The country's oldest playhouse (established in 1809, originally as an indoor circus) is a National Historic Landmark that hosts locally produced plays, Broadway-style productions, and children's shows in its 1,100-seat theater, plus experimental works in its adjoining studio spaces.
The Walnut Street is an unabashedly populist theater, unafraid throughout its 200-plus-year history to embrace everything from vaudeville to Shakespeare, branded musicals to untested dramas—and that's a big part of why we love it. Heck, even The Clash played here once in 1979 (three years after the stage hosted the first presidential debate between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter). A given season might run the gamut from "Elf," "Seussical," and "How to Succeed..." to "Beautiful Boy" and "Other Desert Cities."
The boards at the Walnut have been trodden by everyone from early backer Edwin Booth, one of the brightest stage stars of this age (until little brother and fellow thespian John Wilkes ruined the family name by assassinating President Lincoln), to Ethel Barrymore, Will Rogers, The Marx Brothers, Katharine Hepburn, Jessica Tandy, George C. Scott, Robert Redford, and Jack Lemmon (whose 1960 performance, his first dramatic stage role, was panned in the local papers).
The Walnut spent the 1940s, '50s, and ' 60s as part of the Shubert Theater family, which used it for pre-Broadway tryouts. This is how Philadelphians became the first to witness Marlon Brando in "A Streetcar Named Desire" (1947), Audrey Hepburn in "Gigi" (1951) and Sidney Poitier in "A Raisin in the Sun" (1959).
Walnut Street Theater innovations include gas footlights (in 1837), air conditioning (in 1855), and the curtain call (to honor performances by the 19th-century demigod of acting Edmund Kean). Plus, it played a role in the establishment of copyright for plays. It is also one of only two theaters in the country that—instead of modern steel counterweights—still uses the classic system of ropes, pulleys, and sandbags to move the scenery and curtains.