The opulent and historic Grand Opera House has been a landmark for the residents of Wilmington and the surrounding region for more than 140 years. Opened in 1871 as a home for the Grand Lodge of the Masons for the lordly sum of $100,000, The Grand has played host to thousands of renowned entertainers and performing artists over the years, including Ethel Barrymore, Buffalo Bill Cody, John Philip Sousa, political cartoonist Thomas Nast, and the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University.
Designed by Delaware architect Thomas Dixon in the Second Empire style, The Grand features a distinctive façade of cast iron adorned with Masonic images. The first season of operation presented more than seventy performances that included everything from serious dramas to minstrel shows to lectures and exhibitions. Tickets that season cost a dollar for a reserved seat. Boxes were an extravagant $5 but seated four. In 1909, The Grand was briefly converted into a regular stop on the vaudeville circuit and then transitioned into a movie theater. Eclipsed by the more modernly lavish and larger Aldine next door, The Grand was eventually reduced to screening second-run horror films and Westerns. The building was allowed to fall into decline and sadly closed its doors in 1967.
“To destroy it would be a crime, to restore it would be a triumph”
So said Bill Frank of the Morning News, and other prominent citizens of Wilmington were thinking the same. On December 22, 1971, the hundredth anniversary of its original grand opening, The Grand Opera House was again packed with people and excitement, as plans were unveiled to renovate the theater to its former splendor.
Over the next few years, a thoughtful and complete restoration was undertaken. The Grand was rededicated on February 1, 1973, and began again to present the finest performing artists from around the world. Delaware historian Carol Hoffecker, described the project as ""a Cinderella story, the most spectacularly successful preservation effort in Wilmington's history.""
Next door, the Aldine Theater, once The Grand's rival, had fallen on similar hard times. Closed in 1970, most of the building was razed in 1992. With the help of friends and philanthropists, The Grand acquired the lots and opened a companion theater building in 2000. The baby grand, a cozy 300-seat proscenium theater, occupies the first floor, with offices, rehearsal rooms and teaching spaces extending several floors above.
The Grand Today
The Grand and baby grand are beehives of artistic activity. The Grand presents more than 80 shows each season, ranging from the latest rock and comedy stars to classical music, dance, traditional American music, jazz, world arts, and family and variety performers as well. The Delaware Symphony, Opera Delaware, and First State Ballet Theatre are all in residence at The Grand, presenting full schedules in each of their disciplines. Between The Grand, its resident performing companies, and rentals, the building hosts more than 300 events a year bringing more than 120,000 people into downtown Wilmington and through its doors.
In addition to the full-time and part-time professional staff, The Grand is ably supported by the Board of Directors, Grand Trustees, and an extensive volunteer corps who usher all performances and perform other ongoing services for The Grand's valued patrons.
In 2015, The Grand assumed operation of its sister theater on Market Street, The Playhouse on Rodney Square (formerly the DuPont Theatre), where we continue to present the Broadway in Wilmington series, as well as other, non-Broadway entertainment. The Playhouse has a similarly rich heritage as The Grand.
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 theater’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 theater patron world-class dining, lodging, and entertainment all in one building, a unique experience in the world of Broadway national touring theaters, even today.
The theater 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 theater that would be called the Playhouse. It was one of the largest theaters 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 theater: 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 1920s and 1930s 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 theater alive. The Wilmington community also showed its continued support at a city Chamber of Commerce meeting by guaranteeing continued subscription purchases, ensuring the theater’s viability. New manager Raymond N. Harris assumed the role into the mid-1940s before DuPont assumed full management in 1946.
The Playhouse faced more challenges with the rise of Hollywood’s silver screen. Live theaters succumbed to the competition and converted to movie theaters. 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 theater goers, an effortless, telephone reservation system and new dinner-theater 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 1980s prepared 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 theater. More renovations in the 1990s 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.
Another change in the early 2000s was when the Playhouse was renamed the DuPont Theatre in February 2003. A variation on the original name, The Playhouse on Rodney Square, was restored when the DuPont Company turned over management of the theater to The Grand. The new name connects the illustrious history of the theater with the equally-important history of the state’s founding.
Today, the century-old Victorian gem proudly remains the oldest legitimate, continually operating theater in the country. The theater has hosted shows such as Jersey Boys, Chicago, Cats, Anything Goes, RENT, Les Miserables, and Mamma Mia. The theater has hosted hundreds of celebrity performers and speakers such as Bette Davis, Fred Astaire, Orson Welles, John and Ethel Barrymore, Carol Channing, Ben Vereen, Christopher Plummer, Kathleen Turner, Lena Horne, and many many more. The theater was named the winner of the Delaware News Journal Reader’s Choice award for “Best Live Arts Venue” in 2011."