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    Updated April 16, 2009

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The Show Must Go On…And On…And On

By Nicole Flender


(l-r) 200th Anniversary Celebration Director Bruce Lumpkin works through the finale with the cast, including Ben Dibble, Denise Whelan, Hugh Panaro, Jamie Torcellini and Charles Abbott.

February 2, 2009 marked the bicentennial of the legendary Walnut Street Theatre in historic Philadelphia. To celebrate the occasion, Producing Artistic Director Bernard Havard invited over 50 former Walnut Street performers to present songs from shows they had done at the Walnut over the past 25 years. It was with delight that patrons and fellow performers listened to songs from such hit shows as CABARET, CATS, LES MIZ, THE SOUND OF MUSIC, FINIAN'S RAINBOW, STATE FAIR, FUNNY GIRL, CAMELOT, JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT, THE PRODUCERS and most adorably, ANNIE (complete casts of orphans from Annie and Daddy Warbucks graced the stage), among others. Halfway through the two-hour program, Philadelphia's Mayor, Michael A. Nutter, took the stage to congratulate the Walnut on its 200th anniversary and to speak about the importance of the arts in Philadelphia. In December 2008 he formed the Mayor's Cultural Advisory Council with the goal of keeping the quality of the arts high in Philadelphia. With a twinkle in his eye, Mayor Nutter contributed to the entertainment by offering to sing but then adding that he thought it would be more valuable if the audience decided to stay. The show's finale included the entire cast singing "The Best of Times is Now" from LA CAGE AUX FOLLES, but it was decided that after 200 years, the best is yet to come.

The mezzanine of the Walnut is decorated with black and white headshots (an icon of yesteryear) of former performers. Chorus members' photos are every bit as prominent as those of stars. It was such fun, upon leaving the theatre, to find photos of old friends. I wished I had had more time to spend looking. Equally fascinating were the photos of some pre -Broadway tryouts such as Marlon Brandon in A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE and Audrey Hepburn in GIGI. Jane Fonda's photo is displayed for her first big stage role in 1960: THERE WAS A LITTLE GIRL.


(l-r, foreground): Deborah Jean Templin, Ben Dibble, Denise Whelan, Hugh Panaro, Jamie Torcellini, Charles Abbott, Brandon O’Rourke and Cara Cooper rehearse the final number for the Walnut’s 200th anniversary celebration.

The Walnut's fame goes beyond theatrical. In 1976 President Gerald Ford and Governor Jimmy Carter used the Walnut Street as the venue for their first debate. And President Carter was back at this site in 1990 to receive the Philadelphia Liberty Medal, a high honor bestowed on an individual or an organization worldwide that has "demonstrated leadership and vision in the pursuit of liberty of conscience or freedom from oppression, ignorance or deprivation."

Once outside the Walnut, I ran into Executive Director John Connolly who informed me he had been in nine Walnut Street productions. "Gee," I said, "I only have eight to go." Then it was off to the Ben Franklin Hotel. The Grand Ballroom was festively decorated, the champagne was flowing, food was being devoured and spirits were high. Amidst this thespian reunion, actors and guests were hugging each other, exchanging stories, reminiscing and wondering where the years had gone, "Did I really do this show in '85?" was a common cry.

I talked for awhile with performer Nat Chandler, with whom I had worked in 1989. Sal Viviano and I recalled that our sons had danced with Jacques d'Amboise and the National Dance Institute when they were five years old. He and his family are a Walnut Street legend. Sal performed in JOSEPH, and his wife, Liz Larson, did KUNI LEMEL at the Walnut. Liz's mother performed there and Liz's grandfather was a vaudeville performer at the Walnut in the 1930s. Bernard Havard's daughter Celine was having fun with her kids, as was Equity's First Vice-President Paige Price with her husband. It was nostalgic catching up with the gracious Charles Abbott, who in addition to performing at the Walnut, has directed some 25 shows at there.

Since I stayed in town overnight, I was able to return to the Walnut the next morning and ask if I could take a look at the headshots that were on the walls of the mezzanine. I was allowed to wander at my leisure. So many old friends: Andrea Leigh Smith, Phil la Duca, the late Jason Opsahl, the late Bruce Adler, Celine Havard, Darryl Edwards (fellow alums of New York's High School of Performing Arts), Jane Seaman, and more. I could have stayed all day. But I did have to catch the train back to New York and, if the best is yet to come, I'm looking forward to my invitation to the 300th anniversary celebration.

Equity Eastern Councillor Nicole Flender appeared as June in GYPSY during the 1985-86 season at the Walnut. Her photo is included in the display on the mezzanine.


The Orphan Ensemble from the Walnut’s productions of Annie (2003) and Annie Warbucks (2004) perform “It’s A Hard Knock Life” onstage at the Walnut’s 200th Anniversary Celebration


The company performs “The Best of Times” (La Cage Aux Folles) onstage for the finale of the Walnut’s 200th Anniversary Celebration.





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