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Welcome to the Arden Theatre Company blog, where we share behind-the-scenes stories and current happenings with you. You will hear from the Arden staff as well as actors and other visiting artists, and we hope to hear from you, too. If you have an idea for a topic, please post a comment about it. We can't wait to hear what you think!

While working on Wanamaker’s Pursuit we heard about the importance of the Wanamaker’s store to many of you! We were fortunate to sit down with a department store historian, past employees and shoppers, >pharm and of course a few folks that attended the Christmas Light Show!

The video we compiled ran in the lobby during Wanamaker’s Pursuit, and is now posted here for you to watch!

View Part 1 of the video:

And Part 2 of the video:

Post YOUR Wanamaker’s memory in the comments!

By Rogelio Martinez, Playwright of Wanamaker’s Pursuit

People are always curious to learn how much I know ahead of time when I decide to write a play. To be honest, I know very little. For me a play is a mystery that doesn’t really get solved until an audience watches it.

Wanamaker’s Pursuit was chock-full of mysteries. Initially, the Wanamaker name attracted me. I learned it was the name of a store that had left a very strong imprint on the citizens of Philadelphia. Oddly enough, the name left an equally strong imprint on me. As a runner, I remember watching the Wanamaker Mile at the Garden in New York. In other words, I had a very personal connection to the family, but not the connection one would expect.


The Gertrude Steins, the Paul Poirets and the Picassos of the play loved to hear themselves talk. They had something to say about everything and everyone (at one time the play was 145 pages long; it’s now 114). However with all these voices fighting to be heard, the young man who was at heart of the play was unusually reticent.

For anyone considering taking up playwriting, it’s a problem when your lead character refuses to take center stage. Nathan Wanamaker was an American abroad. Loosely inspired by Rodman Wanamaker (the real heir to the Wanamaker store who spent a great deal of time in Paris in the 1890s and beyond), the Nathan of my play is ostensibly in Paris to discover new fashions for the family. But, of course, there’s always another reason, isn’t there?

I spent the summer reading and rereading Henry James’s masterpiece, The Ambassadors. Not smart. In order to solve a problem for the stage, I turned to a brilliant novelist but failed playwright. However, James helped me understand the world of Paris at the turn of the century. He helped me explore the idea of the American abroad. Still, the mystery remained.


Halfway through the first act, Gertrude Stein and Nathan Wanamaker are standing in front of an empty frame that had till only a week earlier held the Mona Lisa. With one mystery before them (who stole the famous painting?), Nathan reveals to Gertrude that he is a man in mourning, a young widower who feels dead inside. The revelation happens in an instant. After fifteen months with this man, I realize that he’s really come to Paris because he is dying inside, and he must learn to live again before it’s too late.


I started by writing that a play is a mystery that doesn’t get solved till the audience walks in. The final mystery for me was whether an audience would accept — no, not accept, but welcome the point of view of one man who didn’t grow up going to Wanamaker’s and coming home with the iconic green bag, whose family did not work for the store, and whose memories of Christmas do not involve the famous organ. It was a fear I had till about two weeks into the run when I started to notice the audience response.

Playwright Rogelio Martinez (right) with John Wanamaker V, after the final performance of Wanamaker's Pursuit

It was a fear that was finally put to rest after the final performance when I had the opportunity to meet a member of the Wanamaker family. I shook John Wanamaker’s hand and in that moment he began to share with me personal memories about his family. He answered questions I could not find answers to. Mostly, he finished solving the mystery.

I felt I’d done right for the memory of the institution while maintaining my own integrity.


On Wednesday, April 6, the Arden opened our final mainstage production of the season, Wanamaker’s Pursuit. Sylvan Society members enjoyed a reception at Ristorante Panorama, one of the Arden’s dining partners, prior to the performance. They gathered with members of the design team as well as playwright Rogelio Martinez and director Terry Nolen, to sample Panorama’s fabulous wine selection. The show opened to a sold out house and was followed by a post-show party featuring French-themed cuisine including quiche and chocolate mousse. Post-show party guests included Michael Lisicky author of Meet Me at the Eagle, a novel about the history of the Wanamaker’s department store, representatives from the Philadelphia History Museum, as well as the cast of the show.

