One of the more fascinating chapters of my third great-grandfather, Peter Reuter’s life involves his time running the Dramatic Hall at Fifth and Gaskill Sts. (511 S. Fifth St.) in Philadelphia.
Wheatley Dramatic Hall (so named for actor William Wheatley whose troupe, the Wheatley Dramatic Association took up residence at the theater in the 1860s) was a building with its own impressive and colorful history. Its name was shortened during the seven years Peter was in charge.
After a decade of running a saloon at 817 Filbert St., Peter relocated next door to the hall at 509 S. Fifth St. and initially ran his business solo. But by 1885, Peter formed a partnership with his friend, Frederick Autenrieth, a bookkeeper.
It was at this time that Peter also expanded the business to include running the Dramatic Hall and leased both properties from the German Catholic Literary Institute.The saloon and hall were located on the northern edge of the city’s Queen Village neighborhood.
Now one of the toniest sections downtown, it was formerly the center of the city’s free black community and had a reputation for filthy streets, overcrowded conditions and lack of baths. By mid-19th century, Queen Village had become a hub for immigrants.
Peter and his family lived above the saloon, which, together with the hall, were smack in the middle of the Jewish quarter.
Dramatic Hall was a lively community gathering place for numerous groups such as Fifth ward political parties, the Anti-Poverty Society, the first Jewish Immigrant Association, a Hebrew Sunday School, fraternal lodges, trade unions and, of course, opera and theater companies.
Here, renown black actor R. Henri Strange performed numerous Shakespearean plays (notably Othello with an all-black cast, save for a white Iago) and honed his portrayal of Shylock before premiering The Merchant of Venice at the Academy of Music in 1890. By 1889, famed Yiddish theater actor and singer, Boris Thomashefsky formed his acting troupe, the Oriental Theatre Company, making the hall its headquarters.
The hall also saw drama of another kind in raucous meetings of anarchists, such as the Pioneers of Freedom. Things could easily get out of hand, as when a speech given by Max Staller allegedly incited a bloody riot at the hall during the Cloakmakers Strike of 1890, leading to several arrests.
No doubt, Peter mixed it up with many a colorful personality and built an extensive network of friends and associates. It was quite a different lifestyle than that found in his home village of Bundenbach, Prussia.However, 1888 saw a turbulent turn of events for his business. In January, the Dramatic Hall was put up for sale and five days later, Peter’s business partner (the namesake and godparent of his second son, Frederick) committed suicide.
By March, the hall had new owners, a Hungarian-Jewish congregation, Chevra Emunath Israel-Oheb.
It meant the hall’s days as a theater would soon end.
If these events weren’t stressful enough, Peter was sued for $1000 by the Philadelphia Amateur Dramatic Association for breach of contract in October. The case, which he lost (the verdict against him was for $124.35), made the newspapers.
He continued to lease the hall until 1891, when it underwent renovations to convert the building into a synagogue.
Peter ran the saloon next door for another year before moving onto to his next venture. He publicly contended that the rent charged by the new owners forced him to move.
The change would lead to a new and more prosperous chapter in his life.
Copyright (c) 2016 by Jana Shea. All materials protected under the laws of copyright. Do not copy or reproduce without author’s permission.