Today on Reddit, someone posted a photo of “a majestic marble sculpture of Ron Swanson at the Walnut Street Theatre in Philly,” which currently has 3,250 upvotes. And no doubt, it does appear to be a glorious visage of “Parks and Recreation” star Nick Offerman:
Just one problem: It’s not actually Nick Offerman, whose theatrical roots go back to Illinois, as opposed to Pennsylvania. (This isn’t the first time the Offerman resemblance has caught the internet’s notice.) In fact, the statue commemorates Shakespearean actor Edwin Forrest, whose career started at Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Theatre in 1820.
Still, despite living in different centuries, the two actors have one thing in common: Woodworking. Offerman is famously a craftsman, and Forrest worked as a cooper, an occupation defined as “someone who makes wooden, staved vessels [such as] casks, barrels, buckets, tubs, butter churns, hogsheads, firkins, tierces, rundlets, puncheons, pipes, tuns, butts, pins and breakers.” Yeah, that sounds about right. Time travel probably explains it all.
Forrest was likewise known for being cantankerous, and his feud with a British Shakespearean actor (whom Forrest hissed at during performances) led to a full-scale riot. Oh yeah, Forrest once whipped a dude in public while shouting “this man is the seducer of my wife.”
We had to know more about Offerman’s historical doppelganger — and his marble tribute — so we called up communications manager Amy Rodgers at the Walnut Street Theatre…
It sounds like Forrest was a larger-than-life guy.
He definitely is. He was a huge actor, the Brad Pitt of his day. Everybody knew who he was; even in his old age he would sell out houses. People in Philadelphia loved him. He was a hometown hero — he performed all over the country, performed in England — and he was 14 years old when he had his stage debut here.
How did the statue come to exist?
Some fans commissioned an artist named Thomas Ball to make a statue of Forrest, I believe in 1863. [Forrest] was still alive, and they revealed the statue in Boston. He saw it himself and liked it so much, he put it in his home.
What?! Who has a statue of himself erected in his own house?
I know, I know. The statue itself is so large, the base had to be kept outside of his house and the body kept inside the house. So the bottom part is coarse from rain and winters, and his part is perfectly smooth.
What happened to the statue after he died in 1872?
He passed away and the statue went to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. They offered it to his home here in Philly, which is now Freedom Theater, but they couldn’t afford to reinforce their floor to support it — it’s heavy marble, about six tons. Our artistic director is a history buff, so he said, “We’ll reinforce our floors. This is where the statue needs to be, where his career started, where Edwin Forrest became Edwin Forrest.”
In 1999, the statue came here to the Walnut. Edwin Forrest is buried at 4th and Walnut, and our theater is at 9th and Walnut, just five blocks away.
How did they get a six-ton statue into a 200-year-old building?
I don’t know! It can be separated into two pieces, but of course they’re super heavy pieces.
Do people ever comment on the statue’s Offerman resemblance?
Not every day — usually it’s the younger crowd during tours, saying, “Oh my god, it’s Ron Swanson!”