Which Is The Oldest Operating Theater In The United States?

Open since 1809, the Walnut Street Theatre has held various events over the years. Editorial credit: EQRoy / Shutterstock.com
Open since 1809, the Walnut Street Theatre has held various events over the years. Editorial credit: EQRoy / Shutterstock.com

The oldest continuously operating theater in the US is the Walnut Street Theatre, located in the state of Pennsylvania at 825 Walnut Street in Philadelphia. In addition to being the oldest in the US, it is also the oldest English-speaking theater still in operation in the world today. The interior of the Walnut Street Theatre houses three stages and two studios. The studios are located on the 3rd and 5th floors and are used for both small and independent productions. The largest of the three stages is known as the Mainstage. Over the years, the Walnut Street Theatre has held various events, including everything from circus performances to vaudeville acts.

History of the Walnut Street Theatre

The Walnut Street Theatre was first opened in 1809 when it was used as a permanent locale for horse-themed circus acts. It was originally owned by the Circus of Pepin and Breschard, which put on both entertainment acts throughout the US between 1807 and 1815. As live theater became more popular across the country, the owners decided to have a stage and orchestra area added to the site. When this finished in 1811, the name of the theater was changed to The Olympic, and in 1828 it was permanently named the Walnut Street Theatre.

Ownership of the Walnut Street Theatre first changed hands in 1865, when it was purchased by John Sleeper Clarke and Edwin Booth. In 1941, the theater went on to become part of the Shubert Organization. In 1966, it was inducted to the National Register of Historic Places as a National Historic Landmark. Shortly after, the Walnut Street Theatre Corporation received a grant from the William Penn Foundation in order to purchase and renovate the building. In the 1980’s, management began focusing efforts on increasing its activity as a producing company.

During the 19th and 20th centuries, a number of live performances were put on at this theater. The first of these was the “The Revivals” in 1812, which was attended by then-President Thomas Jefferson. After becoming part of the Shubert Organization, this theater hosted a number of famous productions that went on to become Broadway classics, including: “A Raisin in the Sun” (1965), “The Diary of Anne Frank” (1955), and “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1947).

The Walnut Street Theatre Today

Today, the Walnut Street Theatre has celebrated more than 200 anniversaries and is run as a non-profit organization. Its mission is to keep the art of professional theater alive, which it accomplishes by offering training to performing artists and by producing and offering theater presentations. Additionally, this theater holds the distinction of having more subscribers than any other theater in the world, reaching more than 55,000 each production season. To achieve this goal, the Walnut Street Theatre tries to keep the performing arts economically accessible to a range of individuals. Each season, the theater offers three packages: the Kids’ Series, which includes four musicals and a Christmas production; the Mainstage, which includes three musicals, a comedy, and a drama; and the Independence Studio, which includes smaller productions of three plays and two musicals.


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