Here are some photos from the evening!

By Dan Plehal, Assistant Director, Wanamaker’s Pursuit

 Think back to grade school. Remember how much excitement there was surrounding those much-anticipated field trips? Or how fun it was to get out of the building and experience something so cool and different that you almost forgot you were learning? Well that isn’t just for kids – – sometimes actors get to take field trips too!

 By the way, I’m Dan, the Assistant Director of Wanamaker’s Pursuit.  Wanamaker’s (as we call it for short) is a wonderful fictitious story built around a lot of facts. It follows the journey of Nathan Wanamaker, a made-up heir of the Wanamaker’s Department Store, as he visits Paris in 1911. His goal is to bring back the latest fashions for the store and ends up befriending the likes of Gertrude and Leo Stein, Paul Poiret and his wife Denise and even Pablo Picasso.

 Art plays a major role in the play, which discusses several specific paintings by turn-of-the-century artists. Luckily for us, the Philadelphia Museum of Art has an impressive collection of similar paintings.  Naturally, in the name of research, a trip to the museum was in order!

 Last Thursday we had the pleasure of spending an entire rehearsal day at the museum! We started our tour in the north wing of the museum, which contained European art beginning in 1850. We were surrounded by timeless works by Monet, Manet and Cezanne.

 As we walked farther down the hall and closer to the twentieth century, we passed several Renoir and Matisse Portraits, both of which make appearances in the play.  We reached a large atrium, which housed a giant Cezanne called “The Large Bathers.” It was fascinating to see such a colossal work and be able to clearly identify techniques that are discussed in the Wanamaker’s script.  Catharine Slusar and David Bardeen (who plays Gertrude and Leo Stein) could occasionally be heard discussing which paintings their characters may have had in their collection.

 The hallway turned and so did the century, leading us into the 1900s and the reign of Picasso.  Suddenly we could see and feel a drastic change in the state of art. We saw first hand how artists moved away from the techniques and styles of the previous centuries, choosing instead to explore the abstract and create the modern.

 This shift to modernism in painting is representative of a larger evolution in art, fashion, and society that took place at the same time, and conveniently is a central theme in Wanamaker’s.

 Next we were in for a real treat: the museum staff had set up a small private display just for us! We donned researcher badges and entered the Hamilton Center for Costumes and Textiles.   Kristina Haughland, the supervising curator had brought out a few pieces that could not have been more relevant to our production.

 A central part of Nathan Wanamaker’s journey is his attempt to purchase the latest clothing from revolutionary fashion designer Paul Poiret.  As we sat at a long conference table, Kristina unveiled three dresses from the time period; one of them had been based off of Poiret’s style, while the other two were authentic dresses designed by Poiret himself!

 The cast poured over the dresses inspecting every ribbon-formed rose and beaded pattern. Particularly interested were Wilbur Henry who plays Poiret and Genevieve Perrier who plays Poiret’s wife and model, Denise.

 Saturated with first-hand experiences and a new appreciation for the art (both paintings and fashion) that is so integral to our play, we retired to the house of actress Catharine Slusar who plays Gertrude Stein. In true style of the salons Stein was famous for hosting, we sipped wine, ate French cheese, and discussed the amazing art we had witnessed that day. It had been a full day of research and fun – a field trip that has already brought new appreciation and life to our rehearsal process!

If you’re interested in art, fashion or Paris, you are sure to love Wanamaker’s Pursuit!  You could even make a field trip out of it!  Wanamaker’s is on stage at the Arden from March 31 through May 22.

©2009 Arden Theatre Company, 40 N. 2nd St., Philadelphia, PA 19106. For tickets, call 215.922.1122.
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