Stories from PA History
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Pennsylvania Show Business
Pennsylvania's early Quakers did their best to outlaw popular theater, song, and other sinful leisure amusements and diversions. By the later 1700s, however, Philadelphia was the theater capital of the nation. In the generations that followed, Pennsylvanians would play significant roles in the development of American show "business" and the commodification of entertainment.

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OVERVIEW: Pennsylvania Show Business
Chapter 1: The Theater
Chapter 2: Motion Pictures
Chapter 3: Popular Music

Historical Markers In the Story
marker icon William Strayhorn (Allegheny) marker icon American Bandstand [Show Business] (Philadelphia)
marker icon August Wilson (Allegheny) marker icon Billy Eckstine (Allegheny)
marker icon Charles Mishler (Blair) marker icon Circus History (Erie)
marker icon Eddie Lang (Philadelphia) marker icon Edwin S. Porter (Fayette)
marker icon Ethelbert Nevin (Allegheny) marker icon Francis Johnson (Philadelphia)
marker icon Fred Waring (Blair) marker icon Freedom Theatre (Philadelphia)
marker icon Fulton Opera House (Lancaster) marker icon George Rosenkrans (Clearfield)
marker icon James A. Bland (Philadelphia) marker icon James Maitland Stewart (Indiana)
marker icon Jay Livingston (Washington) marker icon Joe Venuti (Philadelphia)
marker icon John W. Coltrane (Philadelphia) marker icon Johnny Weissmuller (Somerset)
marker icon Les Brown [Show Business] (Schuylkill) marker icon Lyman H. Howe (Luzerne)
marker icon Mario Lanza (Philadelphia) marker icon Oscar Hammerstein II (Bucks)
marker icon Paul Robeson (Philadelphia) marker icon Pearl Bailey (Philadelphia)
marker icon Ricketts Circus (Philadelphia) marker icon Siegmund Lubin (Philadelphia)
marker icon Standard Theatre (Philadelphia) marker icon Stephen C. Foster (Allegheny)
marker icon The Barrymores (Philadelphia) marker icon The Dorsey Brothers (Schuylkill)
marker icon The Dunbar Theatre (Philadelphia) marker icon Tom Mix (Cameron)
marker icon Unity House (Pike) marker icon Victor Schertzinger (Schuylkill)
marker icon W. C. Fields (Philadelphia) marker icon Walnut Street Theatre (Philadelphia)
marker icon Warner Brothers' First Theater (Lawrence)

Lesson Plans for this Story
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Story Bibliography

Original Documents
icon full text Congress outlaws theatrical productions (Clause 8), October 20, 1774.
icon full text Proposal for a theatre in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Packet, February 17, 1789.
icon full text Review of Edwin Forrest's Theatrical Debut, 1820
icon full text Edwin Forrest announces a prize for American playwrights, 1828
icon full text An assessment of Edwin Forrest's skills as an actor, 1837
icon full text Stephen Foster to E. P. Christy, June 12, 1851
icon full text Stephen Foster to E. P. Christy, May 25, 1852
icon full text Dan Rice, "The Pleasure Excursion," 1866
icon full text Dan Rice's "Multifarious Account of Shakspeare's Hamlet," 1866
icon full text Jack Murphy monologue from "The Log Cabin Varieties," 1877
icon full text Joseph Jefferson recalls a performance by Edwin Forrest, 1889
icon full text A. Frank Stull on Louisa Drew and the Arch Street Theatre, 1905
icon full text John Philip Sousa, "The Menace of Mechanical Music," 1906
icon full text Esther Pennington on the Lubinville motion picture studio, 1915
icon full text Ellis P. Oberholtzer, Secretary of the Pennsylvania Board of Motion Picture Censors, on film censorship, 1921.
icon full text Dick Clark on the early history of American Bandstand, 1998
icon full text Anne Kaufman Schneider and Kitty Carlisle Hart recall the influx of writers into Bucks County, 2000.

