Chestnut Street Theatre

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The New Theatre (c.1820) Chestnut Street Theatre 01.JPG
The New Theatre (c.1820)

The Chestnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania was the first theater in the United States built by entrepreneurs solely as a venue for paying audiences. [1]

Philadelphia Largest city in Pennsylvania, United States

Philadelphia, known colloquially as Philly, is the largest city in the U.S. state and Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and the sixth-most populous U.S. city, with a 2018 census-estimated population of 1,584,138. Since 1854, the city has been coterminous with Philadelphia County, the most populous county in Pennsylvania and the urban core of the eighth-largest U.S. metropolitan statistical area, with over 6 million residents as of 2017. Philadelphia is also the economic and cultural anchor of the greater Delaware Valley, located along the lower Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers, within the Northeast megalopolis. The Delaware Valley's population of 7.2 million ranks it as the eighth-largest combined statistical area in the United States.

Pennsylvania State of the United States of America

Pennsylvania, officially the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, is a state located in the northeastern, Great Lakes and Mid-Atlantic regions of the United States. The Appalachian Mountains run through its middle. The Commonwealth is bordered by Delaware to the southeast, Maryland to the south, West Virginia to the southwest, Ohio to the west, Lake Erie and the Canadian province of Ontario to the northwest, New York to the north, and New Jersey to the east.


The New Theatre (First Chestnut Street Theatre)

Advertisement for plays at the Chestnut Street Theatre, July 1853 Chestnut Street Theatre advertistment, July 1853.png
Advertisement for plays at the Chestnut Street Theatre, July 1853

The Chestnut Street Theatre (originally named the New Theatre) was the brainchild of Thomas Wignell and Alexander Reinagle who in 1791 convinced a group of Philadelphia investors to build a theater suitable for Wignell’s company to perform in. Wignell had not yet formed his company when the New Theatre was being set up to be built, but as the New Theater was being built, Wignell was in England recruiting actors to be a part of his company. [2] The New Theater's design, modeled after the Theatre Royal, Bath, was made possible by John Inigo Richards, Wignell's brother-in-law, who obtained architect Thomas Greenway’s original plans. [3] The New Theatre was built on Chestnut Street near the corner of Sixth Street across from Congress Hall. $30,000 was raised for the construction of the building and the finale touches were not completed until 1805 under architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe. [1] The stage ran with a depth of seventy-one feet and had a width of thirty feet. The three tiers of boxes could hold nine hundred people; the theatre itself was able to hold an audience of two thousand. There were multiple dressing rooms, two green rooms, and for the first time in America a large well-stocked wardrobe. There were two different entrances from the street for the theatre patrons, those going to the pit and those headed to the boxes. The entryway to the pit was only eighteen inches wide, a death trap in the event of a fire. Like English theatres the New Theatre on Chestnut Street had all the essentials. A proscenium with proscenium doors in the proscenium walls with a balcony overhead. [4] Not long after its construction the New Theatre was often referred to as one of the Seven Wonders of America. [5] A yellow fever epidemic spoiled the theater’s debut in 1793, and its first regular season did not begin until the following year when the inaugural night’s entertainment offered a double feature, John O'Keeffe's Castle of Andalusia and Hannah Cowley's Who's the Dupe? [3] Over the following twenty-seven years the theater would become a showcase for works by local and national dramatist of the day. In 1816 the New Theatre became the first American theater to be illuminated by gas fixtures rather than candlelight or oil lamps. Four years later a suspicious fire destroyed the theater along with its library, music, scenery and costumes. The cause of the fire remained a mystery since the building had been vacant for several days while the company was engaged in Baltimore. [6]

Thomas Wignell American actor

Thomas Wignell was an English-born actor and theatre manager in colonial United States.

Alexander Reinagle American composer, organist, and theater musician

Alexander Robert Reinagle was an English-born American composer, organist, and theater musician. He should not be confused with his nephew of the same name, Alexander Robert Reinagle, also a composer and organist, who lived all his life in Britain. He was a close friends with a young Mozart when he visited London. He was influenced by Haydn, Mozart and Clementi.

