My parents were not theatre goers. They much preferred the silver screen or the small black-and-white one at home. It may have been those early television dramas that sparked in me a desire to see a stage show. Every time I mentioned going to the National Theatre, my parents would only nod in blank agreement or make some brief noncommittal comment.
The National was one of two legitimate theatres in Washington D.C. during the 1950s. The other was the Sam S. Shubert at 513 9th Street, N.W. Designed by William McElfatrick, it had opened as the Gayety in 1907. In those early years, the theatre featured “second or third class vaudeville”, burlesque and an occasional film show. Black audiences regulated to wooden benches in the balcony, an area known by a politically incorrect term. The playhouse taken over by the Shubert organization in 1950 had its name officially changed two years later.
I managed to get a ticket to a rock and roll show there in January of 1959, totally mortified by the fact that my father would be accompanying me. The concert never took place. The Shubert closed after a fire on January 28, with the building torn down soon after.
“The Theatre of Presidents”, the National first opened its doors on December 27, 1835 with the production Man of the World. Destroyed by fire and rebuilt on the same site five times during the 1800’s, part of the theatre’s original foundation can still be seen in the basement. The auditorium’s interior columns removed with the theatre being remodeled in the summer of 1922.
On August 1, 1948, after the last performance of Oklahoma, the National closed as a legitimate theatre when management refused to de-segregate. It opened as a movie house, October 16, 1948, with the American premier of The Red Shoes starring Moira Shearer. In my childhood, the nation’s capital was very much a segregated city with Leadbelly writing a song about it (The Bourgeois Blues). Stage shows returned with the National becoming integrated under new management in 1952.
The space closed from April 1983 through January 18, 1984 for a $6.3 milllion renovation. The new National Theatre opening on January 23, 1984 with 42nd Street, starring Dolores Gray and Barry Nelson, chorography by Gower Champion
Surrounded by history and age, it is only natural for the venerable National Theatre to have a ghostly specter. To find out more about John Edward McCullough visit the theatre’s website.