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Theatre and performing arts seem to have been around forever, but when were they established in the United States? And where? This article is for all those curious about the oldest theatres in America.
The oldest theatres in America date back to the early 1700s, but most were demolished, burned down, or otherwise closed. These include the Play Booth, New Booth, and Dock Street theatres. However, you can still visit the historic Walnut Street and Savannah theatres, established in the early 1800s.
Did you know that theatres existed in America before the country even did? Or that the first playhouse was actually built 100 years before what is widely considered America’s first theatre? If you want to impress your friends with tons of fun thespian facts, keep reading!
A Tour of the Oldest Theatres in America
Play Booth Theatre: 1716
Most people credit the first American theatre to have opened in 1809, but that’s not the case at all. Nearly a century prior, William Levingston, alongside Mary and Charles Stagg, established the Play Booth Theatre in Williamsburg, Virginia.
If you were a patron at this original American theatre, you’d be looking at a whole night out. We’re talking between three and five hours — the average length of performances in the colonies. Unfortunately, no one knows the first play performed at the theatre, but there’s a good chance it was Shakespeare.
The Play Booth was constructed for purposes beyond mere entertainment — it was made for educational uses as well! If you had a knack for acting, this was the place to be.
Don’t add this historic stop to your travel itinerary just yet, though — the Play Booth was demolished in 1745. However, another Williamsburg theatre was established only seven years later.
New Booth: 1724
It may seem unlikely that a playhouse would arise in early 18th century Philadelphia, but alas, it happened. At the time, the area had a solid Quaker presence — a Christian group who strongly opposed theatre — but the art’s popularity was on the come-up in the colonies and would eventually flourish.
In 1724, Philly’s theatrical crowd was still a minority, so we don’t have much recorded information about the original playhouse: the New Booth on Society Hill. We do know that New Booth primarily staged dance and charged admission for seats in three different sections: the gallery, the pit, and on the stage. Yes, that’s right — on stage.
Dock Street Theatre: 1736
If you’re really looking to soak up a little history, head on down to the Dock Street Theatre in Charleston, South Carolina — the oldest American playhouse still around! Well, kind of.
The original Dock Street Theatre was destroyed roughly four years after its doors opened thanks to the Great Fire of 1740. Instead of rebuilding after the facility burned, the Planter’s Hotel was erect in the theatre’s place. Following the Civil War era, the hotel too was demolished.
Over a century later, in 1937, the City of Charleston constructed a new playhouse on Dock Street’s original grouds using what remained of the hotel’s architecture. The new theatre became the modern Charleston Stage. Local carpenters and architects worked tirelessly designing the 18th-century-London-style playhouse before it opened for entertainment again in 2010.
So, while you can no longer visit the true Dock Street Theatre, Charleston Stage is as close to the original as you can find.
Southwark Theatre: 1766
Many small theatres came and went in the colonies through the mid-18th century, most of which were unremarkable and lacked significant records. Though Philadelphia’s Southwark Theatre didn’t stand the test of time, it was frequented by some notable individuals in its prime — including George Washington.
The Southwark fell on hard times throughout the Revolutionary War, falling into British control. The playhouse only operated for a single year during this era and strictly performed for English troops or Tory sympathizers.
Just over 50 years after opening, the Southwark caught fire like so many other theatres at the time. A distillery was added to the playhouse during the building’s reconstruction leading to its final demolition in the face of Prohibition a century later.
Federal Street Theatre: 1793
Theatre was a controversial subject in America’s early days, bringing out fiery passion on both sides. The Federal Street Theatre is proof of that.
In the mid-1700s, Founding Father John Hancock advocated against playhouses in Boston. Hancock’s leadership even led to the closure of Board Alley Theatre in the middle of a show. Naturally, attendees were livid. They answered with riots and even trashed paintings of Hancock. Can you blame them?
Although the playhouse ban was still in place, Federal Street Theatre fearlessly opened the following year, making the legislation a thing of the past. In the next few years, Massachusetts saw multiple theatres open, including Haymarket in 1796.
Park Theatre: 1798
New York City, Broadway, and theatre go hand in hand, so it’s a shame that none of NYC’s original playhouses are still standing. Some of New York’s first playhouses date back to 1750, but the city’s theatrical world didn’t take off until the late 18th-century due to the Revolutionary War.
Forty-eight years later, the Park Theatre was born, and Broadway began to boom.
The playhouse, also known as the New Theatre, sets a monumental scene in a famous modern Broadway musical: Hamilton.
The historically accurate scene sees Alexander Hamilton’s son, Philip, challenge lawyer George Eacker to a duel while he sees a play in this very theatre. Eacker accepts the request only for Hamilton to die in battle.
The Walnut Theatre: 1809
Although the Walnut Theatre was not the first playhouse to break ground on American soil, it’s famously regarded as the country’s earliest theatre. It is the oldest of these institutions still operating.
The Walnut was not initially constructed for theatre but rather equestrian performances. Over the years, The Walnut went through many name changes, including “The New Circus” and “The Olympic.”
Despite being over 200 years old, much of the building’s original structure remains the same, with the most significant changes occurring in 1828.
This historic structure was even owned by actor Edwin Booth, brother to the infamous John Wilkes Booth. The Walnut was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1964 before opening a theatre school 20 years later.
These days, Walnut Street Theatre hosts more than 600 performances and 350,000 patrons each season. If you’re ever in Philadelphia, this is a must-see landmark.
The Savannah Theatre: 1818
The theatre went down to Georgia? That’s right! The Savannah Theatre opened early in the 19th-century and has been kicking it ever since. In fact, this playhouse is considered one of the oldest continuously operating theatre sites in the country.
Sadly, the original Savannah Theatre caught fire almost 100 years after its construction, so you can no longer visit the same 19th-century building. However, a new theatre popped up 42 years later in its place, initially as a movie house.
Today, you can still visit the theatre to take in a bit of entertainment and a lot of history.
Bowery Theatre: 1826
New York City’s Bowery street is plagued with a terrible reputation, famously thanks to Teddy Roosevelt’s harsh critique of the area, but this oldest street in NYC holds a lot of history: namely, the Bowery Theatre.
This playhouse, named New York Theatre at the time, was one of the city’s first. Despite the street’s negative rep, the New York Theatre and neighboring playhouses grew and grew in popularity. Walt Whitman, a writer, and lover of the theatre, even composed an essay on the famous destination.
As time went on, the theatre changed, undergoing new names and different types of performances. Like many playhouses at the time, Bowery hosted events including racist minstrel shows, equestrian, and opera.
The Bowery burnt and was rebuild a whopping five times before finally closing its doors under the name “Fay’s Bowery Theatre” after one last fire in 1929.
Did we leave your thirst for thespian knowledge unquenched? Be sure to check out the following resources to learn even more about theatres in America.
Most people credit America’s first theatre to the Walnut as it’s the earliest playhouse still operating today. However, theatres have existed in the colonies since the Play Booth opened in 1716 on Williamsburg soil.
Sadly, fires destroyed most of America’s original theatres, so the Walnut bears the title as America’s earliest despite opening its doors 100 years after the Play Booth.