The Jewish Quarter
of Philadelphia

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     The centerpiece of Yiddish theatre in the Jewish quarter was Wheatley Dramatic Hall, located on the north­east corner of 5th & Gaskill Streets. The formal names were Wheatley Dramatic Association Hall and Literature Hall (William Wheatley was a local theatre manager and actor). From 1884 to 1889 it was called Dramatic Hall, although the name Wheatley contin­ued to be associated with the building. When the Thomashevskys played here, their troupe was known as the Oriental Theatre Company, a name that was painted on the front and side walls of the building. Boris Thomashevsky remembered the hall by various names, among them, the Gaskill Street Opera House, an almost comic reference since Gaskill Street is little wider than an alley.

     The building's use as a theatre goes back to just after the Civil War. The Wheatley Dramatic Association, an energetic American amateur acting group formed in 1860, acquired possession of the property, converted it to a theatre, and fitted it up in grand style: "Private boxes, new scenery, finely ornamented proscenium drop-curtain, and everything appertaining to make it a first-class place of entertainment, has been provided. The comfort of the audience has been taken into con­sideration, and seats are furnished that will please the most fastidious."147 The new theatre was dedicated on April 17, 1867, She Stoops To Conquer and The Live Indian, being the first plays presented. For the next thirteen years, the Wheatley Dramatic Association offered plays here regularly each season. Between 1880 and 1887 the hall was used sporadically by the Association but not thereafter.

Boris Thomashefsky
date unknown
Courtesy of the New York
Public Library Digital Gallery

     On the evenings of September 30th, October 3rd and 4th, 1887, Jacob Spivakovsky, identified in the Yiddish press as the "world-renown artist Herr J. Spivakovsky," produced selected scenes from a number of Goldfadn's most popular plays (Shulamis, Dr. Almasada, and Bar Kochba). These were the first Yiddish performances given at Wheatley Dramatic Hall.148 Although Gartenstein also used the hall, apparently the performances by Spivakovsky were wake-up calls for Boris Thomashevsky because about this time, or in a slightly later period, Thomashevsky began to look for a centrally located theatre within the Jewish quarter:

     Here in Philadelphia I did not feel as strong as in Baltimore. Here I did not have my fans. Another thing, we had to perform in the German area of the city, far from the Jewish quarter. The Yidn had to take two cars to see me in the theatre, but the house on Christie [Christian] Street was right in the heart of the Jewish quarter where all my fans lived. We had to think it over. I took counsel with my father and with the entire family. We decided that we had to search for a place downtown in the Jewish quarter. We found a hall, the Dramatic Hall, which was located on the corner of 5th & Gaskill Streets, in the middle of the Jewish quarter, much closer to the Jews than Christie Hall and announced that on Friday and Saturday we would play in Thomashevsky's Dramatic Hall and in the middle of the week at the Thalia Theatre on Callowhill Street. We killed two birds with one stone, playing uptown for the German Jews and for our Jews who had to take two cars; but on Saturday and Friday we played only for our Jews. We did a good business at both theatres.149

     Boris Thomashevsky became the proprietor of the Oriental Theatre Company, and he performed at Dramatic Hall regularly from the autumn of 1888 through the winter of 1889. In the beginning of 1889, Louis Silverman was the business manager, ticket sell­er/ and general supervisor of the front of the theatre.150

Much of what we know about Dramatic Hall comes from an article in the Times-Philadelphia, a popular newspaper of general circulation. An unknown reporter has left a remarkable description of the hall when the Oriental Theatre Company performed Two Jolly Cavaliers on Friday evening, January 18, 1889. The headline stated: "THE JEWISH THEATRE." Underneath was written: "STRANGE DRAMAS, ACTORS AND AUDIENCES AT FIFTH AND GASKILL STREETS. AN OPPRESSED NATION'S ART. SOME RUSSIAN JEWS OF THIS CITY FORM A DRAMATIC COMPANY - GOLDFADN, THE JEW SHAKESPEARE."

Stretching our imagination, we can picture ourselves, prosperous Main Line Philadelphians, spreading out the Times-Philadelphia before breakfast on Sunday morning, January 20, 1889, and being drawn into the body of the article: "The long-cherished desire of the Polish and Russo-Hebrew population of this city has at last been realized in the establishment of the Oriental Theatre at Fifth and Gaskill Streets, which is more popularly known as the Jewish Theatre. It is the old Wheatley Dramatic Association Hall."

     Our reporter takes us by the hand and magically we enter that theatre of long ago. "The scenery, the singing, the acting and the audience were all foreign to anything ever seen in Philadelphia." There were about five hundred men, women and children in the theatre, Russians, Poles, Austrians, Germans and Hungarians. The women
sat in the first rows. The gallery was packed. Children played in the aisles and men and women got up and walked around when they got tired of sitting. The opera was "apparently" very funny, for the audience applauded vociferously. There was very little handclapping. Men and women stamped their feet. "When the gallery gods kept up the applause too long they were hissed by the audience in the parquet."'151 And the reporter continued:

"Manager Silverman had his hands full before the show began. He sold gallery tickets for 15 cents. Seats in the rear of the parquet were 25 cents and 35 cents, and the front row seats were sold for half a dollar. Tickets were printed in English and they were the only thing English about the place. Whenever a patron got to his seat and found it was not in a desirable location, he went back to the ticket office and kicked to Manager Silverman, who remarked to the reporter that a manager's life was not a happy one."

Our keen-eyed reporter paid particular attention to detail and no more splendid picture of the early Yiddish theater in Philadelphia has survived:

     There was a furious rush for the front seats in the gallery. Nobody talked English. Manager Silverman said that very few of the patrons of the theatre could talk or understand any English. At the foot of the stairs leading to the parquet was an applestand lighted by two tallow candles. There were pop beer, peanuts, sour balls, apples, pretzels and other refresh­ments on sale, which were bought by the audience between acts. Manager Silverman took in about a half peck of pen­nies and nickels. The most important patrons were two women, who bought one of the two proscenium boxes. There was very little light in the theatre outside of the stage. The orchestra used tallow dips set in tin cans.






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