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DuPont Theatre records

1919-2001 Majority of material found within 1975-1995
 Collection
Accession: 2150

Abstract

The DuPont Theatre, originally called The Playhouse, presents professional theatrical productions from Broadway and other notable venues in downtown Wilmington, Delaware since 1913. The Playhouse was the concept of three top executives of E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Company (DuPont Company) who realized that Wilmington needed a facility for cultural as well as business purposes. The DuPont Theatre records consist primarily of public relations and advertising materials related to the theater's operation. As such, they present a sequence of changing tastes in popular entertainment in a medium-sized American city.

Dates

  • 1919-2001
  • Majority of material found within 1975-1995

Creator

Extent

18.7 Linear Feet

Historical Note

The DuPont Theatre, originally called The Playhouse, presents professional theatrical productions from Broadway and other notable venues in downtown Wilmington, Delaware since 1913. The Playhouse was the concept of three top executives of E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Company (DuPont Company) who realized that Wilmington needed a facility for cultural as well as business purposes.

The company was in the middle of a transition from an traditional explosives manufacturer run from a domestic-scaled office building on the plant site to an international chemical company with a new, modern corporate headquarters in the center of town. To serve the growing number of executives, scientists, engineers and important visitors, the company provided, as part of its headquarters, a first-class hotel and restaurants of a type not previously available in the city.

John J. Raskob (1879-1950), then assistant treasurer of the DuPont Company and an urbanite with ties to the Broadway entertainment world, was the major proponent. He believed that a theatre should serve as a business venture, as the source of the finest dramatic entertainment possible, and as a community resource for local charitable organizations' fund-raising shows. By providing a modern venue, he hoped to get Broadway shows to hold their tryouts in Wilmington, as they traditionally did in Philadelphia and New Haven, as well as attracting top touring companies.

Along with Pierre S. du Pont (1870-1954), treasurer and future president, and R.R.M. Carpenter (1877-1949), Raskob imagined a theatre as part of the proposed new Hotel Du Pont, and located in an area known as Pinkett's Court, an open space at the rear of the group of DuPont Company buildings on Market Street between 10th and 11th Streets. Raskob, du Pont and Carpenter incorporated The Play House Company on April 17, 1913. Charles A. Rich (1854-1943), a New York architect, was selected to design the theatre, with the Wilmington firm of Brown and Whiteside appointed associate architect. After being awarded the construction contract with the low bid of $122,960, Wilmington's J. A. Bader & Co. broke ground on April 15, 1913. The Playhouse was built in 150 working days, and opening night was October 15, 1913.

The Playhouse's first lessee was William A. Brady (1863-1950), who appointed John S. Hale as resident manager of the theatre. After bringing thirty-five plays and forty-four other attractions to Wilmington, Brady officially closed his first season in April 1914. That fall Louis Alleman was named resident manager. One of Alleman's innovations was bringing in a stock company, "The Playhouse Players," which staged eleven shows from December through mid-March. Under Alleman's management, fifty-three shows were brought to The Playhouse during the 1916-1917 season, and fifty-one the following season, which was Brady's last as lessee.

The new lessee in 1918 was the Majestic Theatre Company, operated by James N. Ginns, Charles Topkis and William Topkis. They appointed Earle G. Finney, who had been assistant manager under Alleman since 1917, as the new theatre manager in September 1918. The new management ran into a major problem almost immediately. The Little Teacher, a comedy scheduled to run five days starting September 30, ran only two. The influenza epidemic was at its peak, with nearly 10,000 cases reported in Wilmington alone. On orders of the State Board of Health, all public buildings, including schools and theatres, were closed. This order remained in effect until October 27.

The 1921-1922 season had barely begun when Ginns and Topkis unexpectedly sold their lease to their manager, Earle G. Finney, on October 15. For the first time since The Playhouse opened, the lessee and the manager were the same person. The previous management had run motion pictures during the summer months, a practice eliminated by Finney, who included few films at any time of year during his five year tenure. His programming featured a balance among comedies, serious plays, and musicals.