1749 First recorded theatrical performance in Pennsylvania.
1754 Lewis Hallam's Company arrives from London and establishes the first permanent theater in Pennsylvania, built on the side of South Street that was just outside the city limits of Philadelphia.
1760 Hallam's Company opens the Southwark Theater at Fourth and South Streets-also outside the city limits of Philadelphia.
1761 The Privy Council in England strikes down the Pennsylvania legislature's attempt to ban all theater in the Pennsylvania colony.
1774 As a wartime measure, the First Continental Congress bans all theatrical performances. This ban lasts until 1789.
1793 Englishman John Bill Ricketts gives America its first complete circus performance in his building at 12th and Market Streets in Philadelphia.
1794 Opening of Philadelphia's 1,165-seat Chestnut Street Theater, the largest theater in North America.
1820 Opening of Philadelphia's Walnut Street Theater, today the oldest playhouse in continuous use in the English-speaking world.
1826 Philadelphia actor Edwin Forrest makes an unheard-of $200 a night headlining as Othello in New York's Bowery Theater. For the next forty years Forrest would reign unchallenged as the America's greatest actor.
1838 Philadelphia trumpeter and composer Frank Johnson leads his African-American band on a tour of Europe, and gives a command performance for England's Queen Victoria.
1848 Stephen Foster's "Ethiopian" song "Oh Susanna" sweeps across the nation and cements his reputation as the nation's hottest songwriter.
1849 The competition between Philadelphian Edwin Forrest and British actor William Charles Macready over who is the greatest actor in the English-speaking world explodes into rioting outside New York City's Astor Place Theater. When it is over, at least twenty-two were dead, and as many as 150 wounded.
1853 Circus impresario Dan Rice establishes headquarters in Girard, just east of Erie, Pennsylvania, in easy reach of the railroad lines that carry his one-ring circus across the country. Rice goes on to become one of the most successful entertainers of the 19th century, and serves as the model for Uncle Sam.
1862 Louisa Lane Drew becomes the manager of Philadelphia's Arch Street Theater, the first female theater manager in the nation. In the decades that follow Mrs. Drew is matriarch of the Barrymores, one of the nation's great theatrical families.
1864 Stephen Foster dies penniless in New York at the age of thirty-seven.
1866 Philadelphia character actor Joseph Jefferson introduces the character of Rip Van Winkle to the American stage. Jefferson goes on to become the nation's most popular comic actor of the late nineteenth century.
1879 James Bland publishes "O Dem Golden Slippers," a popular minstrel tune later adopted as the official song of the Philadelphia Mummers Parade. In the following decade Bland would become the world's most famous composer of minstrel songs.
1888 - 1888 German-American inventor Emile Berliner gives the first public demonstration of the gramophone at the Philadelphia's Franklin Institute
1891 Thomas Edison takes out a patent on the nation's first motion picture camera and projector, the Kinetoscope
1896 Thomas Edison patents Vitascope, a method of filming short moving pictures that he could project onto a screen for paying audiences.
1896 John Philip Sousa and his Orchestra play at the opening of the Willow Grove Amusement Park. Sousa will play there each summer until 1928.
1897 The Berliner Gramophone Company opens the nation's first professional recording studio and retail record shop in downtown Philadelphia
1898 Pittsburgh art-song composer Ethelbert Nevin plays "The Rosary" the same day the battleship Maine is sunk in Havana Harbor. "The Rosary" goes on to become one of the best-selling songs of the early 1900s.
1899 Philadelphia optician turned filmmaker Siegmund Lubin opens his first movie theater in Philadelphia. Based first in Philadelphia and then near Valley Forge, Lubin Films will become one of the nation's largest motion picture companies before a fire in 1914 destroys his film vault.
1903 Edison cameraman Edwin S. Porter of Connellsville, PA, produces The Great Train Robbery, the nation's first feature film.
1905 John Harris and Harry Davis partition off part of their Pittsburgh penny arcade to make room for a theater devoted exclusively to motion pictures and charge a nickel for entrance. Such establishments will come to be known as "nickelodeons."
1905 Victor Talking Machine Company opens its first recording studio at Tenth and Lombard Streets in Philadelphia.
1906 The Warner Brothers - Harry, Sam, and Albert - open their first movie house in the Cascade Theater in New Castle, Pennsylvania. The next year the brothers started the Duquesne Amusement and Supply Company in Pittsburgh, then moved to Hollywood where they built one of the nation's largest and most successful motion picture studios.
