The venerable Walnut Street Theatre has been the grande dame of Philadelphia theater for 200 years.
Throughout those two centuries, she has hosted circus acts, opera performances, vaudeville acts, lectures, music, dance, motion pictures and live theater productions. Performers who have graced the stage include familiar names, from the Barrymores, Will Rogers, the Marx Brothers and Helen Hayes to Katharine Hepburn, Marlon Brando, Ethel Waters and Audrey Hepburn. Jane Fonda, Robert Redford and even William Shatner have all performed at the Walnut. She’s an old gal, but she’s always been ahead of her time. The Walnut, on the corner of Ninth and Walnut streets, was the first theater to install gas footlights and air conditioning.
These days, the Walnut prides itself on a mix of tradition and innovation. Walnut’s Independence Studio on 3 allows the theater to produce smaller, more challenging and controversial shows while Studio 5, a 52-seat black-box theater on the fifth floor, is temporary home to a number of smaller independent theater companies. The theater also operates a number of educational programs on top of its main-stage productions.
Overseeing all of it is managing director Mark Sylvester, whose extensive career has spanned from summer stock to Broadway as actor, stage manager, box-office treasurer, theater manager, marketing director and general manager. At age 21, he managed his first theater, New York City’s historic Provincetown Playhouse. This season, he is celebrating his 28th year in theater and 15th season at the Walnut.
PGN: How did you end up here, or are you from Philly? MS: I was born in Massachusetts but I’ve lived all over. I’ve been pretty much on my own since I was a teenager. I was drawn to the theater at a young age and have spent most of my life working in theater in different capacities. It’s the type of business that causes you to move around in order to go where the work is, but I’ve been able to stay in Philadelphia for the past 15 years. I was working at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami and I got a call to come work at the Walnut Street Theatre. It was the right fit and I’ve been here ever since.
PGN: What were your first thoughts about the city? MS: Honestly, I was really surprised that the city seemed very rundown. Keep in mind that this was 15 years ago, before a lot of Philadelphia’s renaissance — before they cleaned up downtown and added new streetlamps and other beautification projects. It’s been terrific watching the city turn itself around over the last 15 years. Now it’s such a great, vibrant city, it’s wonderful to be a part of it.
PGN: How has theater changed for the small theaters? MS: Well, it’s changed in a number of ways. With the addition of the Kimmel Center and the refitting of the Academy of Music to accommodate big Broadway-style shows, it’s more economical for touring musicals to go to those theaters that have larger seating capacities. But it allows us to do our own thing.
PGN: I seem to recall that a lot of the shows used to come to Philadelphia to work the kinks out before going to Broadway, but I don’t see as much of that these days. MS: Yes, a number of plays such as “A Streetcar Named Desire” starring Marlon Brando, “A Raisin in the Sun” featuring Sidney Poitier and “The Diary of Anne Frank” featuring Susan Strasberg all premiered at the Walnut before going to Broadway. Again, I think it comes down to economics. It takes a lot of money to put up a show. Before, you had a chance to take your show on the road for some time to rewrite it and work out the kinks. Nowadays, you don’t have that luxury like you used to. Under today’s standards, shows like “Oklahoma!” “Brigadoon” and “Carousel” never would have made it to New York. They would have been killed out of town before they had a chance to tweak the show and make the changes that would turn them into great shows. In Philadelphia, we are just a quick train ride away, so the whole New York industry can see your show here before you’ve had a chance to work the bugs out. As a result, Seattle, San Diego, Chicago and Washington, D.C., have become the four cities where plays seem to get their legs.
PGN: So back to you: Are you an only child? MS: No, I have an older sister who now lives outside of New Orleans.
PGN: Were you her dress-up doll? MS: [Laughs.] No, she was always out of the house. I was always the odd man out. My dad was a schoolteacher and my mother was a nurse and I was the kid that no one quite seemed to know what to do with.
PGN: What did you like to do? MS: Mostly daydream about being an adult. I spent a great deal of my childhood dreaming about what I was going to do in the future. And I’ve pretty much done exactly what I dreamed of.
PGN: Did you have a blanket or stuffed animal? MS: No, but I did have an imaginary friend. I probably had him a bit longer than most kids, from the ages of about 6 to 10.
PGN: How old were you when you left home? MS: I was about 16 when I moved to Boston on my own. I started working there and finished high school. I was accepted into Harvard College, which is the undergraduate section of the university, but after one semester, I dropped out. I knew I wanted to be in show business and wanted to get started.
