The Grand Lady of Market Street
For more than 140 years, Wilmington locals and others in the area have recognized the sumptuous and historic Grand Opera House as a landmark. The Grand, which cost $100,000 to build in 1871 as a home for the Grand Lodge of the Masons, has hosted many famous performers Ethel Barrymore, Buffalo Bill Cody, John Philip Sousa, Thomas Nast, and the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Learn more.
The Grand is a remarkable cast-iron building with a Masonic-inspired façade, created by Delaware architect Thomas Dixon in the Second Empire style. Over seventy acts were held during the first season of operation, ranging from severe plays to minstrel shows to talks and exhibits. For that season, a reserved ticket cost one dollar. Boxes cost an exorbitant $5 and could fit four people. The Grand temporarily became a regular stop on the vaudeville tour in 1909 before changing its use to a cinema theater. The Grand was soon limited to showing second-run horror movies and Westerns since it was overshadowed by the more opulently contemporary and considerable Aldine next door. Sadly, the building’s doors were forced to shut in 1967 after it was left to deteriorate.
Its restoration would be a victory; its destruction would be a crime.
Bill Frank of the Morning News made this statement, and other well-known Wilmington residents agreed. The Grand Opera House was again crowded with people and enthusiasm on December 22, 1971, the 100th anniversary of its first grand opening, when plans to restore the theater to its former glory were announced.
Over the next several years, a thorough restoration was carried out. On February 1, 1973, The Grand received a new dedication and resumed showcasing the best performing artists from across the globe. The project was dubbed “a Cinderella tale, the most stunningly successful preservation effort in Wilmington’s history” by Delaware historian Carol Hoffecker.
The Aldine Theater, once The Grand’s competitor, was just next door and had seen a similar decline. The majority of the 1970-closed structure was demolished in 1992. The Grand bought the properties with the aid of friends and generous donors, and a companion theater structure debuted in 2000. The first level is home to the baby grand, a modest 300-seat proscenium theater with several stories of offices, rehearsal facilities, and teaching areas above.
The Playhouse on Rodney Square
The Playhouse on Rodney Square (originally the DuPont Theatre), which is The Grand’s sister theater on Market Street, has been run by The Grand since 2015. Here, they continue offering Broadway in Wilmington series and other non-Broadway entertainment. The Grand’s history is as rich as The Playhouse’s.
One hundred fifty working days for 100 guys. Broadway has provided nonstop entertainment for 100 years. Three DuPont executives, John J. Raskob, Pierre S. du Pont, and R.R.M. Carpenter, had the idea to give Wilmington, Delaware, “the finest entertainment possible,” and that was the beginning of it all. They intended to build a theater big enough to serve as a “dress rehearsal venue” for any New York Show and serve as a venue for community activities like lectures and business meetings.
The theater’s success was mainly due to its location. It was built next to the freshly constructed, opulent Hotel du Pont in Pinkett’s Court. This provided a unique experience in Broadway national touring theatre even today by giving the theatergoer top-notch food, housing, and entertainment in one facility.
Charles A. Rich created the theater’s design with the help of Wilmington’s Brown and Whiteside. The project was given to contractor J. A. Bader after receiving a bid of $122,960. On April 15, 1913, work to prepare the site for a groundbreaking began. The Playhouse theater was built over 150 days by a 100-person crew. It was one of the biggest theaters of its era, constructed with 2,000 tons of concrete and over 750,000 bricks. The stage, which was 85 feet wide and 38 feet deep, could easily host almost any traveling production.
Several challenges were faced during the brief construction period of six months. When it became clear that the original building materials—structural steel and cast iron stone—would not be accessible to meet strict deadlines, hasty decisions were made. New materials, like reinforced concrete, were used in their place after experts were hired. For a stage of this size, the roof needed to be supported by an 85-foot girder. It was the third-largest object in the world, weighing 120 tons. Work had to stop for a few days while the concrete settled to avoid damage or cracking; decorators had to start painting while the plaster was still drying. Despite these potential risks, the building was finished two days ahead.
A.C. Bonnell, a DuPont employee, bought the first Bought and Paid For ticket on October 15, 1913. For gallery seating, tickets began at 25 cents. The first lessee, a producer from New York named William A. Brady, addressed the audience and the media that evening as he detailed his plans for the theater, which included bringing the most excellent entertainment to Wilmington. He accomplished this by performing a range of plays, musicals, and ballets. Audiences were shocked by The Whip, a show that included real animals and a staged train wreck. Despite the early years’ prosperity, the Great Depression in the 1920s and 1930s caused a severe economic downturn. The theater was kept alive by new leadership provided by the illustrious Shubert Brothers and a cast that included luminaries like Fred Astaire, John and Ethel Barrymore, Helen Hayes, and Orson Wells. At a local Chamber of Commerce meeting, the Wilmington community also demonstrated its ongoing support for the theater by promising to maintain membership sales, ensuring its survival. The position of new manager Raymond N. Harris was filled until the middle of the 1940s, and then in 1946, DuPont took over as full manager.
The Grand Today
The grand and the little Grand are hubs of creative activity. The Grand offers more than 80 performances each season, including everything from the newest rock and comedy acts to classical music, dance, traditional American music, jazz, world arts, family shows, and variety acts. The Grand is home to The Delaware Symphony, Opera Delaware, and First State Ballet Theatre, all of which have active schedules there. More than 300 events are held in the building annually, drawing more than 120,000 people to downtown Wilmington and through its doors between The Grand, its resident performing companies, and rentals.
The Grand is ably supported by the Board of Directors, Grand Trustees, and a sizable volunteer corps who usher all performances and provide other ongoing services for The Grand’s valued patrons and the full-time and part-time professional staff.
Hubs of creative activity may be found in the great and the tiny spectacular. More than eighty performances are presented at The Grand during each season. These range from the most cutting-edge rock and comedy acts to performances of classical music, ballet, traditional American music, jazz, foreign arts, family activities, and various acts. The Grand is home to several performing arts organizations, including the Delaware Symphony Orchestra, Opera Delaware, and First State Ballet Theatre, all of which have busy schedules. More than one hundred and twenty thousand people pass through the venue’s doors each year due to the more than three hundred events hosted by The Grand, the venue’s resident performing groups, and rental companies.
In addition to the full-time and part-time professional staff, The Grand is supported by an able Board of Directors, Grand Trustees, and a sizeable volunteer corps who usher all performances and offer other continuous services for The Grand’s devoted patrons. Another good read.
For more information, visit their website or call them at (302)-652-5577