beloved musicals, including Show Boat (1927), Oklahoma (1943), and The King and I (1956).
Renovated Social Hall interior of the Tamiment theatre, 1939, with Danny Kaye and Imogene Coca in front of the Tamiment Orchestra.
Performers Lee Brody, Danny Kaye, and Imogene Coca sitting in front of the Camp...

In the Poconos, the markerTamiment Playhouse became a famous training ground for comedians, playwrights, and actors. Two Broadway shows, The Straw Hat Revue (1939) and Once Upon a Mattress (1959) originated at the Tamiment. Playwright Neil Simon, choreographer Jerome Robbins, comedians Imogene Coca, Danny Kaye, and Woody Allen all spent summers there honing their skills in front of live audiences.

At the dawn of the twenty-first century, theater continues to thrive in Pennsylvania. Towns and cities across the state are rehabilitating old theaters where amateur and professional troupes perform classic works and new productions. Resident ensemble companies along Philadelphia's thriving Avenue of the Arts perform new works. Comedians hone their acts at comedy clubs and in college auditoriums, and colleges and universities train new generations of actors and dancers, choreographers, and playwrights.

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