The History of Theater - In One Amazing City

Exit Hammerstein

Exit Hammerstein

The two men who were the commanding generals of the The Opera War (as the newspapers loved to call it) between the Metropolitan Opera and the Manhattan Opera/Philadelphia Opera Company - financier Otto Kahn (1867-1934) in his dapper overcoat and bowler hat, standing on Wall Street, and impresario Oscar Hammerstein (1846-1919) in his famous tall French opera hat, outside his Victoria Theatre on Times Square .

One of the stories we didn't get a chance to mention in the episode, by the way, was the February 1910 Transit Strike in Philadelphia. The motormen and conductors of the streetcar lines were on strike, and there was much unrest in the city - can you believe we passed up the chance to describe riots? Other labor unions who went out in sympathy strikes, including the workers at the Baldwin Locomotive Plant on Spring Garden Street, got in violent clashes with the police. Because of the lack of streetcars, which were essential for its audience, for at least a week the Philadelphia Opera on North Broad was shut down. Meanwhile, The Met at the Academy on South Broad - perhaps because much of its audience lived within walking distance, or was closer to major railroad stations - was less affected. Hammerstein started performances again as soon as he could, but it must have been the last straw for him, because soon after he left for Europe, and told his son Arthur to cut a deal with Otto Kahn.

Below, photos of Hammerstein and Edward T. Stotesbury in April of 1910, when it was announced that Oscar was selling out to The Metropolitan and getting out of grand opera. Stotesbury (1849-1938), the Philadelphia financier who ended up taking the Philadelphia Opera house away from Hammerstein. Interestingly, though he hardly died bereft of funds like Hammerstein, by the end of his life Stotesbury had lost almost 97% of the $100 million fortune he had amassed in 1910. The stock market slump of the Great Depression - and the costs of keeping up his huge private houses in Pennsylvania and Florida - had drained him.


Max Reinhardt (1873-1943) was one of the great theater director of the early 20th Century - perhaps THE greatest director of his era. Not only had he been instrumental with starting the worldwide "Little Theatre" movement with his Sound and Smoke Cabaret in Berlin in 1901, but he had  also founded the Salzburg Festival in his native Austria in 1920. Reinhardt was known for his huge spectacle productions like his large cast stagings of Sophocles' Oedipus the King, Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream and Hugo von Hofmannstahl's Jederman

The play The Miracle by Hans Vollmöller, though almost forgotten today, was one of the most well-known artistic dramatic works of its day. A wordless story about a wayward nun, a knight, an evil minstrel and the Virgin Mary, it had been staged by Reinhardt in almost every major city in the world by the time it came to Philadelphia in 1926. As we mention in the episode, it was staged as an annex to the Sesquicentennial Exhibition, but it did rather better, in terms of attendance and profits. I know I'm drawing a lot of images from the Inquirer, but here's a photo that appeared there on October 8, 1926, as the spectacle was beginning its five week run.

Above, another image from the Inquirer, this one from April 10, 1931. Caption: "HOLD DRESS REHEARSAL OF OEDIPUS REX. The picture was taken in the Metropolitan Opera House during the final dress of 'Oedipus Rex', which is to be produced for the first time tonight. Dr. Stokowski is seen directing the orchestra in lower left. In the background are three fifteen-foot puppets which 'act' in Igor Stravinsky's opera-oratorio." The nine-foot-tall puppets were designed by Robert Edmond Jones.

Above, an image from the George D. McDowell Philadelphia Evening Bulletin Collection, Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries. This photo shows the interior of the opera house in 1942, many of its glories still intact thirty years after its construction. However, we can also also spot some of the renovation the building underwent when it was briefly turned into a Mastbaum movie palace in the 1920s, because the center boxes under the balcony have been altered to become a projection booth.

For this and many other images the post, I'm very indebted for the information collected by Rob McClung for his 2018 piece in Hidden City Philadelphia about The Met (see Bibliography). One of the amazing images he shares in the article is that of workmen building out a temporary wooden floor  in 1939, as they changed the space into a sports arena. The large hole left in the floor seems to be left for the accommodation (or removal) of the movie organ console in orchestra pit.

Below, a newspaper ad for Pastor Thea Jones' Easter services in the Met from the year 1962, which was also being broadcast over radio station WHAT. Jones and his church would end up being the longest-lasting owner and tenant the building had ever known.

By the early 21st Century, the auditorium of the theater was derelict, with huge holes in the plasterwork and most of the seats removed. Renovation work was just about to take place, however. . . 

The congregation of the Holy Ghost Headquarters in the year 2018, after renovations had restored the interior of the building. The photo is from an article in the Philadelphia Tribune by Nathaniel Lee (see Bibliography).

Finally, the exterior of The Met in February 2023, in my own photograph.

Selected Bibliography:


Glazer, Irving R., Philadelphia Theatres, A-Z: a Comprehensive, Descriptive Record of 813 Theatres Constructed Since 1724, Greenwood Press, 1986.

Marion, John Francis, "The Challenge of Oscar Hammerstein," Within These Walls: A History of the Academy of Music. Published by the Restoration Fund Office, The Academy of Music, 1984, pp. 146-169.

Matz, Mary Jane, The Many Lives of Otto Kahn, The Macmillan Company, 1963.

Sayer, Oliver M., editor, "The Miracle" Edition of Max Reinhardt and His Theatre, Brentano's Publishers, New York, 1926

Sheean, Vincent, Oscar Hammerstein I, The Life and Exploits of an Impresario (preface by Oscar Hammerstein II), Simon & Schuster, 1956.

Van Vechten, Carl, "Oscar Hammerstein: An Epitaph," In The Garrett, Alfred A. Knopf, 1920, pp. 234-259.


Hamburger, Phillip, "The Perfect Glow - II", The New Yorker, May 19, 1951, pp. 45-53.

"Hammerstein Retires from Field of Opera," Philadelphia Inquirer, April 28, 1910, p. 1.

Lee, Nathaniel, "Holy Ghost Headquarters: That old, refined spirit returns to North Broad Street," Philadelphia Tribune, December 15, 2018. (via web)

McClung, Rob, "The Rise, Fall, and Revival of North Broad's Opera Palace," Hidden City Philadelphia (website), June 14, 2018.

"Opera Directors Meet Tomorrow," Philadelphia Inquirer, May 1, 1910, p. 14.

"Risking Death at Met," by Leon Taylor and Gar Joseph, Philadelphia Daily News, December 8, 1997, p. 6.

"Society, With Impartial Favor, Smiles on New and Old Temples of Music," Philadelphia Inquirer, November 19, 1909, p. 1