Joseph Jefferson, 1829-1905

Joseph Jefferson, one of the most beloved actors of the 19th century, was a 4th generation actor born in 1829. He made his stage debut at the age of three on tour with his father's troupe. Jefferson had formed his own company by the age of 21. In 1851, his new company came to Wilmington and performed nightly with a repertory of popular comedies and Shakespeare in the old Academy Theatre, which stood on the present site of Thalian Hall. Jefferson's company returned for two months in the fall and again in the spring of 1852. During this period he lived in the Rock Springs Hotel which was located south of Chestnut Street between Water and Front Streets.


His first outstanding success was in the New York production of "Our American Cousin" in 1858. However, the play he was most associated with was his production of "Rip Van Winkle" in which he played the title role. The play premiered in New York in 1865 and he played the part for 170 subsequent nights.. He toured the play for half a century appearing in every major theatre in America. He later toured the play in England and Australia and gave a command performance for Queen Victoria. He performed the role of "Rip" on the Thalian Hall stage in 1880 and again in 1897. In 1884, he appeared at Thalian Hall in an all star production of "The Rivals" with Mrs. John Drew, the grandmother of the Barrymores. His son, Thomas Jefferson, brought his own company of "Rip Van Winkle" to Thalian Hall in 1905.


He never forgot Wilmington from his ante-bellum days and each time he appeared in Thalian Hall, he would express this fondness in his curtain speeches. The Wilmington newspapers gave extensive coverage to his appearances referring to Wilmington as the place where he first achieved success. Following his performance in 1884, a special reception was held in the Mayor's rooms in City Hall with many of the former members of the old Thalian Association who remembered him from his earlier days in Wilmington. Jefferson was a personal friend of President Cleveland and many other leading figures in politics, art, and literature. He was also a frequent guest at the estate of former Wilmington native, Mary Lily Kenan Flagler in Palm Beach. Jefferson brought great dignity to the American stage. He was awarded the lifetime honor of the presidency of The Players Club, succeeding Edwin Booth. He died in 1905, one year after retiring from the stage, and is buried in Sandwich, Massachusetts.