The Edwin Forrest Home — See the Players Well Bestowed
In 1817, at the age of eleven, Edwin Forrest took his first step onto the stage. This first role at Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Theatre marked the start of a lifelong passion and incredibly successful career. So successful, in fact, that many have titled him the first star of the American stage. His fame took him to various cities across the country, but he ultimately settled back in his native Philadelphia until the end of his life.
Though Forrest’s success brought great wealth, he had not always been so well-off. He came from a poor family of immigrant parents with five brothers and sisters. Perhaps in part due to this upbringing, his great wealth gave him a heightened sense of generosity. Among the provisions made in his will, Forrest arranged for the establishment of a retirement home for actors and actresses.
Forrest endowed a group of trustees to preside over the proposed home. Their duties included overseeing the finances and administrative necessities, as well as ensuring the home lived up to Forrest’s vision. The goal was to create a place for actors who were no longer able to work in the profession due to the effects of old age. The home was incorporated as a non-profit organization in 1873. The Edwin Forrest Home was to be established in Forrest’s Springbrook estate in the Holmesburg section of Philadelphia. The board later decided to move the home and built a new building on Parkside Avenue, just across from Fairmount Park. They inaugurated the Parkside estate in September of 1928.
Part of this vision meant never encouraging “idleness… in any who are capable of any useful exertion.” Forrest aimed to combat this “idleness” of old age and make the home more educational and self-sustaining with certain activities that he detailed in his will. These included: access to his impressive personal library and art collection, use of a small theatre in the home for practice and private performances, lectures or readings on various subjects with an emphasis on oratory and the dramatic arts, and a working garden.
The home thus represented a positive attitude to the elderly. It did not view old age as a barrier to learning, cultural enrichment or self-improvement. Instead, it encouraged residents to continue these efforts, particularly in regard to their acting. Forrest had such a deep conviction of acting’s wisdom and such a passion for it that he hoped to elevate the dramatic genre to serve its “true and great mission to mankind, as their profoundest teacher of virtue and morality.”
In Forrest’s will, he required the establishment of an annual tradition called the Shakespeare Celebration. The celebration took place on the anniversary of the Bard’s birthday each year. The events included readings and performances of his works by the residents. The home also invited guests who occasionally gave their own speeches or readings. These events showed Forrest’s passion for drama, and his effort to promote the continuation and appreciation of its practice.
In the second half of the 1900s, the home began experiencing severe financial difficulties and operating deficits. It could not afford the cost of updating its increasingly outdated facilities. The board also found it much harder to find applicants that met Forrest’s original criteria while remaining financially viable, as New York and Los Angeles became the prime locations in which actors worked and lived in. The board of trustees finally decided to close the Edwin Forrest Home in July of 1986 and officially dissolved the organization in 1988. They transferred much of the home’s contents and remaining funds to the organization they deemed able to serve the home’s purpose best: the Actors’ Home in New Jersey, maintained by the Actors’ Fund.
In his deep love of Shakespeare, Forrest was heard at different times to quote a certain line from Hamlet: “see the players well bestowed”. This line captures the spirit of the Edwin Forrest Home for retired actors and the passion of its namesake. His name and vision live on in the Edwin Forrest Society of the Actors’ Fund. A person can gain membership to the society by making any donation to the maintenance of the Actors’ Home. In this way, actors can continue being “well bestowed” even though the Edwin Forrest Home no longer operates.
- Edwin Forrest Home records. Collection 3068, Historical Society of Pennsylvania
- Edwin Forrest Society of the Actors Fund, http://www.actorsfund.org/support-fund/edwinforrest
4849 Parkside Avenue