So sorry NYC and Washington D.C.—you didn’t “make the cut” this time. As a descendent of Blanche Walsh, a former Queen of Broadway who created the idea of a national theater in 1895 (with her friend Mark Twain), I’d like to nominate Jersey City as the logical site for the resurrection of my beloved ancestor’s noble dream. I see it as a potentially unifying cultural project, to heal the wounds of our badly damaged body politic, while uniting the country via the magic and power of theater.
As originally conceived by Walsh and Twain, the “National Liberal Theater of America” was to be a chain of theaters nationwide, where regular folks could see serious plays at a low cost. There’d also be an international arts magazine attached to the project, and a weekly intellectual lecture. I’d like Jane Fonda, or Glenda Jackson (a supporter of my effort to educate the world about Blanche Walsh) to give the first talk.
Though she died in 1915, Walsh’s vision of a national theater had its first incarnation in the 1930s, courtesy of FDR’s Federal Theater Project. Sadly, the Republicans in congress killed the funding for it—complaining that the plays were “too left-wing.” Sound familiar? Later, the American National Theater Academy (ANTA) carried the ball forward a little further. But after producing “Man of La Mancha” and a few obscure Arthur Miller plays, it too fell by the wayside.
Others who gave the national theater idea the old college try included Lee Strasberg, Tony Randall, and Peter Sellars. All failed. None had the success on this side of the big pond as Laurence Olivier, whose combination of courage, determination, and passion for the theatrical arts gave England its strong and thriving National Theater.
I grew up hearing the amazing story of how Blanche Walsh, who was childless, rescued my 7-year-old grandma Doris from a London orphanage, brought her to live in NYC, and became her dear second mother. I share this real-life fairy tale in my new book, “Blanche Walsh and Me: A Memoir of Broadway & Hollywood Royalty”—amazingly the first book, ever, about a woman who I argue was America’s greatest forgotten actress.
I can’t think of a better way to honor her than to name the theater she conceived the “Blanche Walsh National Theater;” locating its h.q. in the heart of Bohemian Jersey City: a diverse, multicultural wonderland brimming with artistic energy and social possibility. My friend Craig Dudley, a classically trained actor who was mentored by the great Philip Burton and Helen Menken…and who was close friends with Tennessee Williams….has been kind enough to help me work out the details of this project.
We envision this as a nonprofit, and are wondering if the Powerhouse building…or retro-classic Loews Jersey Theater in Journal Square…might work. Feel free to share any thoughts you may have about this, however fanciful or utopian, at email@example.com.