Finney remained manager until April 1926. Following termination of Finney's lease, R.R.M. Carpenter approached the Shubert Brothers, Lee and Jacob J. (JJ), prime theatrical producers in New York, in an attempt to interest them in leasing The Playhouse. The Shubert brothers assumed the lease in the summer of 1926.

At the end of October 1926, the Shuberts announced that they were changing the name of the theatre to The Shubert Playhouse. It was suspected that they thought the name Shubert would give the theatre added prestige. The 1926-1927 season was not a success. In an effort to reverse the trend, the Shuberts spent the summer of 1927 making renovations, however, the 1927-1928 season also suffered from low attendance despite star-studded casts and major productions. It is suspected that the ticket prices were too high. The Shuberts announced that the Shubert Playhouse would close in January 1928. 

On December 15, 1927, Chamber of Commerce called a public meeting to prevent the loss of Wilmington's only legitimate theatre, which would result in both cultural and business hardship. The Chamber of Commerce proposed a plan, under which the Shuberts would agree to continue operating the theatre for nine weeks if an advance subscription could be obtained of no fewer than 500 seats for each opening night.  About 100 subscriptions were sold at the meeting, and half of the desired 500 were obtained in the days immediately following. The Shuberts said that in view of the sincere effort made to save the theatre, they would rescind their previous decision to close. With the threat of closing behind it, The Playhouse completed its 1927-1928 season, and the Shuberts continued to operate the Shubert Playhouse for the next two seasons.   

In August 1930, the Shubert lease expired. The Play House Company resumed the management, dropped its Shubert designation, and decided to continue the contract lease method of operation. The Play House Company was dissolved on May 14, 1932, and its assets transferred to the Du Pont Building Corporation, which operated the theatre as a division. The Du Pont Building Corporation was in turn dissolved on September 30, 1936, and the theater, hotel and office building all became the property of the Office Buildings Division of E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Company. The Office Buildings Division became the Office Buildings Department on May 19, 1948.

The Playhouse underwent two redecoration projects within a three year period. The first was in 1949, and the second was in the summer of 1952. The 1949 work included a new paint job -- bluish grey for the walls and plum and gold for decorations and ornaments. The 1952 improvements included a complete overhauling and redecorating of the outer lobby. The box office was moved from across the corridor to its present location.

The Theatre Division was transferred to the General Services Division on August 1, 1951, which in turn became part of the Central Services Division of the General Services Department on January 1, 1954.  The new manager, starting in June 1952, was William H. Doerflinger, also a DuPont employee.  The Theatre Division was merged into the Control Division of the General Services Department on November 1, 1967.  The General Services Department was briefly renamed the Central Systems and Services Department between June 1, 1971, and January 1, 1973.

William H. Doerflinger remained manager until his retirement April 1986. The Playhouse hosted twenty-two productions during his initial season. He attempted to bring as many musicals as possible to The Playhouse, even though its relatively small (1,250) seating capacity discouraged many producers from bringing large musicals with extensive casts and heavy sets to such a small theatre. Among innovations introduced by Doerflinger were the student ticket program, free parking for subscribers, ticket reservations by telephone, dinner-theatre combination performances, and mini-series subscriptions.

The Playhouse's "Children's Series" began in 1988. The 1990s ushered in a new manager, Patricia Gill. John P. Gardner took over as General Manager in 2004. 

In February 2003, the management of the theatre, the Hotel du Pont and the Du Pont Country Club were bundled as DuPont Hospitality. The name was then changed to DuPont Theatre.

In January 2015, The Grand Opera House assumed operation. The name of the theater is now The Playhouse on Rodney Square.

Scope and Content

The DuPont Theatre records consist primarily of public relations and advertising materials related to the theater's operation between 1919 and 2001. As such, they present a sequence of changing tastes in popular entertainment in a medium-sized American city.

Access Restrictions

Series I. Administrative and II. Subscriptions are subject to a 25-year time seal.

Language of Materials

English


Additional Information

Finding Aid & Administrative Information

Title:
DuPont Theatre records
Status:
Description rules:
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description:
English
Script of description:
Latin

Repository Details

Repository Details

Part of the Manuscripts and Archives Repository

Contact:
PO Box 3630
Wilmington Delaware 19807 USA
302-658-2400