Sure Footing (1885-1948)

This photograph of The National Theatre was taken not long after its reopening in 1885 following the latest (and last) fire.

After facing trials and tribulations aplenty during its first fifty years, The National Theatre settled into relative stability at the tail end of the 19th century.  The fire of February 1885 was answered with yet another rebuild in October of that year.  The new structure was an impressive five-story beauty built in the Italianate style that would (almost miraculously) remain relatively unaltered until 1922.  Other major improvements included comfortable seats, better carpeting, and, most importantly of all, electric lighting.  With that, The National was ready to enter a new era.

By 1885, theatre had become big business in the United States and The National was a major hub for touring New York productions.  This coincided with a growing White middle-class in Washington, D.C. that could afford to spend more money on evening entertainments.  Despite competition from other establishments, The National continued to host major performances.  The Metropolitan Opera brought celebrated productions of Faust, The Barber of Seville, and Carmen in 1904, the great John Philip Sousa appeared with his band in April of that same year, and two massive productions of the sword-and-sandals epic Ben-Hur wowed audiences.  The famous Ziegfeld Follies, a music, dance, and comedy review that appeared annually in New York, were popular hits as well, despite (or perhaps because of) their risqué and controversial content.  In addition to lavish productions and high-profile stars, The National continued to host major world leaders – or, in some cases, world leaders in the making.  One of the most notable was future British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who appeared in 1900 to give a lecture on his exploits in the Boer War in present-day South Africa.

As usual, a regeneration of the building was inevitable, though for once it was not preceded by a major fire.  Instead, owner W.H. Rapley decided renovations were in order and closed the building in 1922.  The final performance was followed by the orchestra playing “Auld Lang Syne” and a silent audience watching on as stagehands removed the last of the scenery.  Despite this reverent send-off, the closure was short-lived: The National reopened later that year with new decorations and a reinforced roof (mandated after a collapse at the Knickerbocker Theatre killed several patrons).  The renovated building remained as popular a destination as ever, hosting such stage luminaries as Talluah Bankhead, Frederic March, Montgomery Clift, and the great Helen Hayes, a Washington, D.C. mainstay whose name now graces the highest awards available in Washington theatre.  After so many decades of turmoil, The National finally appeared to be on stable ground.

Helen Hayes, pictured here in 1940, was a giant of the Washington theatre. She is also one of only sixteen people to win an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony Award – or “EGOT.”

Yet despite its many high-profile success, The National Theatre, like many institutions in the early twentieth century, found itself caught up in the country’s changing political landscape.  In 1929, The National Theatre Stock Company, the Theatre’s resident acting troupe, had trouble affording the required seven-man orchestra to accompany their productions.  Because the orchestra members were protected by a union, the company was unable to negotiate a reduced number and had to cut their season short.  Eventually, the actors agreed to effectively tax themselves in order to pay for the full orchestra in 1932; the gesture was rewarded with a benefit to replace the money later that year.  In addition to labor disputes, The National also faced threats of censorship.  Several productions were forced to defend themselves or delete material that was deemed offensive by local legislators.  An entire scene was even cut from Robert E. Sherwood’s play The Rugged Path for a performance attended by President Harry S. Truman and his wife.

While The National could long depend on filling its houses, the sad fact of the matter is that it did not always fill them equitably.  Throughout the history of American theatre, including in nation’s capital, African Americans were consistently denied full rights to entry and seating.  Though slavery had long been abolished, discriminatory practices in the name of “Jim Crow” continued well into the 1940s and beyond – including at The National.  Eventually, those practices, not another fire or financial failure, would result in yet another closure.  After a series of legal challenges and protests, a host of major theatre professionals, including Helen Hayes and renowned musical lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, signed a boycott pledge against The National.  Eventually, the Actors Equity Association announced that no member of their union would be permitted to perform unless the discriminatory practices were abolished.  When The National’s leadership declared it would not change its own policies until more inclusive policies were adopted throughout the city, its days were effectively numbered.  The National Theatre closed on July 31st, 1948 with a farewell production of Oklahoma! and was later converted into a movie house.  After working so hard to establish firm foundations, The National’s leadership had let it down by failing to change.

Click here to find out what happened next.

From the Archives

This centennial celebration program comes direct from The National Theatre Archives. Note the photographs of The National’s interior, the brief history of the then-100-year-old institution, and the stylish advertisements. The headline performance that night back in 1935 was the Broadway staple Anything Goes. Click on each photo to zoom in and access the gallery function. You can also click “full size” and use the magnifying glass to take an even closer peek.