Way Back Wednesday: the Dock Street Theater

Way Back Wednesday

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCBD)-  It’s Wednesday and that means it is time to explore the history that surrounds the Lowcountry. This week, we head to the Dock Street Theater located at 135 Church St.

Nicknamed ‘America’s First Theater,’ the Dock Street Theater was the first building in the United States to be dedicated solely to theatrical performances.

The theater opened in 1736 with a production of “The Recruiting Officer,” but the building is rumored to have burned down just a few years later in the great fire of 1740 which destroyed much of Charleston’s historic district.

Shortly after 1800, a hotel (the Planter’s Inn) was built on the property, and in 1835, the now-iconic symbol of the theater, the wrought-iron balcony was added. Fans of haunted folklore may remember that the ghost of Nettie Dickerson is rumored to still be seen roaming the balcony. The hotel was in business for 50 years but closed shortly after the end of the Civil War.

In 1935, the City of Charleston purchased the old hotel and decided to undergo restoration of the original theater. The project was completed with funds from the Works Progress Administration, a facet of the New Deal. The new theater was modeled after 18th century London theaters with a “pit” section for the common people and boxes for the city’s elite.

The Dock Street Theater officially reopened in 1937 with a reprisal of “The Recruiting Officer” performed by the new resident company, the Footlight Players. It has remained an integral part of the Charleston arts scene ever since and now houses the Charleston Stage theater company.

Fun fact: Charleston native Alicia Rhett, who played India Wilkes in “Gone with the Wind,” was discovered at the Dock Street Theater when she starred in the 1937 opening production of “The Recruiting Officer.” It is said that director George Cukor saw Rhett in the production and that is how she got the part.

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