1906 The Mishler Theater, built by businessman John D. Mishler, opens in Altoona. Constructed along the main line of the Pennsylvania Railroad, this theater - the crown jewel in a circuit of theaters owned by Mishler that stretches from Lancaster to Allentown - attracts the biggest touring acts in the nation.
1908 Samuel "Roxy" Rothapfel opens a nickelodeon in the back room of a saloon in Forest City, PA. By 1930, Rothapfel owns a chain of lavish motion picture palaces. In 1932 he will become the first manager of New York's Radio City Music Hall, the nation's largest theater.
1910 Movie mogul Siegmund Lubin opens Lubinville, a motion picture studio in North Philadelphia that boasts the world's most powerful lighting system and a stage large enough for five crews to shoot simultaneously. Two years later, Lubin converts the 500-acre Betzwood Estate in Valley Forge into an even larger movie studio with room to shoot both indoor and outdoor film scenes.
1911 Pennsylvania becomes the first state to pass a film censorship law. In the coming decades the Pennsylvania Board of Motion Picture Censors rejects hundreds of films, and requires the editing and removal of hundreds of scenes.
1914 African American entrepreneur John T. Gibson buys the Standard Theater in Philadelphia. An important stop of the black vaudeville circuit, the Standard helps launch the careers of Philadelphia natives Ethel Waters and the Nicholas Brothers.
1915 Philadelphia comic juggler William Claude Dukenfield, a.k.a. "W.C. Fields," gets his big break in show business when he signs a contract to star in the Ziegfeld Follies and also makes his first silent film.
1917 Tom Mix, of Mix Run PA, signs a contract with Fox Studios. Mix will make more than 350 films and become one of the great cowboy stars of the silent film era.
1919 Westinghouse Electric engineer Frank Conrad pulls his microphone close to a phonograph and begins to "broadcast" records from the radio station in his Pittsburgh garage. Within a decade, an emerging commercial radio industry will be revolutionizing the business of American popular music.
1921 Philadelphia's African American-owned Dunbar Theater hosts the all-black musical Shuffle Along, written by Eubie Blake, with lyrics by Noble Sissle. Later that year it becomes the first African American musical to appear on Broadway.
1922 John Barrymore's 101 consecutive performances of Hamlet on Broadway breaks the record set by Edwin Forrest almost a century earlier.
1923 The release of "Dinah" by Columbia Records catapults Philadelphia singer Ethel Waters to fame.
1929 Opening of the Mastbaum Theater in Philadelphia Mastbaum Theater at 20th and Market Street. Seating 5,000 it is the largest motion picture in Pennsylvania and third-largest in the nation.
1932 Olympic gold medallist Johnny Weissmuller, who was born in Windber, PA., stars in MGM Studios" Tarzan the Apeman.
1938 Director Frank Capra casts James Stewart of Indiana, PA, in You Can't Take It With You. In 1940 Stewart wins his first Oscar for The Philadelphia Story.
1940 Oscar Hammerstein II purchases Highland Farm, a 40-acre estate in Bucks County. In 1943 the opening of Oklahoma!, becomes the first of a series of Broadway musicals that makes Rodgers and Hammerstein the biggest names on Broadway.
1952 Pittsburgh song and dance man Gene Kelly stars in Singin" in the Rain, one of the most beloved Hollywood musicals of all time.
1955 Philadelphia's Grace Kelly wins an Academy Award, then leaves Hollywood at the height of her career to marry Prince Rainier III of Monaco.
1956 Dick Clark becomes host of Philadelphia's Bandstand television program. In 1957 the show goes national and brings the music and dances of Philadelphia teenagers into homes across the country.
1958 The low budget science fiction cult classic film, The Blob is produced in Chester Springs PA.
1958 Founded in 1921 as a Jewish summer camp, the Tamiment Theater, known as "Broadway in the Poconos," has a banner year, with production of "The Princess and the Pea"- soon to go to Broadway - and comedy sketches by Woody Allen.
1959 After a short period of spectacular success and increasingly self-destructive behavior, Philadelphia singer Mario Lanza dies in Italy at the age of thirty-eight.
1968 Release of George Romero's Night of the Living Dead in Pittsburgh.
1968 The African American Freedom Theater, on Broad Street in Philadelphia, opens in the house built by famed Philadelphia actor Edwin Forrest in 1853.
1976 Paul Robeson dies in Philadelphia, where he spent the last years of his life.
1984 Playwright August Wilson's play Ma Rainey's Black Bottom debuts on Broadway. Over the next two decades Wilson would pen nine more plays chronicling black life in twentieth-century America, nine of them set in his hometown of Pittsburgh, and win a record seven New York Drama Circle awards.
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