The History of Theater - In One Amazing City

The Beauties of Society

The Beauties of Society

The header image is the newly-completed Philadelphia Opera House in 1908 (courtesy Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries).

This is followed by a composite drawing of the opera house, Oscar Hammerstein, and the soprano Maria Labia (who sang the role of Carmen in the inaugural performance). This image was widely reproduced in newspapers all over America in November of 1908, as everyone waited to see how the Battle of Philadelphia would turn out in the ongoing "Opera War."

As Philadelphians had watched the building rise, they were treated to almost daily news reports of all his grand plans for it, all the rich people that were already supposedly pledging their support to it, and all and great artists that were going to perform in it. 


Above, the front page of The Philadelphia Inquirer, November 17, 1908. The photo is taken from the stage of the new Philadelphia Opera House looking out into the seats and boxes that will soon be filled with their first full audience. Below, the front page of the paper on November 18th, filled with images of some of the notable people who were there, mostly prominent ladies of Philadelphia society - although there is another image of Maria Labia, too.

Of course, just seven months earlier, on April 1st, the scene at the corner of N. Broad and Poplar Streets had been quite different. Not only was the huge opera house as yet only plans on paper, there was another building standing there. As we report in the podcast episode, yet another Philly riot broke out as different groups of unemployed laborers skirmished over who would be hired to do the work. 

Here's how the front page of the Inquirer looked the day after THAT:


We should also take the opportunity to show you some images of some other "beauties" of Philadelphia - the other amazing theaters that were built in Philadelphia during the first decade of the 20th Century. Alas, all of these are gone now, but I have managed to gather a great number of historic photos of them. Here are a few.

The Garrick Theatre (left, the front door on Chestnut next to the Hale Building, right the outer brick wall of the auditorium along Sansom Street):

The B.F. Keith Theatre, farther up Chestnut, had an even more elaborate entranceway, meant to entice crowds inside to see the continuous vaudeville acts: 

An architect's rendering of the twin Lyric and Adelphi Theatres, built just north of City Hall by the Shuberts:

And lastly, the long frontage of stores and shops along Broad Street between Walnut and Sansom, where the front entrance of the Forrest Theatre poked through. You can see the structure containing the lobby stretching back towards the bulk of the auditorium. This first Forrest Theatre only stood from 1907 to 1927, when the partnership agreement between the Shuberts and Abraham Erlanger dissolved. It was demolished, and the current Forrest Theatre was built to the east, on Walnut Street. Today the Wells Fargo building occupies this site.


Selected Bibliography:


Abernethy, Lloyd M., "Progressivism: 1905-1919"  in Philadelphia: A 300-Year History, Russel F. Weigley, ed., W.W. Norton & Company, 1982, pp. 524-565.

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.

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

Thomars, Adolph S., The First Oscar Hammerstein and New York's Golden Age of Theater and Music, McFarland, 2020.

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


"Beauties of Society Will Throng to Brand-New Opera House," Philadelphia Inquirer, November 17, 1908, p 1.

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

"Workmen in Wild All-Day Riot Besiege Future Opera House Site," Philadelphia Inquirer, April 2, 1908, p 2.