For almost 200 years, Washington’s historic National Theatre has occupied a prominent position on Pennsylvania Avenue – “America’s Main Street”. Located a stone’s throw from the White House and bordering the Pennsylvania Avenue National Historic Site, The National Theatre is the historic cultural center for the performing arts in our nation’s capital and the oldest enterprise on Pennsylvania Avenue continuously operating in its original designated capacity.
The National Theatre has hosted presidential inaugural balls, world premieres of landmark American musicals, presidential command performances of national artistic merit, and the first presentation of the coveted Helen Hayes Award. Lincoln learned of his nomination to a second term while attending a performance at The National Theatre and ominously witnessed the Washington debut of John Wilkes Booth in the title role in Shakespeare’s Richard III. The theater has played a significant role in national events, boosting public moral in times of conflict and serving as a focal point in the struggle for civil rights in the 20th century.
On September 17, 1834, a gathering of patriotic citizens led by William Wilson Corcoran decided that our fledgling city deserved a magnificent theater worthy of the nation’s capital. They selected a site close to the White House, the social center of the federal government, and sold shares of stock to raise construction funds. The National Theatre opened its doors for the first time on December 7, 1835, with a production of A Man of the World, dazzling the opening night audience with its elegant interior. Cerulean Blue walls shimmered in candlelight below a domed ceiling filled with allegorical scenes; box tiers were decorated with depictions of historical events in diplomacy, maritime power, and agriculture. A portrayal of the Declaration of Independence supported by the Wings of Time surmounted the proscenium arch, and the theatre curtain was painted with an equestrian statue of George Washington with Mount Vernon in the distance.
Throughout its 178-year history, the greatest theatrical artists have appeared on The National Theatre stage. The 1850 appearance of P.T. Barnum’s singing sensation, Jenny Lind – The Swedish Nightingale, captivated Washingtonians and nearly caused a riot with crowds clamoring for admission to her two exclusive concerts. President and Mrs. Fillmore, the entire Cabinet and Supreme Court justices retired to the National for a glimpse of the fabled singer. Junius and Edwin Booth, Julia Marlowe, William Gillette, Sarah Bernhardt, Lily Langtry, Henry Irving, Ellen Terry, Joseph Jefferson, Maude Adams, Minnie Fiske, Anna Held, and Lillian Russell entertained 19th century audiences with sparkle and wit.
The 20th century brought a new parade of stars, including Fannie Brice, W. C. Fields, Will Rogers, Eddie Cantor, Billie Burke, Al Jolson, Vincent Price, Lillian Gish, Sir John Gielgud, Maurice Evans, Catherine Cornell, Ralph Richardson, Noel Coward, Gertrude Lawrence, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Alfred Lunt, Lynn Fontaine, Todd Duncan, Anne Brown, Sir Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Ethel Barrymore, Frances Farmer, Celeste Holm, Rosalind Russell, Gloria Swanson, Carol Channing, Burt Lahr, Beatrice Lillie, Ethel Merman, Mary Martin, Elaine Stritch, Judith Anderson, Shirley Booth, Montgomery Clift, Josephine Baker, Audrey Hepburn, Tallulah Bankhead, Lauren Bacall, Buster Keaton, Imogene Coca, Kirk Douglas, Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Deborah Kerr, Jessica Tandy, Henry Fonda, Gwen Verdon, Robert Redford, Julie Harris, Richard Kiley, James Earl Jones, Angela Lansbury, Bea Arthur, Robert Preston, Zero Mostel, Theodore Bikel, Judy Holiday, Rex Harrison, Leontyne Price, Debbie Reynolds, Dudley Moore, Ed Asner, John Lithgow, Colleen Dewhurst, Jason Robards, Judi Dench, Raul Julia, Cab Calloway, Pearl Bailey, Rita Moreno, Linda Lavin, Kevin Spacey, Tyne Daly, Sutton Foster, Sting, Sir Ian McKellen, Brian Stokes Mitchell, and Annie Lennox.
From 1907 to 1926, Florenz Ziegfeld brought his fabled Ziegfeld Follies to The National Theatre, and in 1927 his musical “Show Boat”made its world premiere here. In 1957, another landmark musical, “West Side Story”, made its world premiere at The National. Native Washingtonian Chita Rivera was the vortex of energy in the groundbreaking musical, dancing her way to international stardom.
From 1882 until 1916, America’s March King John Philip Sousa conducted The President’s Own United States Marine band, and later The John Philip Sousa Band in frequent concerts at the National Theatre. In December 1900, Sir Winston Churchill gave a lecture on the stage of The National Theatre recounting his experiences in The Boer War. On January 17, 1984, President and Mrs. Ronald Reagan attended a Gala Benefit performance of David Merrick’s Broadway musical “42nd Street” to celebrate the renovation of the National Theatre. President Reagan spoke from the stage of The National welcoming the renovation of the historic playhouse.
In her many biographies, Washington actress Helen Hayes traced her theatrical career to the time she saw her first play as a young child in the balcony of The National Theatre. Miss Hayes returned to The National time and again in many of her most famous stage roles, and in the 1980s the theater dedicated the Helen Hayes Gallery in her honor and hosted the premiere presentation of her namesake Helen Hayes Awards.
The friendly specter of 19th century actor John McCullough is said to haunt the theater, first seen shortly after his death in 1885 by actors who had worked with him. He is most frequently spotted as a dark amorphous figure, making his benevolent presence known before disappearing into the air. The spirit of a young boy was also rumored to haunt the theater in the 19th century, but his presence has not been reported in many decades.