The Theatres of Boston

A Stage and Screen History


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About the Book

The theatre had a difficult time establishing itself in Massachusetts. Colonial authorities in Boston were adamantly opposed to theatrical amusements of any kind. In the mid-eighteenth century, even theatricals performed in the homes of private citizens aroused the indignant ire of puritanically minded authorities. In 1750 the General Court of Massachusetts passed an act prohibiting stage plays or any other theatrical entertainment. In 1762, the New Hampshire House of Representatives refused a theatre troupe admission to the town of Portsmouth on the ground that plays had a “peculiar influence on the minds of young people and greatly endangered their morals by giving them a taste for intriguing amusement and pleasure.” The first public dramatic performance in Boston was produced at a coffeehouse on State Street by two English actors and some local volunteers. In 1775 General John Burgoyne, himself an actor and playwright, converted Boston’s Faneuil Hall into a theatre, where he presented, among other pieces, The Blockade of Boston. After the Revolutionary War, in February 1794, the dramatic history of Boston may be said to have begun with the opening of the Boston Theatre.
The history of Boston theatres from the eighteenth century through the present is covered in this well illustrated work. Although the theatre had a somewhat rocky beginning, by 1841 more than 15 theatre houses—including the Boston Theatre, Concert Hall, Merchants Hall, Boylston Hall, the Washington Gardens Amphitheatre, the Tremont Theatre, the Washington Theatre, the American Amphitheatre, the Federal Street Theatre, Mr. Saubert’s Theatre, the Lion Theatre, the National Theatre (which boasted gas lighting), and the Howard Athenaeum—were all established. After these first theatres paved the way and puritanical restraint had been overcome, the public’s enthusiasm for varied entertainment prevailed and theatres proliferated in the city. This book details the long and storied history of Boston theatre construction, alteration, restoration, and, in many cases, destruction. Information is also provided about building architecture, types of performances, ticket prices and other interesting data about each theatre’s history.

About the Author(s)

The late Donald C. King, a Boston native, spent 42 years in the theatre business and retired in 1980. He was the owner of the last operating motion picture theatre in downtown Washington, D.C.

Bibliographic Details

Donald C. King
Format: softcover (7 x 10)
Pages: 278
Bibliographic Info: 117 photos, appendices, notes, bibliography, index
Copyright Date: 2008 [2005]
pISBN: 978-0-7864-3874-7
Imprint: McFarland

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments      v

Preface      1

Chapter 1 (1750–1776)      5

God Bless the British

Chapter 2 (1791–1794)      10

Foiling the Bluenoses, Lecture Halls, Rooms and Museums

Chapter 3 (1794–1841)      15

The First Theatres

Battle of the Managers

The Lion and the Lamb

Chapter 4 (1841–1843)      28

Exit Tremont Theatre, Enter Tremont Temple

The Rise of the Boston Museum

Chapter 5 (1843–1846)      31

The End of the World

Enter the Howard Athenaeum

The Boston Museum Moves up Tremont Street

Chapter 6 (1847–1852)      37

Exit the First Boston Theatre

The Adelphi and New National Theatres

Chapter 7 (1852–1857)      43

Ancestors of the Movie Palaces

The Boston Music Hall and the Second Boston Theatre

Chapter 8 (1857–1861)      51

The Great Financial Panic of      1857

The Prince of Wales Comes to Boston

Chapter 9 (1861–1873)      55

Minstrels, Aquariums and a New Boston Museum

The Second Tremont Theatre and the Selwyn

Chapter 10 (1874–1879)      63

Abbey and Schoeffel Meet John Stetson Head-On

The Park Theatre Is Built in Fifty Days

Chapter 11 (1879–1882)      67

The First “Movies” and Summer Theatres

The Boston Bijou and Thomas Alva Edison

Chapter 12 (1883–1885)      86

Benjamin Franklin Keith Comes to Boston

Battle of the Museums

The Hollis Street Theatre

Chapter 13 (1885–1889)      92

The Year of the “Mikados” and the Grand Opera House

George E. Lothrop’s Lady Natators

Colonel Austin and Alexander Graham Bell

Chapter 14 (1889)      95

Improvements at the Boston Theatre

The Third Tremont Theatre

Chapter 15 (1889–1891)      97

B.F. Keith Invents Vaudeville

Enter Edward Franklin Albee

Chapter 16 (1892–1894)      103

The Bowdoin Square Theatre

B.F. Keith Builds a Palace

Chapter 17 (1894–1896)      116

Cyclorama to Castle Square Theatre

The End of an Era

Chapter 18 (1896–1897)      127

The Motion Picture Comes to Boston

Keith Builds a Subway

Burlesque at the Palace and the Old Howard

Chapter 19 (1898–1899)      133

The Last Days of the Boston Museum

European Music Halls in Boston

Chapter 20 (1900)      135

B.F. Keith and the Vaudeville Wars

The United Booking Office

William Morris and the Boston Music Hall

Chapter 21 (1900–1903)      137

The Colonial, Majestic, and Globe Theatres

The Brothers Shubert Arrive

Chapter 22 (1905–1908)      144

The Music Hall Becomes Loew’s Orpheum

A Sleeping Giant Wakes Up

The Poor Man’s Amusement

Chapter 23 (1908–1910)      151

The Gaiety Theatre, the Boston Opera House

The Sam S. Shubert Theatre

Chapter 24 (1911–1912)      157

The National and the Plymouth Theatres

Tremont Temple Becomes a Movie Palace

Gordon’s Olympia and Saint James

The First Feature Length Films

Chapter 25 (1912–1915)      164

Famous Players in Famous Films,

in Famous Theatres: Enter Adolph Zukor

Chapter 26 (1915–1924)      171

Boston’s First Movie Palace

Loew’s Braves Field

The Shuberts Build a Subway and the Copley Turns Around

Chapter 27 (1925–1927)      178

The Third Boston Theatre

The Mighty Metropolitan

The Mystery House

Chapter 28 (1926–1929)      188

“Auld Lang Syne” at B.F. Keith’s Theatre

The Voice of the Screen

The B.F. Keith Memorial Theatre

Chapter 29 (1929–1937)      197

Albee Out, Kennedy In, RKO Is Born

The Shuberts in Receivership

The Great Depression and Proven Pictures

Memories of the Scollay Square Palace

Chapter 30 (1938–1949)      208

U.S. Sues Paramount Pictures over Monopoly

Walt Disney’s Fantasia Saves the Majestic

The Coconut Grove Tragedy, Bye Bye Bijou

Chapter 31 (1950–1958)      214

U.S. Sues Shubert over Monopoly

3-D, CinemaScope, and Cinerama

Ben Sack Steps In and the Boston Opera House Steps Out

Chapter 32 (1958–1979)      221

The Old Howard’s Swan Song

Ben Sack Takes Over the Met and

Keith’s Pornography Comes to Washington Street

Sarah Caldwell Gets Her Opera House

Chapter 33 (1979–2002)      231

Lose Some, Save Some

Bringing Back Boston’s Downtown

Memories of the Bijou

Appendix 1: Boston Theatres in Chronological Order      237

Appendix 2: How Patrons Got to Boston Theatres      248

Chapter Notes      255

Bibliography      259

Index      261