National Theatre (Washington, D.C.)

National Theatre
National Theatre
Location within Washington, D.C.
Address 1321 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, D.C.
United States
Coordinates 38°53′47″N 77°01′50″W / 38.8963°N 77.0305°W / 38.8963; -77.0305
Owner Quadrangle Development Corporation[1]
Operator Jam Theatricals
Capacity 1705
Opened 1835
National Theatre Corporation

The National Theatre is located in Washington, D.C., and is a venue for a variety of live stage productions with seating for 1,676. Despite its name, it is not a governmentally funded national theatre, but operated by a private, non-profit organization.


This historic playhouse was founded on December 7, 1835, by William Corcoran and other prominent citizens who wanted the national capital to have a first-rate theatre. The theatre's initial production was Man of the World. The theatre has been in almost continuous operation since, at the same Pennsylvania Avenue location a few blocks from the White House. Its name was changed at times to "Grover's National Theatre," and "Grover's Theatre," as management changed. Famed actor Joseph Jefferson managed the theatre at one time. The structure has been rebuilt several times, including partial reconstructions after five fires in the 19th century. The current building, at 1321 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, was constructed in 1923, opening in September of that year.

Exterior view of the National Theatre, circa 1920s

Located three blocks from the White House, the theater has entertained every U.S. President of the United States since Andrew Jackson. On April 14, 1865, Tad Lincoln was attending a performance of Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp at Grover's Theater when his father, President Abraham Lincoln, was assassinated at Ford's Theatre.

Like many theatres in the U.S. prior to the civil rights movement, the National Theatre was racially segregated. Black actors were allowed to appear on stage, but African Americans audience members were relegated to a special section. During the Washington run of Porgy and Bess in 1936, the cast, led by Todd Duncan, protested the audience's segregation. Duncan stated that he "would never play in a theatre which barred him from purchasing tickets to certain seats because of his race." Management would give into the demands and allow for the first integrated performance at National Theatre.[2] A movement to integrate the playhouse was spearheaded by actor Helen Hayes, educator Gilbert V. Hartke, O.P., Washington art impresario Patrick Hayes, and Washington Post theatre critic Richard L. Coe. When that effort failed, they persuaded Actors Equity performers to refuse to play at the theatre. Rather than desegregating, the New York management discontinued live performances in 1948. One prestige attraction, the Washington premier of the British film The Red Shoes, was presented. Then the theatre remained dark until it reopened as an integrated theater in 1952.[3]

The National Theatre is located across from Freedom Plaza (foreground)

In 1970, the theatre came under the management of the Nederlander Organization.[4] In 1974, the not-for-profit National Theatre Corporation was established by Roger L. Stevens, Maurice B. Tobin, Donn B. Murphy and others to save the failing enterprise, in the wake of racial riots, and a downtown made unfashionable by the growth of the surrounding suburbs.

The theatre underwent a major renovation in 1982-1983, when the original wing housing dressing rooms was replaced with a modern structure. The refurbished structure opened in concert with the redevelopment of that part of downtown Washington, D.C., that included The Shops at National Place, the 774 room flagship JW Marriott Hotel, and National Press Club. Stage designer Oliver Smith supervised the interior design.

The 1835 stone foundations and brick stage house still exist, although the rock work is now reinforced with steel caissons to resist erosion by the Tiber Creek, which flows beneath the building. From the stage, President Ronald Reagan saluted the refurbished "neighborhood theatre" in January 1984.

Among the Broadway productions which have had out-of-town try-outs at the National are Amadeus, Crazy for You, Hello, Dolly!, Show Boat and West Side Story.

In 2012, Jam Theatricals assumed operations for the theatre from the Shubert Organization.[5]


The many performers who have appeared at the theatre include Pearl Bailey, Ethel Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore and John Barrymore, Warren Beatty, Sarah Bernhardt, Claire Bloom, Edwin Booth, John Wilkes Booth, Fanny Brice, Carol Channing, George M. Cohan, Claudette Colbert, Katharine Cornell, Hume Cronyn, Tim Curry, Denishawn, Ruth Draper, Todd Duncan, Maurice Evans, Lillian Gish, Ruth Gordon, Valerie Harper, Julie Harris, Rex Harrison, Helen Hayes, Audrey Hepburn, Katharine Hepburn, Joseph Jefferson, James Earl Jones, Lucille La Verne, Eva LeGallienne, Jerry Lewis, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, Eartha Kitt, Ian McKellen, Mary Martin, Ethel Merman, Rita Moreno, Helen Morgan, Rosie O'Donnell, Laurence Olivier, Annie Oakley, Geraldine Page, Robert Redford, Debbie Reynolds, Chita Rivera, Will Rogers, Rosalind Russell, George C. Scott, Kevin Spacey, Sting, Jessica Tandy, Norma Terris, Marlo Thomas, Lily Tomlin, Franchot Tone, Rip Torn and Liv Ullmann. Winston Churchill once spoke from the stage.


The National Theatre has recently expanded its activities to include not only Broadway musical performances but also concerts, lectures, opera, ballet, seminars and receptions. The National Theatre Corporation is a non-profit organization that is responsible for the operation of the theatre. Sarah K. Bartlo, is the Executive Director. The National Theatre Group (Jam Theatricals) manages the daily activities of the theatre and provides content for the main stage.


  1. Underused National Theatre is ready for its next act
  2. "Porgy and Bess: Today in History, September 2". Library of Congress. Retrieved 2007-12-06.
  3. "It's Show Time". Washingtonian. September 1998.
  4. The Broadway Battle Flares in Washington
  5. Harris, Paul (20 September 2012). "New bookers for D.C. National". Variety. Retrieved 2013-08-22.

See also


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