March 9-15, 2006
Philadelphia's other celebrity patriot has a significant anniversary this year. On March 9, the City of Philadelphia and area theaters will commemorate the 200th birthday of Edwin Forrest (1806-1872), America's first famous actor. In an age that had no radio, TV or recordings, Forrest was the superstar of show business, triumphing in spectacular Shakespearean roles like Hamlet and King Lear. His memory lives on in the Forrest Theatre, which is named for him; in an 11-foot statue that stands in the lobby of the Walnut Street Theatre, where Forrest made his debut; and in the national Actors' Fund and Actors' Home, which he helped establish. The brownstone mansion where he lived, at Broad and Master streets, is also now the home of Freedom Theatre.
To honor his desire to assist retired actors, the Theatre Alliance of Philadelphia is holding collections in Alliance theaters for the Actors' Home of the Actors' Fund of America. Forrest built a retirement home for actors in Northeast Philadel-phia in 1865; it moved to Parkside Avenue in 1926 and in 1986 to Englewood, N.J. Joseph Benincasa, the Fund's director, says, "We cherish the legacy of Edwin Forrest and his spirit continues to inspire all the work the Actors' Fund does each and every day." Tony Award-winning actress Zoe Caldwell will lay a wreath at Forrest's graveside and lead a toast, while the Walnut presents an Edwin Forrest exhibit in its lobby.
Forrest also established a fund to reward the writers of plays on American subjects and put the winning works on stage with his own acting company. The prize this year goes to a drama about Forrest himself: Forrest: A Riot of Dreams, by Philadelphian Armen Pandola, opening March 14 at Independence Studio on 3 above the Walnut. The title refers to the infamous battle between fans of Forrest and his rival, the elegant English actor William Macready, at Astor Place in Man-hattan in 1849 in which 22 people died when troops fired on the mob, fueled by lingering anti-British sentiment. Forrest always stressed American individualism and his fans bragged about their hero's "manly, vital, burly Americanism." They carried signs and leaflets saying "Workingmen: Shall Americans or English aristocrats triumph?"
Forrest had a brush with political fame as well. He was friendly with Andrew Jackson, another opponent of the British, who was elected president and tried to get Forrest to run for Congress. Instead, Forrest used his fame and wealth to help American playwrights and aging actors.
Forrest: A Riot of Dreams, Tue.-Wed., March 14-15, 7:30 p.m., $26, through April 2, Independence Studio on 3 above the Walnut, 825 Walnut St., 215-574-3550.