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Facade of Dock Street Theatre at 135 Church Street
Facade of Dock Street at 135 Church Street Photo: William Struhs

The Dock Street Theater

Charleston's Dock Street Theatre was the first theater building designed solely for theatrical performances in America. Its rich history reflects the theatrical tradition and cultural history of Charleston and America from the 1700s through the millennium.

The present Dock Street Theatre, now at 135 Church Street in downtown Charleston, is built on the site of the original theater building. On February 12, 1736, a bawdy Restoration farce, "The Recruiting Officer," by George Farhquar, opened at the new theater on Dock Street, according to the local newspaper of that day. The theater, located at the corner of Church and Dock streets facing Dock Street (now Queen street), showed plays and operas for the next two years. After that the theater's fate is uncertain, but presumed lost in the great fire of 1740 which destroyed the city's historic French quarter.

Soon after 1800, on this same site, a hotel was built. In 1835, the hotel was remodeled and a wrought iron balcony was added on its Church Street side. For fifty years, the hotel reigned as the principal hotel in Charleston, frequented by plantation owners, seafaring merchants and other travelers. Among the hotel's more famous guests was Junius Brutus Booth, a traveling actor and the father of the notorious John Wilkes Booth. Following the Civil War, the Planters Hotel, as it was called, fell into ruin.

During the1920s and 1930s, Charleston citizens became interested in preserving the city's heritage. At the urging of local historians, the City of Charleston purchased the old Planters Hotel, and identified the former theater building as a project worthy of restoration. It became an enterprise of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration in 1935, and was completed with funds from the Works Progress Administration. The new structure was modeled after a composite of London's 18th century theaters, designed with a "pit" for the common people, a "gallery" for women, and "boxes" at the balcony level for the city's elite, but fitted with modern technical equipment. Local architect Alfred Simons re-created the theater with beautiful woodwork carved from native Cypress trees, or salvaged architectural items from Charleston's antebellum mansions.

On November 26, 1937, the restored Dock Street Theatre opened with a reprise of the original Farqhuar play, performed by the theater's new resident company, the Footlight Players. Members of the Charleston Symphony, who performed as the theater's orchestra, wore 18th century costumes.

A Rockefeller grant installed Dubose Heyward as resident writer. Heyward his wife Dorothy were famous for writing the play "Porgy and Bess," which George and Ira Gershwin used as the basis of their American opera. The theater's programming included artists, such as dancers Ruth St. Denis and Martha Graham. Until the 1970s, Emmett Edward Robinson was the theater's managing director who handled programming, and also the Footlight Players productions. In 1978, Julian Wiles, who had worked closely with Robinson, founded the Charleston Stage Company, which is now one of the state's largest arts organizations. The company presents 120 performances at the Dock Street Theatre each season.

The theater is owned and now managed by the City of Charleston. It houses arts organizations on its third floor and the city's office of cultural affairs, which produces both the annual Piccolo and Moja festivals, which have some performances at the theater. The annual Spoleto Festival USA also holds concerts and performances at the theater. Each year, more than 600 events are performed at the Dock Street Theatre for about 100,000 theater patrons.

Project documentation includes a detailed report on the theater's cultural history, with a combined chronology of the theater and Charleston history; a video diskette with about 50 color images; promotional literature; and festival and play programs.

Originally submitted by: Ernest F. Hollings, Senator.

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The Local Legacies project provides a "snapshot" of American Culture as it was expressed in spring of 2000. Consequently, it is not being updated with new or revised information with the exception of "Related Website" links.

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