Philadelphia's other celebrity patriot also has a significant anniversary in 2006 -- in addition to Ben Franklin. On March 9, the City of Philadelphia and area theaters commemorated the 200th birthday of Edwin Forrest, America 's first famous actor (1806-1872).

In an age that had no radio, TV or recordings, Forrest was the superstar of show business. His memory lives on in the Forrest Theatre, which is named for him, in an 11-foot statue which stands in the lobby of the Walnut Street Theater where Forrest made his debut, and in the national Actors Fund and Actors Home, which he helped establish.

The Theater Alliance of Philadelphia marked the day by holding collections in Alliance theaters to help aging actors. Forrest built a retirement home for actors in Northeast Philadelphia in 1865. It moved to another location in Philadelphia in 1926, facing Fairmount Park, and in 1986 to Englewood , New Jersey.

The theaters sent the donations to the Actors' Home of the Actors' Fund of America. Joseph Benincasa, the Fund's director, said: "We cherish the legacy of Edwin Forrest and his spirit continues to inspire all the work the Actors' Fund does each and every day." Brian Stokes Mitchell, the president, added: "Edwin Forrest championed the idea of a truly American Theater, and we are all emotionally richer because of it."

Actress Zoe Caldwell came to lay a wreath at Forrest's graveside and lead a toast to Forrest's memory. The Walnut is presenting an Edwin Forrest exhibit in its lobby.

Forrest established a fund to reward the writers of plays on American subjects, and he put the winning works on stage with his own acting company. The prize this year went to a drama about Forrest himself: Forrest: A Riot of Dreams, which opened March 14, 2006 at Independence Studio above the Walnut. Its author is Philadelphian Armen Pandola. The title refers to the infamous battle between fans of Forrest and the elegant English actor William Macready, at Astor Place in Manhattan in 1849 in which 22 people died.

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.

Another American president was a fan of Forrest's, and Abraham Lincoln's enthusiasm for the actor's work led indirectly to his assassination. Plotting to abduct or kill Lincoln in 1865, John Wilkes Booth decided that the best place to strike would be at Ford's Theater when Forrest appeared there in a play. On Wednesday, January 18, 1865, the 58-year-old Forrest came there to play the title role in Jack Cade, about an anti-British Irish rebel. (Forrest personally picked the Cade drama as a winner in one of his new-play competitions.)

Lincoln announced that he and his wife would attend, and a box was decorated for him. Booth came to the theater -- but Lincoln did not. He changed his plans at the last moment. Forrest continued to appear at Ford's Theater for a month. The President never came to see him, as the concluding weeks of the Civil War occupied his attention, but Booth did not abandon his idea. The next time Lincoln went to the theater was on April 14 for a performance of Our American Cousin.

Forrest was appearing in New York as King Lear when Lincoln was shot. Hearing the news the next day, another actor said to Forrest that he couldn't believe it. "I can," said Forrest; "all of the Booths are crazy."

Forrest never had any children. His brownstone mansion at Broad & Master Streets in Philadelphia, in which he had his own little theater, is now the home of Freedom Theater. He died in December of 1872 at age 66.


Key Subjects: 
Edwin Forrest, Philadelphia, George Macready, Walnut Street Theater, Forrest Theater, Astor Place, Booth, Abraham Lincoln
Steve Cohen
Writer Bio: 
Steve Cohen has written numerous pieces for This Month ON STAGE magazine and
Steve Cohen's 2002 story about Edwin Forrest, Wild Life, Long Legacy, is also published in this Periodica section.
May 2006
Philadelphia's Favorite Son, Edwin Forrest