Sunday, October 23, 2011

America's Oldest Theatre

After visiting the small theatre in Newtown, Pensylvania for the Agatha Christie play "Black Coffee" and the record of "Mouse Trap", I was wondering how long back the history of theatre and stage shows would go.  India, Greece and China should be among the oldest theatre savvy countries.  Kavikulaguru Kalidasa refers to the plays of Bhasa, Soumilla and Kaviputra in his "Maalavikaagnimitra" indicating that plays by these writers was well known even before Kaalidasa's times. This takes Indian stage history to even before 4th century BC.  For a country which prided in saying " काव्येषु नाटकं रम्यं"  (Kavyeshu Naatakam Ramyam), there should have been theatres to present these celebrated works, but unfortunately there is not much of recorded history of this rich cultural heritage.  Even then, India’s oldest theatre as recorded is found in the Sitabenga cave at Ramgarh Hill, now in Chhattisgarh state in central India.  It was built during the first half of the Hellenistic Age, between 300 and 200 BC.  This is a small theatre carved into the rock at the mouth of a cave facing out over an uncovered area just large enough for a small temporary scene building and stage.  Its seating is reminiscent of a Greek ode-um. The 46 feet by 24 feet stone theatre can accommodate 50 persons.  The second oldest theatre in India is in the Udayagiri-Khandagiri hills of Orissa state, near Bhubaneswar and the "Haathi Gumpha" in these hills is a place worth visiting and is a part of the glorious Indian history and culture.  I had the privilege of visiting this place some twenty five years ago and the memory is still fresh in my mind.  "Gaiety Theatre" in The Mall Road, Shimla in Himachal Pradesh has the oldest modren theatre, started in 1887 and now 124 years old.

"Was this the face that launched a thousand ships, And burnt the topless towers of Ilium? Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a sweet kiss......", said Christopher Marlow in his poem "Was it the face that launched a thousand ships".   The 16th century English poet lived for only 29 years, but is made immortal by this piece of writing.  The story of Helen of Troy evoked such an awe in Christopher Marlow two thousand years later!  Understandably, Greek stage history also dates back to 500 BC.  Chinese theatre history takes us back to Shang dynasty times which is even older than 500 BC.

Which is the oldest theatre in America?  The question was answered when we were in downtown Philadelphia two days ago. America is a relatively young country, but probably has the oldest of the modern theatre buildings in the "Walnut Street Theatre" of Philadelphia.  Philadelphia city itself has an important place in the history of the United states, having been the first capital of the United States and being the host for the celebrated "Liberty Bell".  No wonder, the earliest entertainment history and stage shows started here, on the Walnut Street in the present downtown of Philadelphia. 

"Walnut Street Theatre" is located at the corner of Ninth and Walnut streets of Philadelphia. It is now in its 202nd year having been started in the year 1809.  It may be noted that the Louisiana Purchase and Lewis and Clarke expedition took place between 1804 and 1806 and United States at that time mainly comprised of the eastern areas.  The Theatre has been  declared as a "National Historic Landmark Structure" and enjoys a special status in Philadelphia's as well as American history.  It does not have the luxury of a sprawling space, but every piece of available space has been put to excellent use and the history of the theatre as well as American stage is maintained in minute details.  The theatre has been a centre for Circus, Opera, Lectures, Music, Dance, Motion Pictures and Live Theatre productions.  Presently it is being almost exclusively used for Live Theatre shows and every show runs to full houses.  It is now run as a self-producing non-profit theatre company.

The theatre opened on 2nd February 1809 when horses circled a dirt riding ring.  It was opened as "The New circus" and hosted equestrian events.  The initial report recorded the event thus: "The pounding of hooves mingled with the shrieks of delight from the crowds as teams of horses circled a dirt riding ring".  An 80 feet dome was later added to the theatre building later, making it the tallest building in Philadelphia at that time.  By 1812 the building had been converted as a legitimate theatre with the Circus ring being replaced by a stage.  The opening stage show had the distinction of the presence of the then President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson and The Marquis de Lafayette.  Lafayette was a wealthy Frenchman who came to America in 1777, when he was only 20 years old, as a volunteer to aid the struggle for Independence by the colonies. He was made a Major General and became a friend of George Washington.   He is said to have spent some $200,000 or more of his fortune in support of the colonies in the Revolution.  He eventually was paid by Congress for "services rendered" during the war.  He was given two checks, one for $120,000 and one for $80,000.  The larger check of the two is in the collection of the Valley Forge Historical Society.   He was one of the personalities that shaped French-American friendship.  Hence his presence at the inaugural show at this theatre is considered note worthy.

A major renovation to the interior and exterior of the theatre building was carried out in the year 1828 by the then leading and most prominent architect John Haviland.  Though management of the theatre has changed many hands and renovations done from time to time, the present facade is based on his original design.  The Walnut Theatre back stage still maintains the 200 year old tradition and uses the original grid, rope, pulley and sand bag system.  Photographs of the by gone era are displayed in the theatre premises and one of the items displayed is a handwritten letter by actor Eli Wallach.  A young Philadelphian Edwin Forrest made his stage debut at the age of 14 here and went on to become one of he most famous actors in American stage history.  A huge marble statue of Edwin Forrest in his role as Shakespeare's Coriolanus, donated by The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, is kept in the lobby of the theatre. Edwin Forrest was known as "America's first great tragidian" for his portraying of King Lear and other tragic characters.
A visit to the theatre will make us realise that the most noted actors of 19th century and many from the 20th century have appeared on the stage in Walnut Street Theatre and this place has been the launching pad for many successful careers in Hollywood and elsewhere.  Many illustrious actors such as Helen Hayes, Henry Fonda, Katherine Hepburn, Morlon Brando, Audrey Hepburn, Sidney Poitier, George C Scott, Jane Fonda, Robert Redford, Jack Lemmon and William Shatner of Star Trek fame have acted on the stage of this theatre.  "A street car named Desire" featured Morlon Brando, "A Raisin in the Sun" had Sidney Poitier and   "The Diary of Anne Frank" had Susan Strasberg.  Henry Fonda featured in 1948 play "Mister Roberts" and having been recently discharged from the Navy, used his own uniform in the play.  His daughter Jane fonda appeared in 1960 play "There was a little Girl".

The theatre has many firsts in the American Theatre scene; Gas footlights were fitted in 1837 and the theatre was air conditioned in 1855.  A new stage for more elaborate musical comedies was made in 1880 and the interior was rebuilt with structural steel in 1920.   The Walnut Theatre also has the distinction of hosting the first televised Presidential Debate,  between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter on 23rd September 1976.  The theatre does not hesitate to record that during the event the two contesting candidates had to be standing for half an hour without debate when the sound system accidentally failed.

The theatre now has over 56,000 subscribers making it the most subscribed theatre company in the world.  The subscribers get the best seats at best rates and can enjoy the shows, besides getting discounts in the nearby restaurants,  while contributing to running and growth of the theatre.  Training programs for aspiring stage artistes are conducted in the Theatre School here.  There are special programs for the kids as well to encourage an interest in stage at a tender age.

If you are anywhere near downtown Philadelphia in the evenings, The Walnut Theatre is the place to be in.  Do not worry if you do not have a prior reservation and the show is full.  The theatre has a system of issuing a limited number of  "Stand by" tickets, similar to RAC in Indian railways.  If there are last minute cancellations in the 1100 seat theatre or some patrons do not turn up before closing the doors, you may get a chance to see a show.  We went without a reserved seat and we were just lucky to do so!

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