PGN: What prompted the move? MS: When my parents found out I was gay, they didn’t know how to handle it. They did what they thought was right by trying to get me help, which in the ’70s was psychiatric intervention. There had been an incident at school, which led to them finding out and so they sent me away to try to get help. The funny thing was, I always knew who I was and it never bothered me. I was always very comfortable with who and what I was even before I had a name for it. I knew I was attracted to men and never gave it a second thought and never felt the need to conform. Other people had concerns about it, which sometimes led to difficulties at home and at school, but I never once doubted who I was. That self-assurance allowed me to just blindly run off to the city and pursue my dreams. I didn’t really blossom until I got away, but I always knew where I was headed.
PGN:: Do you remember the first play you saw that inspired you to get into theater? MS: I saw the pre-Broadway tryout of Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies.” I was about 8 years old and I loved it. I was drawn to the magic and escapism of the theater. I had a fairly boring childhood and it was amazing to be able to go to this other world full of drama and excitement. I also loved the community of theater. There’s nothing more magical than 1,000 people getting together and sharing an experience. Theater is a live communicating art form; it’s living and breathing. Laughing or crying and experiencing deep emotions in a communal atmosphere is a powerful thing. Walnut Street Theatre is the oldest theater in America and this year is the 200th anniversary. It’s great to celebrate the building, but I think the most exciting thing is the fact that for 200 years the building has been bringing people together.
PGN: How did you get started in theater? MS: I started doing summer stock when I was 15. I may have fudged a little bit on my application so that they thought I was 18 and I got to go to the Old Colony Theater in Plymouth, Mass., and do an apprenticeship there. When I was 16, I did the Keene summer theater in New Hampshire and then the New London Barn Playhouse in New Hampshire when I was 17. I met a lot of people who were up from New York who worked in the industry who told me they’d help me out. Next thing I knew, I was working and living in New York. I got a job with the Shubert organization (they’re one of the largest owners of Broadway theaters) doing customer service. I quickly learned that I wanted to work in the theater but not necessarily as an actor. [Laughs.] I was too much of a control freak to be an actor. It’s funny; even before I started acting, I said that I wanted to be a producer. When I was in fifth grade, I used to doodle pictures of the Shubert logo, so it’s amazing that my first job was with the organization.
PGN: What was a memorable moment during your career? MS: I was working at the Coconut Grove Playhouse and we were doing a play that was gearing up to go to Broadway called “The Big Love” starring Tracey Ullman. The reviews had come out and they were really, really bad. She read them and locked herself in her hotel room and wouldn’t come out. I had to go to her room and talk her into coming back to the playhouse to perform the show in front of a sold-out crowd.
PGN: What’s something you would do if you weren’t afraid? MS: Probably skydive. The way my brain works, one half thinks it sounds exciting and the other half says, “It’s too much of a risk, don’t you dare do it.”
PGN: Do you collect anything? MS: I have an enormous collection of cast albums from around the world. I have over 2,700 albums of mostly musicals. I probably have eight copies of “Guys and Dolls” in different languages from different productions around the world.
PGN: Any hobbies? MS: I love to shop. A lot of my friends are still in New York, so I’m up there at least one weekend a month. I enjoy fashion and I’m a good bargain hunter, so I like to go up and find nice Versace or Gucci pieces. My favorite designer of the moment is Michael Kors. Oh, and I grow exotic orchids in my apartment. I currently have five orchids in bloom, which is quite a feat for Philadelphia in January!
PGN: Non-human companions? MS: I have a parrot named Nicky. He’s a grey-cheeked parrot, which is a rare breed. They are the smallest of all the parrots — they’re sometimes called pocket parrots — and I’ve had him for 18 years. He’s frantically pacing right now saying, “I wish you weren’t on the phone ... ”
PGN: Does he talk? MS: When he wants to. He’s kind of shy and doesn’t really talk around strangers. He’s actually very sweet and likes to cuddle and be held, but because he’s so small he’s very leery at first. He’s also very protective of me and a great judge of character. His track record with men I’ve dated has been amazingly accurate! If he doesn’t like someone, I’ve learned that they’re probably not going to work out.
PGN: Do you play any instruments? MS: I did. As a child, I played saxophone and piano. I did both fairly well, but when I left home and started on my life’s journeys, I lost it.
PGN: Did you have a favorite teacher? MS: Well, yes, but he was a part of the incident that resulted in me being sent away, so I won’t go into any detail.
