The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Dancing through the archives of D.C.’s oldest theater, the National

National Theatre executive director David Kitto and archivist Lana Mason in a former dressing room that houses the historic theater's archives. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)

If you were a culturally minded Washingtonian in the first week of December 1852, you might have headed over to the National Theatre. The smorgasbord of attractions on offer included a Grand Troupe of French and Spanish dancers, including Mlle. De Melisse and Senorita Soto, followed by the comic-drama “Good for Nothing,” featuring Miss Annie Lonsdale in her celebrated turn as Nan, and then a farce called “Sketches in India” and a grand ballet in two acts.

“Sounds like a good time,” says archivist Lana Mason, leaning over a poster advertising the fare.

“Something for everyone,” agrees David Kitto, the theater’s executive director.

We’re on the fourth floor of the Pennsylvania Avenue NW theater, in what was once a set of dressing rooms, now repurposed as an archive. Nine filing cabinets line one wall, the folders inside containing information on every show done at the National from 1900 to today. Another wall is lined with books. Shelves hold photos, scrapbooks, plastic sleeves of color slides, old videotapes. Further back, posters are piled up, announcing shows with the likes of Carol Channing and Tim Curry.

The 1852 poster rests on a counter beneath a mirror framed in lightbulbs. (How many actors have checked their makeup here before heading onstage?) Next to that poster is another framed broadsheet, from 1853.

“These are the oldest materials in the collection that I’ve found so far,” says Mason, who was brought on board three months ago to sort through the somewhat neglected archives. “They’re in really remarkable condition.”

The National is Washington’s oldest continuously operating theater and the second oldest in the country (behind only Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Theatre). There has been a National on this spot since 1835. The current building dates to 1924. The very first show was “The Man of the World” by Charles Macklin. The current offering is “Six,” a musical celebration of Henry VIII’s half-dozen wives that debuted at Edinburgh’s Fringe festival, hopped to London’s West End, then opened on Broadway before sending out this road company.

“We’ve probably got the best record of touring theater on the East Coast in existence, considering its position between New York and Richmond,” Kitto says. “Vivien Leigh played here. Laurence Olivier played here. Churchill spoke here.”

That was in 1900, when a 26-year-old Winston Churchill was on a lecture tour, recounting his exploits during the Boer War. (“He possesses no marked traits of the professional public speaker,” wrote a critic from the Washington Times, who did allow that “the recital was brightened by many shafts of humor.”)

Says Kitto: “This was the Kennedy Center before the Kennedy Center.”

As befits a theater three blocks from the White House, the National has attracted its share of presidents. Mason has pulled out a photo of Jack and Jackie Kennedy at a performance of “Mr. President” starring Nanette Fabray.

An 1885 history published to mark the theater’s 50th anniversary notes that John Wilkes Booth appeared at the National only once, on April 11, 1863, playing the title role in Shakespeare’s “Richard III.” In the audience: Abraham Lincoln.

Tad Lincoln was actually at the then-version of the National Theatre when his father was assassinated,” Kitto says. Lincoln’s son was seeing a production of “Aladdin.”

The theater’s history intertwines with the nation’s history. It’s a place for both national figures and local ones. Some are both. Mason points out a program signed by the cast of the 1943 play “Harriet.” In the title role as Harriet Beecher Stowe was a D.C. native: Helen Hayes, the first woman to win an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony.

Hayes was among those who fought to integrate the National’s audience. In 1948, the theater’s then-owners refused to allow Black patrons. After “Oklahoma!” closed in July of that year, the National switched to showing movies rather than integrate.

The archives contain a ledger book with a handwritten entry in the first week of May 1952: “Reopening of Natl. Theatre as a legit house.” The musical “Call Me Madam” — with Ethel Merman (and another D.C. native, Chita Rivera) — was back as a live theater, with new owners and an integrated audience.

Just as the show must go on, so must the archives. Kitto and Mason are hoping to add to the collection.

“I’m looking for material that helps build a narrative of the theater’s history, to help us understand not only the creative side — who are the people who came in and played here? — but also the administrative side,” Mason says. “Who are the main people who kept the theater running all those years?”

If you have something related to the National Theatre that might make a good addition to the archives, email information@nationaltheatre.org or call 202-783-3370.

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