The Charlotte Cushman Club records: A Window on Philadelphia Theater History

Written by Siel Agugliaro

Perhaps even more than their male colleagues, actresses are often treated like cultural icons dangerously running on the sharp edge between scandal and sanctity, supported and haunted at the same time by an endless flow of more or less authorized anecdotes, interviews, photographs, Instagram posts, Facebook likes, and Twitter followers. But a century ago, in an age in which theater districts still served as meeting places between prostitutes and their clients, the reputation of actresses, especially in the earlier stages of their careers, was often considered dubious unless otherwise proven. In Philadelphia, a group of wealthy theater-lovers thought that young actresses should at least have the right to escape “the brothel-like atmosphere of cheap hotels and the rude stares of corset drummers;” and in 1907, they opened a new organization, the Charlotte Cushman Club, to provide them respectable lodging while performing in the city.

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The Charlotte Cushman Club house at 239 South Camac Street, Philadelphia

Considering the rigid sexual mores of the time, it might seem ironic that Charlotte Cushman (1816-1876), the woman on whose model the Club promoted itself as a place of decorum and high culture, was an openly homosexual actress who earned part of her national and international fame thanks to her cross-dressing interpretation of famous roles. In particular, she was known for her role as Romeo in Romeo and Juliet, acting alongside her sister, Susan, who played Juliet. Well into the twentieth century, as Cushman’s biographer Lisa Merrill has observed, critics continued to depict Charlotte as “a woman of striking personality and stormy nature…. [who] knew little about love and happiness,” while celebrating her as America’s first internationally known actress.

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Portrait of actress Charlotte Cushman as Mrs. Haller in Augustus de Kotzebue’s play The Stranger

Under the protection granted by Charlotte Cushman’s fame, the Club rapidly established itself as one of the most prominent theater-related organizations in Philadelphia. Not only did the Club became an important asset for the companies visiting the city, but it also organized receptions and other social events for the benefit of its members, who could personally meet their favorite actresses in the Club’s main building in center city. The Club offered its guests accommodation in a practical but luxurious environment and provided every service and comfort, including special sewing and rehearsal rooms.

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The living room at the Charlotte Cushman Club, 1010 Spruce Street, Philadelphia, 1920s

During the Depression, financial difficulties led to many touring companies reducing their activities. In 1932, the Club, deeming its lodging services no longer a priority, relocated its headquarters to a suite at the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel. A decade later, when it opened its new house at 1216 Locust Street, the Club was no longer a residential organization. Meanwhile, another chapter of the Club’s life had been opened. With the beginning of World War II, the Club became the Philadelphia unit of the American Theatre Wing, an organization dedicated to war relief through theatrical performances, production of uniforms, and collections of clothes and other items to be sent to the war zone. The Charlotte Cushman Club records include several letters sent from England during those challenging years, documenting unexpected connections between the local theatrical scene and the international political situation of the time.

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The Charlotte Cushman Club board meeting minutes, 1916-1978
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A letter from England to the Cushman Club: a mother of four thanks the Club for sending some clothes for her children, 1943

Covering the whole of the Club’s long life, the records offer a unique perspective on the administrative, financial, and organizational aspects of this institution. The Club’s connection with the many companies that visited the city during the twentieth century makes this collection an invaluable resource for anyone interested in Philadelphia’s rich theatrical scene. Of course, from the perspective of those visiting artists, the institutional role of the Club changed over time. Although originally having been known primarily for its residential services, since the 1950s, the Club became especially famous for the luxurious receptions and awards offered to important personalities of the stage and the silver screen. A particularly prestigious event was the Charlotte Cushman Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre, inaugurated in 1957 as “a tribute to a man or woman for distinguished contribution to the vitality of the American theatre.” The long list of awardees includes well-known theatrical figures such as Helen Hayes, Julie Harris, Judith Anderson, Angela Lansbury, Katherine Hepburn, Carol Channing, Ginger Rogers, Richard Burton, John Houseman, Henry Fonda, Joshua Logan and Zoe Caldwell. All of them were lavishly celebrated at the Club during special events documented in the collection by photographs, clippings, and correspondence.

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Actress Ginger Rogers receives the 1968 Charlotte Cushman Award

But the Club was also home of a rich collection of books, ephemera, and memorabilia of theatrical subject, mostly donated over the years by the members of the organization, and held at the Club’s library and museum. Once a precious resource for national and international scholars, only a few traces of this collection can be found in the Club records. Among these, a special place is reserved to the hundreds of original programs and brochures documenting the history of theater in the United States and its protagonists, including Fanny Kemble, Helena Modjeska, Fanny Janauschek, Tommaso Salvini, Ada Rehan, Jenny Lind, Anna Pavlova, Paul Robeson, Richard Mansfield, Eugenia Rawls, and of course the Club’s “own” Charlotte Cushman.

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The program of Charlotte Cushman’s farewell performance at the Boston Theatre, 1873

During the 1960s, the Club relocated to 239 Camac Street, a street that was, at the time, home to many similar cultural and artistic organizations – the Plastic Club, the Franklin Inn Club, the Sketch Club, and the Poor Richard’s Club, whose building was bought by the Cushman Club in 1964. While many of these clubs are still active today, the Cushman Club closed its doors in the late 1990s. The few rooms left for guests were rarely used, and the membership had also aged. “Our generation is leaving,” said the last Club president Annette Linck, and “kids get bleary-eyed when you show them pictures” of glorious actors of the past. In 2000, the clubhouse was sold, and its collections, including the Eleanor Westcott Library of rare theater memorabilia and books, were dispersed. What remains of that story can now be found in the Club’s records at the Kislak center: an open door on a piece of American theater history – and on those who strove to remember it.

One response to “The Charlotte Cushman Club records: A Window on Philadelphia Theater History”

  1. Dear Siel Agugliaro; I was the last recording secretary of the Charlotte Cushman Club. Knowing Daniel Traister and Michael Ryan, I felt the club records would be safe at Van Pelt. Your essay about the collection supports my decision. Thank you. Cirel Magen

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