PGN: I’m sure it was a difficult time. I don’t think kids these days realize the history of what people went through not that long ago in the gay community. MS: Absolutely not. We have a lot of LGBT youth on the staff and it’s frightening how little they are aware of the struggles of the community. They’re not even aware of the scope of the AIDS epidemic. I was in New York at the height of the disease. We were in the epicenter of it. In one year, 1986, I lost almost every friend I had. It was incomprehensible. And people today just aren’t aware of how bad it was.
PGN: Worst or most unusual job? MS: I took a job one time at a gay housecleaning service in New York. I quickly learned that it was not for me, but what was funny was that the person whose house I cleaned later became a well-known Broadway producer. I met him again many years later on a professional level and through mutual friends. I never let on that I’d cleaned his place those many years ago!
PGN: Last time you cried? MS: Watching the inauguration. When Obama walked onto the platform to be sworn in and the camera panned the crowd, it was overwhelming. The sense of change and the sense of things coming back into control after being out of whack for some time was really moving.
PGN: Something you wish you could master? MS: I travel a bit, and I wish I could speak another language. I’ve never been able to do it. I have a friend who speaks nine languages and I find it fascinating.
PGN: Favorite fictional character? MS: That’s easy. Charity Hope Valentine from the musical “Sweet Charity.” She’s just so full of hope, optimism and possibility. She is a romantic that always hooks up with the wrong man. My bedroom is decorated with posters of her from the play.
PGN: What gave you your sense of hope? MS: I think it’s always been part of my makeup. I don’t know if it’s nature or nurture, but I’ve always been a very aggressively driven person. It might be because I always fought to be who I wanted to be. I’ve been through a lot of tragedies in my life, but those tragedies are what made me who I am today. I had a bizarre health condition a few years ago that almost killed me, but I came through it. Even at a young age, I’ve always visualized myself as a success and a survivor and used that to motivate myself. I never wavered.
PGN: What are your duties as managing director? MS: I oversee all the day-to-day and business operations of the theater. I cover everything from negotiating the rights for the productions to hiring the production people, from the actors to the directors who come and work for us. I oversee putting together the budgets and personnel policies. I put together the benefit packages and the insurance packages; all the things that go into running the theater. We’re a $14-million-plus operation, so there’s a lot that goes into it. We have the largest subscription in the world with 57, 000 subscribers.
PGN: Do you have to do separate packages for each show that comes in? MS: Yes. We self-produce all our own shows, plus we have a lot of ongoing programs. We do five shows on the main stage and five shows in the Studio 5 space. We put on about 10 different educational productions each year, we have a theater school with professional teachers, we have an outreach program that goes into the schools. We have a scenic and properties shop in Port Richmond and we have a costume-fabrication and wardrobe department right in the main building. We do Camp Walnut, which is a theater-training program for kids 8-18, and much, much more. I’m deeply involved with the marketing of the theater. That’s actually my background. When I went to New York, I worked with an old-time Broadway producer who taught me things that I still use today.
PGN: That’s great that you keep old traditions and schools of thought alive. MS: Yes, I love the history of the theater. I co-wrote a book last year, “Walnut Street Theatre: Images of America: Pennsylvania” with Bernard Havard. It’s a celebration of the 200-year history of the theater. It’s available at the theater or in most major bookstores. You can also order it online on Amazon or Barnes & Noble. I’m proud to announce that I just received news that the sales have been in excess of 6,500.
PGN: What’s your favorite story from the book? MS:Well, we tell the history in pictures, but my favorite part is about “Big Bill” Tilden. He was the first American to win the Wimbledon singles championship. He held the ranking of No. 1 tennis player in the world for seven years, and was flamboyantly gay. He was known for his theatrical presentation on and off the court. He went on to pursue a career as a producer and actor, but didn’t do very well at it. He starred at the Walnut in a play called “They All Want Something” in 1926. He was a prominent figure and one of the first out gay personalities.
PGN: What do you love about the Walnut? MS: It’s such a welcoming place. We don’t do an LGBT series because any given night you’ll find a mix of people here. We have stories and people of all races, orientations, ages and backgrounds. In my view, it’s a utopian kind of audience. It’s what I imagine the future to be: lots of different people coming together to share something as one. It’s a magical experience and something you don’t get sitting by yourself watching a DVD.
For more information on the history of the Walnut Street Theatre or its upcoming season, go to www.walnutstreettheatre.org.