centerpiece of Yiddish theatre in the Jewish quarter was
Wheatley Dramatic Hall, located on the northeast corner of
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
She Stoops To Conquer
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.
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
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
Thomashevsky became the proprietor of the Oriental Theatre Company,
and he performed at Dramatic Hall regularly from the autumn of 1888
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
a popular newspaper of
general circulation. An unknown reporter has left a remarkable
description of the hall when the Oriental Theatre Company performed
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."
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
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.