- America's Longest Run: A History of the Walnut Street Theatre, and: Encore! The Renaissance of Wisconsin Opera Houses, and: The Golden Age of Indianapolis Theaters, and: A Theater of Our Own: A History and a Memoir of 1,001 Nights in Chicago
Regional theatre history may take many forms, as demonstrated by these four examples that join a welcome tide of recent works chronicling our nation's theatrical heritage in its many locally colorful variations. One approach is to focus on a single theatre building and trace its fortunes within the larger cultural context, as Andrew Davis does in his history of Philadelphia's venerable Walnut Street Theatre. Howard Caldwell and Richard Christiansen each cover a major city's theatre history, one emphasizing the architectural structures of Indianapolis theatres, the other evoking companies and memorable productions in Chicago. The state of Wisconsin is the scope for Brian Leahy Doyle's ten historic-preservation success stories that incite his delving into their geographical and historical backstories. While all four books are attractively produced with plentiful illustrations, Doyle's is notably enhanced by its profusion of gorgeous color photographs by Mark Fay.
America's Longest Run: A History of the Walnut Street Theatre neatly encompasses two hundred years from the structure's opening as an equestrian arena on 2 February 1809 to plans for its 2009 bicentennial celebration. While its 1964 designation as a National Landmark ensures that there will be no more hairsbreadth escapes from demolition, the saga of struggles, triumphs, financial reversals, remodelings, expansions, and reconceptions of the theatre's mission has continued. Andrew Davis deftly situates the Walnut Street Theatre's operations within the ever-changing economic climate, clearly showing how audience entertainment needs are shaped by factors often beyond the control of the most astute management. What is remarkable about this densely yet lucidly written work is its dual function as a season-by-season historical record and as an engaging overview of American theatre history for the general reader. Davis achieves this by using plentiful subheadings and by embedding his lists of plays and players in enough contextual commentary to hold interest. For example, he explains theatrical vocabulary—like lines of business, war stars, stock companies, load-ins—in layman's terms, he captures the essence of hundreds of individual acting or management styles in lively yet accurate summations, and he pithily signals trends across the seasons.
The first chapter covers more than a century of Philadelphia theatre history before the Walnut Street Theatre was built. From its 1809 opening until 1820, it offered circus entertainment, never rivaling the more prestigious Chestnut Street Theatre. The ups and downs of the Walnut Street Theatre during the remainder of the nineteenth century resulted from complex variables signaled in chapters covering roughly ten-year periods. From the rise of the Syndicate (chapter 10, 1896-1920) to the Walnut's current status since 1999 as the official State Theatre [End Page 283] of Pennsylvania (chapter 16), the pendulum swings have been as wide as ever, despite the fact that it was a Shubert house for several decades. Bernard Havard's leadership since 1983 brought stability and then a sometimes-rocky trajectory of responsible growth that completes the story of the Walnut's first two centuries on a note of optimism.
Encore! The Renaissance of Wisconsin Opera Houses is such a pretty book that one might initially regard it as a decorative object destined for coffee tables. Brian Leahy Doyle's text, however, is solid. He writes engagingly...