The Trocadero Theatre: The Trocadero — Beyond Burlesque

Situated at 1003 Arch Street in Chinatown, the Trocadero theatre (originally the Arch St Opera House), has been a fixture of Philadelphia’s entertainment industry since its founding in 1870. Boasting an ornate Victorian interior left virtually untouched since its remodel in 1888, the Trocadero witnessed decades of minstrel shows, variety acts, vaudeville and burlesque performances.. From industrialization to mass migration to the depression and the “censor era”, the Trocadero has seen it all. The many lives and outsized reputation of the theatre sought to solidify its place in local Philadelphia history.

The late 1800’s saw an influx of variety entertainment like never before. Acts such as horse ballets, Italian acrobats, operettas, freak shows, and general flophouse fare were the norm. As industrialization progressed, a mass migration of white people from rural areas to the city led to a demand for the popular entertainment of the day; minstrel shows. They featured songs, stories and jokes that appealed to such a demographic. Minstrel shows in the 1870’s also sought to introduce white urban Philadelphians to the unknown “other” which they defined as African Americans arriving from the south, as well as Irish immigrants. These shows were conducted both in black and white face to familiarize locals with the new arrivals in a way that was deemed appropriate at the time, however today such entertainment is considered contentious and overtly racist.

As the 1880’s brought in an increasingly diverse and international audience to the Trocadero, minstrelsy evolved to match the heightened desires of the people. Sex as entertainment developed into vaudeville as well as the introduction of women to the stage. With female vaudeville troops came burlesque, which brought even more fame to the Trocadero and led the venue into an era of debauchery and vice that lasted throughout the majority of the 1900s. Pun-centered stage names for the burlesque dancers (such as “Faye Mignon” and “Natalie Drest”) became more outrageous over the decades to attract attention to the performances. Amateur nights allowed local ladies, often housewives and secretaries, to let loose onstage. Amateur wrestlers would often grapple with audience members. Vice raids and public outcry became the norm. The long-standing live orchestra that had accompanied acts for almost a century gave way to recorded background music in 1968 . Audiences shrunk, and competition with the outside world’s increasing interest in graphic entertainment proved to be a strain.

After a last hurrah in the fall of 1978, the Trocadero theatre was rebranded as a center for Chinese cultural cinema. Nomination to the National Historic Registry in this same year sought to stabilize its future as a symbol of Victorian theatre design. This rebirth continued as the theatre tried its hand as a dance club, movie theatre, and live music venue. The last forty years have seen countless rock bands of all genres taking the stage much to the delight of the Philadelphia music crowd. The history of the Trocadero is a story of multitudes. From family comedy fare to the seedy underbelly of the entertainment industry, this theatre has remained a staple of Philadelphia for its nearly 150 year run. As it prepares to shut its doors in June of 2019, this historically significant building says goodbye to a long chronicle of comedians, dancers, and dreamers.





1003 Arch St

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