The Old Academy Building
On July 9th, 1816, William Moore Smith and Ann, his wife, donated land of “56 square perches” to be held in trust, “and the said Trustees shall erect a building to be used as a school house and occasional place of worship”. A subscription was circulated for the purpose of raising funds for the school house from private contributors, and construction began. The building, the ‘Old Academy’, was completed in 1819, and over the years served not only as a school house, but was a meeting hall, the starting place for just about every church in the area, and the public library, until they eventually had permanent homes. In 1932, the building being in disuse and terrible condition, was offered to the Moment Musical Club. They then changed the club’s name to the ‘Old Academy Players’.
Portions of the above from the books and papers of A.C. Chadwick.
The Old Academy Players
Old Academy Players was formed in 1923 as the Moment Musical Club by 19 members of the Falls Methodist Church. Their first production was a musical called The Minister’s Wife’s New Bonnet. It was a rousing success. The club decided to do more shows under their own independent auspices, and gave theatrical productions; did charitable work and provided social fellowship for its members. However, the group had no permanent home. It rehearsed in local homes and barns and rented facilities for its performances. It staged plays at Palestine Hall, The YWCA of Germantown, the Germantown Women’s Club and any other rental space that was available and affordable. Having acquired the use of the Old Academy in 1932, the members started repairing the building and converting it to a theater. For seating, chairs were borrowed from the next door Young Men’s Association. The stage was at floor level and all entrances and exits had to be made through the front door and down the aisle. They initiated a custom still followed today, of providing free refreshments at intermission. In 1941, through the generosity of John Hohenadle, a local brewer, and John B. Kelly, a much needed addition to the rear of the building was constructed. Soon after that, a young girl named Grace Kelly made her debut on our stage. While finances have always been a worry, improvements have been steadily made thanks to the sweat and love of our members, and the generosity of our patrons.
The adjoining building was the home of the ‘Young Men’s Association’ for many years. In 1971, it was offered to the Old Academy Players for a nominal sum upon the dissolution of that organization. We were performing the play ‘Dracula’ at that time, and one of the lines was “that old ruin Carfax”, the name of Dracula’s residence. When it was said, the actor always pointed to the building next door. So, as an indication of its condition at the time, it took with affection, the name of ‘Carfax’.
Old Academy has had many special individuals act on our stage. Here are two of the most notable.
Before Grace Kelly was a Hollywood actress, princess and beloved international figure, she was a daughter of East Falls. Born in Hahnemann Hospital, raised on Henry Avenue and schooled at St. Bridgets, Ravenhill Academy and Stevens School, Grace began her acting career on the stage of the Old Academy Players in 1942. Between the ages of 11 and 14 she performed in six productions: Don’t Feed the Animals, The Women, Wallflower, Star Bound, Cry Havoc and Craig’s Wife.
For the Kellys, the Old Academy was a family affair. Peggy, the oldest of the Kelly girls appeared with Grace in Star Bound. Youngest sister Lizanne performed in eight plays between 1949 and 1966. John Kelly, the father, was a longtime supporter of the Old Academy. And uncle George Kelly had two of his plays performed here,The Torch Bearers and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Craig’s Wife.
Grace never forgot where she came from and remembered the Old Academy in many ways over the years, including a congratulatory telegram on the theater’s 34th anniversary. We are forever grateful to have been graced by her presence.
Robert Prosky was born in Philadelphia. He studied economics at Temple University and then joined the Air Force when the Korean War began. His father died suddenly and he was granted a hardship discharge to return to Philadelphia and run the family grocery store. It was around this time that he joined the Old Academy Players. Between the years of 1947 and 1955, Robert Prosky appeared in ten Old Academy productions.
People most often recognize him as Sgt. Jablonski from the television show Hill Street Blues or as Robin Williams’ boss in the movie Mrs. Doubtfire. His stage performances in A Walk In The Woods and Glengarry Glen Ross won him Tony nominations in New York and the Joseph Jefferson Award in Chicago. In 1998, he won the Helen Hayes Award for his performance in The Price.
On September 12, 2004, Mr. Prosky generously returned to the Old Academy to perform “A Life in the Spotlight: An Afternoon with Robert Prosky” as a fundraiser for the theater.