Pageantry at the Sesquicentennial

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In an attempt to attract large numbers of visitors, the Sesquicentennial Exposition offered a variety of activities and events. Visitors could tour nearly a million square feet of exhibit space and dozens of different amusements and see everything from a military camp to monkeys to a house displaying nothing but different types of wallpaper.

Along with these other attractions, Sesquicentennial officials staged various pageants, choruses, and performances. Perhaps two of the largest performances were the “Freedom” pageant and the “America” pageant, both held at the Municipal Stadium located near the intersection of Broad Street and Pattison Avenue. Performed at different times during the six months of the Sesquicentennial, the pageants were intended to draw additional visitors to the Exposition grounds.

“Freedom” and “America” differed in focus but both included tableaux (small dramatic scenes) and thousands of participants. With 10,000 actors in the tableau, a 5,000 member chorus, a 1,500 piece band, and a 200 member symphony orchestra, “America” was a large production that traced the history of America from the arrival of Christopher Columbus to the present events of the Sesquicentennial.[1] Although the pageant was initially scheduled for June 23, heavy rain caused the performance to be rescheduled for Thursday, June 24. On Thursday, it began raining just as the performers took their positions although the program proceeded when the rain stopped later that evening. “America” was finally presented uninterrupted on the following Sunday evening. Reserved seats were given to those who had purchased tickets for the Wednesday or Thursday performances while the rest of the stadium was opened to the public at no charge.[2]

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While “America” was intended to be performed only once, the Sesquicentennial administrators wanted the “Freedom” pageant to be staged a few times a week for several months. The Exposition officials hired R.H. Burnside, a producer from New York, to direct “Freedom.” He calculated that for a cost of $650,000 (the amount allocated by the Sesquicentennial administrators) the pageant could be first performed on Saturday, July 3, and then held three nights each week for the following twelve weeks.[3] Divided into three parts, the pageant focused on historical events and concepts connected to freedom from the Stone Age to the twentieth century, with specific emphasis placed on the Revolutionary War and founding of the United States.

On opening night, July 3, the performance of “Freedom” was canceled due to heavy rains. Rain also caused the second scheduled performance on July 5 to be canceled. The weather continued to be problematic and roughly half of the remaining performances were canceled. The final performance of “Freedom” was given on Saturday, September 11, although administrators had planned for the pageant to be staged through October 2.[4] The Sesquicentennial continued to be plagued by inclement weather throughout the summer and fall. When questioned about the poor financial state of the Exposition, Erastus Austin, the general director, would blame some of the difficulties on the extreme amount of wind and rain.[5]

While “Freedom” and “America” were two of the larger pageants at the Sesquicentennial, there were dozens of smaller choruses, musicals, dramas, and parades. Many of these events were held in conjunction with specific days such as Italian Day, German Day, New Jersey Day, and Labor Day. By providing changing entertainment and specific events, the administrators of the Sesquicentennial hoped to encourage the public to repeatedly visit the Exposition.

[1] The Washington Post. “WIP to Broadcast Pageant at Sesqui.” June 20, 1926.

[2] Austin, E.L. and Odell Hauser, Editors. The Sesqui-Centennial International Exposition: A Record Based on Official Data and Departmental Reports. Philadelphia: Current Publications, Inc., 1929, p. 216-218

[3] Ibid., 239-240.

[4] Ibid., 244.

[5] The New York Times. “Philadelphia Loss on Fair is $206,987.” June 20, 1927.