100 men. 150 working days. 100 years of continuous Broadway entertainment. It all began with the dream of three DuPont executives, John J. Raskob, Pierre S. du Pont, and R.R.M. Carpenter, who wished to provide Wilmington, Delaware with “the finest entertainment possible.” Their plan was to construct a theatre large enough to accommodate any New York Show as a “dress rehearsal venue,” as well as providing the community a location for non-profit events, lectures, and business meetings.
The theatre’s location was the key to its success. It was constructed in an area known as Pinkett’s Court, which was adjacent to the recently opened, elegant Hotel du Pont. This offered the theatre patron world-class dining, lodging, and entertainment all in one building, a unique experience in the world of Broadway national touring theatres, even today.
The theatre was designed by Charles A. Rich with the Wilmington firm of Brown and Whiteside appointed to assist. Contractor J. A. Bader was awarded the project with a winning bid of $122,960. On April 15, 1913, construction commenced to prepare land for ground breaking. A 100 man crew worked for 150 consecutive days to construct the theatre that would be called the Playhouse. It was one of the largest theatres of its time using over 750,000 bricks and 2,000 tons of concrete. Measuring 38 feet deep, and 85 feet wide, the stage could easily accommodate almost any traveling show.
Several obstacles were encountered during the short six month construction period. Quick decisions were made when it was learned that original building materials of structural steel and cast iron stone wouldn’t be available in time to meet strict deadlines. Experts were commissioned and new materials such as reinforced concrete were substituted. A stage of such size also required an 85 foot girder to support the roof. Weighing 120 tons, it was the third largest in the world. While concrete settled, work ceased for several days to prevent any damage or cracking; decorators were challenged to begin painting while plaster was still drying. Despite these possible threats, construction was completed two days before the scheduled opening.
On October 15, 1913, DuPont employee A.C. Bonnell purchased the first ticket for Bought and Paid For. Ticket prices started at 25 cents for gallery seating. That evening, crowds and press gathered in the auditorium as first lessee, William A. Brady, a New York producer, outlined his objectives for the theatre: to bring the best entertainment possible to the City of Wilmington. He did just that with a variety of performances including dramas, musicals, and ballets. One production, The Whip, astounded audiences with live animals and a railroad crash on stage.
Despite the success of its early years, the 1920’s and 1930’s introduced a dip in the economy as a result of the Great Depression. New management under the famous Shubert Brothers and a line-up of stars such as Fred Astaire, John and Ethel Barrymore, Helen Hayes, or Orson Wells helped keep the theatre alive. The Wilmington community also showed its continued support at a city Chamber of Commerce meeting by guaranteeing continued subscription purchases, ensuring the theatre’s viability. New manager Raymond N. Harris assumed the role into the mid 1940’s before DuPont assumed full management in 1946.
The Playhouse faced more challenges with the rise of Hollywood’s silver screen. Live theatres succumbed to the competition and converted to movie theatres. The Playhouse responded with more live productions, their first renovations in 1949, and new creative marketing strategies to help maintain their valued patrons. Over the next 35 years, management introduced affordable student ticket prices, free parking for theatre goers, an effortless, telephone reservation system and new dinner-theatre promotions. A later improvement involved installing an infrared sound system to improve sound quality for the hearing impaired. The combined effort during these 35 years helped increase the number of subscriptions from 400 to more than 4,000.
The 1980’s pre pared to welcome 75 continuous seasons of Broadway entertainment with a great show line-up and a sweepstakes trip to London for one lucky subscriber! New renovations prior to the 75th anniversary uncovered decorative ceiling moldings, and introduced a modern lobby corridor. The Children Series was also introduced in 1988, to invite students from preschool through eighth grade to learn more about science, history, the environment, and literature through the magic of live theatre. Over the past 24 years, the program has thrived, welcoming over 40,000 students per year today. More renovations in the 1990’s offered 13 wheelchair and scooter accessible seating, and safety upgrades such as new rigging, and new railings, and safety lighting. A new sky mural freshened up the look of the traditional cream ceilings as well.
The new millennium welcomed a new program to its stage with the Smart Talk Series. Introduced in 2000, this intimate lecture series invited inspirational female speakers to the Playhouse stage to share their stories with the audience. Guest speakers have included Mary Tyler Moore, Barbara Bush, Goldie Hawn, and Diane Keaten. Another new change in the early 2000’s was when the Playhouse was renamed the DuPont Theatre in February 2003. Adding “DuPont” to the name helped strengthen the brand and reiterate DuPont’s commitment to the arts. The DuPont Theatre joined its sister properties of the Hotel du Pont and DuPont Country Club under DuPont Hospitality.
Today, the Victorian gem proudly remains the oldest legitimate, continually operating theatre in the country. Appropriately nicknamed, “Delaware’s Broadway Experience,” the theatre has hosted shows such as Chicago, Cats, Anything Goes, Grease, Les Miserables, Titanic, Hello Dolly, and Mama Mia, starring famous names such as Bette Davis, Fred Astaire, Orson Wells, John and Ethel Barrymore, Carol Channing, Mitzi Gaynor, Tommy Tune, Christopher Plummer, Robert Goulet, Loretta Swit, and more. It has also recently been named the winner of the Delaware News Journal Reader’s Choice award for “Best Live Arts Venue” in 2011.