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Free Library Exhibition Puts Philadelphia Theatre History on Display

Feb 12, 2018

Free Library Exhibition Puts Philadelphia Theatre History on Display
By Daniel Boulos

With the launching of Philly Theatre Week, the public will have an opportunity not only to experience a wide variety of performances and special events at affordable prices, but also to connect with Philadelphia’s rich theatrical history. Beginning February 8 and running through February 17, the Free Library’s Rare Book Department and Theatre Collection will present a pop-up exhibition entitled “A Look at the History of Philadelphia Theatre.

Featuring artifacts primarily from the 19th century, the exhibition pays tribute to the city’s stature as a major theatrical center in the 1800s, when Philadelphia rivaled New York as the nation’s theatre capital. Designed by Theatre Collection curator Karin Suni, the exhibition will feature playbills, handbills, photos, and other items, and will help remind Philadelphians that the current vibrancy of Greater Philadelphia’s theatre scene has deep roots dating back hundreds of years.   

For curator Karin Suni, the exhibition offers an exciting opportunity to show how much the current theatrical environment of Philadelphia mirrors that of the early 19th century. While it may be common knowledge that Philadelphia has always played an important role as a stop on Broadway touring circuits and as a key out-of-town “tryout” city for Broadway-bound productions, what many people may not know, says Suni, is that up until around 1830, Philadelphia was the nation’s theatre center before being supplanted by New York, and it had an enormous assortment of not just theatre buildings but also local companies producing work indigenous to Philadelphia across a number of theatrical styles including classical, vaudeville, and minstrelsy.

Also exciting for Suni is the “window into the culture” of the period afforded by some of the ephemera in the collection, which allows viewers to see how certain contemporary cultural norms were reflected in theatergoing practices.

Playbill for the American Theatre, Walnut Street (now known as Walnut Street Theatre) -
March 12, 1835

The pop-up exhibition, occupying two display cases, of course only represents an infinitesimal number of the collection’s contents. The Theatre Collection contains over one million items related to theatre, film, television, radio, circus performance, minstrelsy, vaudeville, and burlesque. Researchers can view books and magazines and thousands of other archival materials like programs, scrapbooks, newspaper clippings, production photos and more.

Production files alone occupy more than five hundred boxes on the collection’s shelves. Many biographical and organization files are available for viewing as well, some of which contain a large body of material related to individuals like photos, letters, and personal effects.

One such collection is the Ed Wynn Collection, featuring items related to the Philadelphia-born comedian and actor who enjoyed a distinguished career as a comedian and actor in vaudeville, radio, and film. The Theatre Collection is also home to the Lubin Film Company archive, containing materials from the short-lived but hugely profitable Philadelphia-based film company.

Suni hopes that increased awareness of the Theatre Collection’s rich and diverse holdings will lead to more people taking advantage of this valuable resource, and notes that it is useful not only to scholars but also to theatre practitioners of every stripe, from dramaturgs to designers.

Playbill for the Philadelphia Theatre (also known as the Chestnut Street Theatre)
December 20, 1816

“A Look at the History of Philadelphia Theatre” is free to the public and will be available for viewing during Rare Book Department open hours: Monday through Saturday, 9:00am to 5:00pm. It is located on the third floor of the Free Library of Philadelphia, located at 1901 Vine Street. Access to the broader Collection can be arranged by contacting the Rare Book Department at the Free Library.

For more information, visit the website at

To learn more about Philly Theatre Week, visit