Theatre Royal, Bath theatre in Bath, England

The Theatre Royal in Bath, England, was built in 1805. A Grade II* listed building, it has been described by the Theatres Trust as "One of the most important surviving examples of Georgian theatre architecture". It has a capacity for an audience of around 900.

Second Chestnut Street Theatre

Two years later, the second Chestnut Street Theatre rose from the ashes of the first. It was built in the customary design of the day by architect William Strickland with triple tiers of boxes making a horseshoe around the orchestra and apron of the stage that accommodated about 2,000 theatergoers. The façade was made of Italian-style marble with an arcade supported by a row of composite columns with a plain entablature. The entrance stood between two wings whose niches held statues of Tragedy and Comedy by William Rush. Below the statues were semi-circular recesses containing basso relievos of tragic and comic muses. [6] [7]

William Strickland (architect) American architect

William Strickland, was a noted architect and civil engineer in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Nashville, Tennessee. A student of Benjamin Latrobe and mentor to Thomas Ustick Walter, Strickland helped establish the Greek Revival movement in the United States. A pioneering engineer, he wrote a seminal book on railroad construction, helped build several early American railroads, and designed the first ocean breakwater in the Western Hemisphere.

William Rush U.S. neoclassical sculptor from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

William Rush was a U.S. neoclassical sculptor from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He is considered the first major American sculptor. Rush was born in Philadelphia, the fourth child of Joseph Rush, a ship's carpenter, and first wife, Rebecca Lincoln. As a teenager, he apprenticed three years with woodcarver Edward Cutbush, and soon surpassed his master in the art of carving of ships' figureheads in wood. He saw military service during the American Revolution, as an officer in the militia. He opened his own wood carving business, and was in great demand when the U.S. Navy began building ships on Philadelphia. Later in life, he took up sculpture. Rush was one of the founders of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and taught sculpture there. He was also active in local politics, serving on the Philadelphia City Council for two decades. Rush died in Philadelphia in 1833, and is buried at The Woodlands (Philadelphia).

Third Chestnut Street Theatre on the right (c.1860s) Chestnut Street Theatre11.JPG
Third Chestnut Street Theatre on the right (c.1860s)

The Chestnut Street Theatre was once again consumed in a fire in 1856 and would not see another curtain rise for six years. [3]

Third Chestnut Street Theatre

The third Chestnut Street Theatre was built in 1862, seven blocks to the west of its original location, where once again it found favor with Philadelphia audiences as a fashionable night spot. Tragic actress Jean Hosmer was among those who starred at the debut of the third theater. [8]

Jean Hosmer actress, b. near Boston, Mass., 29 Jan., 1842. She first appeared on the stage in a ballet at Buffalo, N. Y

Jean Haskell Hosmer was an American actress and tragedienne who reached the zenith of her career directly following the American Civil War, and is associated through her career with actor and Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth along his brother Edwin Booth.

It closed its doors for the last time in 1913 after the curtain fell on the final act of Arthur Wing Pinero's The Second Mrs Tanqueray , and the building was demolished soon afterwards. [3] [9]

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Sir Arthur Wing Pinero was an English playwright and, early in his career, actor.

<i>The Second Mrs Tanqueray</i> stage play

The Second Mrs. Tanqueray is a problem play by Sir Arthur Wing Pinero. It adopts the "Woman with a past" plot, popular in nineteenth century melodrama.

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  1. 1 2 The Chestnut Street Theatre Project
  2. Pollock, Thomas (1968). The Philadelphia Theatre in the Eighteenth Century. New York: Greenwood Press, Publishers. pp. 50–52.
  3. 1 2 3 4 Oxford Companion to American Theatre
  4. Wolcott, John. "Theatre History on the Web". VideOccasions.Missing or empty |url= (help)
  5. Early Opera in America By Oscar George Theodore Sonneck
  6. 1 2 Philadelphia in 1830--1: or, A brief account of the various institutions and Public Objects in the Metropolis – 1830
  7. History of Philadelphia, 1609-1884, Volume 2 By John Thomas Scharf, Thompson Westcott 1884
  8. The Theatre. Wyman & Sons. 1890.
  9. Life and Times of Actress EJ Phillips

Coordinates: 39°56′58″N75°09′04″W / 39.9494°N 75.1511°W / 39.9494; -75.1511