The First Theaters in the Colonies

By Al Dorof

Theater in America owes a debt to William Plumsted (1708-1765), an early patron of the arts in the City.  He owned a large brick warehouse built in 1749 on Water Street between Pine and Lombard Streets. The house, demolished in 1849, extended through to Front Street.

A lapsed Quaker, Plumsted enjoyed the performing arts that were restricted or banned in the City. He was a founder of the first dance company and opened his warehouse to dramatic performances. On April 25, 1754, the British company of Lewis Hallam staged two plays there. The house was packed until the season ended on June 24.

The first structure in the Colonies built specifically as a playhouse was the Society Hill Theater, erected in 1759 by David Douglass, who married Hallam’s widow, on the southwest corner of South and Hancock Streets. It opened on June 15 and closed December 28 that year.

Douglass then built the grander Southwark Theater in 1766 at South and Leithgow Streets, between Fourth and Fifth Streets. It measured 50 feet on South and 90 on Leithgow, nearly to Bainbridge Street. Its first floor was made of brick, which supported the wood upper floors and cupola on the roof. The building leaked, the view to the stage was blocked by supporting columns, its brickwork and wood portions were rough, and its exterior was painted a glaring red. Yet President George Washington was a frequent visitor. The Apollo Theater was built next to the Southwark Theater by Webster, Cross & Partners. It opened June 12, 1811, and closed July 19!

The Southwark Theater burned down on May 29, 1823, leaving only the brick first floor standing. The Taylor distillery was built on this foundation. The distillery was demolished in the early 1900s.

Southwark Theater, Library Company of Philadelphia, Unknown Artist, 1766.
Southwark Theater, Library Company of Philadelphia, Unknown Artist, 1766.

Written by Amy Grant

Amy Grant is a graphic designer and web developer. She is the founder of the Southwark Historical Society, a volunteer based group that studies the Southwark Historical District located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.