Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Incredible Walnut Street Theatre

I love old theatres, and in America there is none older than The Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia. It has been around for 204 years and thankfully is still in operation. The Walnut Street Theatre has some unique ties to the magic world which I thought I'd share with you, but first a little history on the theatre itself.

Built in 1809 in Philadelphia, The Walnut was the first theatre in America to have gas footlights, it was also the first theatre to have air conditioning. In 1863, the Walnut was purchased by famed actor Edwin Booth, who was also the brother of John Wilkes Booth.

A few famous names to grace the stage of the Walnut Street Theatre include: Henry Fonda, Ethel Barrymore, Jack Lemmon, Robert Redford, George M. Cohan, The Marx Brothers, Edward G. Robinson, Helen Hayes, Katherine Hepburn and many others.

But it's the magicians I'm most interested in. Since the theatre opened in 1809, it's hard to say who the first magician was to perform at the Walnut, but according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Herr Alexander played the Walnut in August of 1849. And I know that on July 4th 1853, Robert Heller opened at the Walnut Street Theatre for a three week run. Prior to his appearances at the Walnut, Heller had been performing with a fake French Accent and a wig. He dropped those accessories and the first place he performed as himself, was in Philadelphia! Oddly, on Nov 28th, 1878 (134 years ago today!) Heller would die of pneumonia in Philadelphia.

I thought Harry Kellar performed there, but I can't find a record. He did perform at the Walnut Street Theatre in Cincinnati Ohio however. And he played almost every theatre in Philadelphia, so I'd be surprised if he never made it to the Walnut St. Theatre.

I don't have any proof of it, but I'm going to guess that Signor Antonio Blitz might have performed there back in the mid 1800's, as he lived in Philadelphia for a time. And I'm thinking it's very possible the Alexander Herrmann may have also performed there which could be why I didn't see Harry Kellar's name listed because the two were competitors.

According to the website for the theatre, Harry Houdini performed at the Walnut, but I don't know when. A little digging shows Houdini at the Chestnut Street Theatre and also at Keith's Theatre in Philadelphia. Houdini had a number of ties to the city. On one visit he discovered the grave of Robert Heller, which had been lost to time. Heller was originally in Macepelah Cemetery in Phili and then later moved to Mt Moriah. At another time he introduced Remigius Weiss, a spiritualist debunker whose claim to fame had been exposing the slate writing of Dr. Henry Slade.

In October 1947, the Blackstone Show was at the Walnut Street Theatre and they were in need of a replacement girl. Word was sent out to some of the theatrical agencies in town and a young dancer named Adele Friel applied for the job. She met Blackstone backstage at the theatre and he gave her an idea of what was required for the position. She met the other girls in the show and just like that, she was hired! But that wasn't all. This was the afternoon, and there was a show in the evening and Adele had no idea she'd be IN the show that night!

Sure enough, she performed her first show with the Blackstone troupe that night and stayed with them for several years touring across the country in the process. One great blessing for the magic world is that Adele loves to visit with magicians and attend conventions on occasion. If you ever get a chance to meet her, please take the time to say hello and listen to some of her wonderful stories.

In the modern era, Penn & Teller have appeared at the Walnut Street Theatre as well. By the way, Teller, the quieter half of the duo, was actually born in Philadelphia!

To me the most exciting thing is that this old beauty of a theatre is still running and has continued to do so for over 200 years! The theatre is located at 825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, PA 19106
If you are aware of the number of theatres that have been razed, destroyed or closed down in the past 100 years, you'll realize just how special the Walnut Street Theatre is.


  1. Did a big of digging around.

    Sphinx (April 1915) reported Howard Thurston playing there. Magic World also reports him making his annual appearance there in 1918.

    Powell reports in the Sphinx (Sept. 1927) that he first saw Alexander Herrmann there during the summer season of 1874.

    Carl Hertz states in his autobiography that he played there.

    MUM for Feb. 1977 reports Dick Gustafson,
    Past National S.A.M. President, was performing an illusion show there for the holiday season.

    Asparagus Valley Cultural Society (e.g. Penn and Teller) was scheduled to played there in 1978 (New Tops December 1977)

    Magic: A Picture History by Milbourne Christopher (1991) has a poster showing "Tuck Quy, Wan Sing, and Yan Yow were among the Chinese magicians who showed their Oriental wonders at the Walnut Street Theatre in
    Philadelphia in 1853."

  2. Thanks for the additional info Joe!