As the rows of local theaters fill for holiday productions of
A Christmas Story
, consider Philadelphia's dramatic relationship with the stage through the story of Frank McGlinn, the "grand old man of the theater."
Born the son of a prominent Center City physician, Frank Cresson Potts McGlinn (1914-2000) began his lifelong love of the stage after seeing a production of The Green Goddess at the Walnut Street Theatre. While still a young student at Penn Charter, McGlinn tried his hand at acting but - due to a speech impediment - gave up his thespian dreams.
"I acted in more plays than any student in its history," McGlinn said of his time at the private school, "but never in an important role. I wasn't all that good an actor - or actress, since some of the roles were women's parts."
McGlinn studied political science and law before serving as a naval officer during World War II. Upon returning to Philadelphia, McGlinn directed his passion for theater into recasting the city's former stage glory.
While Philadelphia may claim importance in early American theater - with the first documented performances dated 1749 - New York had long stolen the spotlight as the country's theatrical epicenter by the 20th century.
"The theater was a strictly commercial proposition and theatergoing was on a buy-and-sell, take-it-or-leave it, hit-or-flop basis. It was treated as a business, not an art," Inquirer theater critic William B. Collins wrote in a profile about McGlinn in 1990.
In McGlinn's lifetime, the "boards of the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Philadelphia Museum of Art had social cachet. The theater had none," Collins continued.
Enter McGlinn. Well-connected through his Social Register lineage, McGlinn became a prolific board member of several local theatrical organizations, including the People's Light and Theatre Company, the Philadelphia Theatre Company, and the Walnut Street Theatre. McGlinn's fund-raising ability and connoisseurship caught the attention of the National Endowment for the Arts and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, with whom he also served.
Soon McGlinn had helped to put Philadelphia's theater movement on the national stage, drawing prestige and talent from across the country.
Of McGlinn's encyclopedic knowledge of plays and musicals, many were amazed - including composers and playwrights themselves. In Collins' 1990 article, McGlinn recounted a brush with one of America's greatest songwriters:
"It was at the Broadway opening of Kiss Me Kate. . . . They started singing 'Wunderbar,' and right away I said, 'What's Cole Porter doing stealing from himself? That's 'Waltzing Down the Aisle' from Jubilee'! There was a tap on my shoulder, and I heard someone say, 'How the hell did you know that?' I turned around. It was Cole Porter."
Bernard Havard, the Walnut Street Theatre's artistic director, remarked, "Frank has made the theater important in the lives of a lot of the citizenry, especially those movers and shakers who have a great impact on the funding of theater and the arts in this community."
McGlinn was also a bit of a hoarder, for which scholars and critics are grateful. Over his career, he amassed thousands of theater-related materials, including posters, playbills, programs, broadsides, clippings, and other ephemeral items that would otherwise be lost to history. The Historical Society of Pennsylvania and other repositories hold McGlinn's collections, offering a rare glimpse into nearly forgotten productions and performances from the city's theatrical past.