Boston Athenæum Theater History
The history of Boston’s theaters often provides the researcher and theater aficionado with some fascinating drama of its own. In the nineteenth century, when Boston was the center of a thriving community of theaters, an ongoing conflict between artistic freedom and the city’s ubiquitous Puritan strain was clearly in evidence. Even as early as the eighteenth century, theater going in Boston was regarded as a fashionable, but not entirely legal pursuit.
A quaint example of Boston’s secret love-affair with the theater is witnessed in the names of early playhouses such as Exhibition Hall and the beloved Boston Museum, which really were theaters in very thin disguise. Indeed, the term “banned in Boston” was one used either pejoratively by theater lovers, or perhaps frequently as an added incentive. From public condemnation by such patriots as John Hancock and Sam Adams to city censors starting in 1904, the history of the Boston stage is one that clearly reflects the deep religious and artistic strains, that were all too often at cross purposes.
An example of Boston’s early, uneasy alliance with the theater is found in the following advertisement from The Boston Independent Chronical [sic] and Universal Advertiser of October 18, 1792:
“New Exhibition Room. Board Alley. To-morrow evening will be presented a Moral Lecture in five parts…called the Contrast, delivered by Messrs. Harper, Morris, Mrs. Murray, Miss Smith, and Mrs. Morris.”
In spite of all the controversies, or perhaps because of them, Boston theater houses flourished throughout most of the nineteenth century. The Boston Athenæum’s collection of theater programs and ephemera reflects the popularity and variety of the Boston theater scene during this period.
The first major playhouses in Boston were the Federal Street Theatre (1794, also called the Boston Theatre) and the Haymarket Theatre (1796-1803). As the nineteenth century progressed, prominent theaters were the Boston Museum (1841-46 and 1846-1903), the Howard Athenæum (1845-1953) and the (second) Boston Theatre (1854-1925). The majority of playhouses were, and some still are, located within half a mile radius of Tremont and Boylston Streets, conveniently situated near Boston’s commercial center and the Beacon Hill residences of some of Boston’s more affluent theater goers.
Adelphi Theatre (1860s-1870s?)
75 Court Street?
The Athenæum’s few playbills from the Adelphi Theatre date from 1864 and 1869-1870. The Adelphi apparently specialized in variety acts. By December 1869, the theater had changed its name to the “Adelphi Theatre Comique.” A single, undated program to the “Worrell Sisters’ Adelphi” attests to the changing management of this playhouse.
The Arena (ca. 1892-1893)
Located at the corner of Chandler and Tremont Street and incorporating an outdoor garden among its attractions, the Arena was billed on its programs as “ Boston’s amusement and concert garden.” The Arena presented two shows daily, including burlesque-type acts, singers, pantomime and comedy. The Athenæum’s Arena programs, which all date from 1892, include an illustration of the theater’s interior, which is somewhat reminiscent of a dinner theater.
Arlington Theatre (ca. 1918-1932 BDC*)
421 Tremont Street, formerly Castle Square Theatre, see below
The library owns only one Arlington Theatre playbill dating from 1923: What’s the Matter with Lily starring Madleine Massey.
Austin’s Palace Theatre (ca. 1891-1897 – BCD*)
109 Court Street
This playhouse specialized in vaudeville acts and burlesque as well as more conventional theater as part of its twice daily performances. Program covers include an illustration of the theater’s interior. The second floor of the adjoining Austin’s Nickel Museum had been the site of Alexander Graham Bell’s laboratory and the location of the first permanent telephone line.
Bijou Theatre (1882- 1952)
545 Washington Street
The Lion Theatre was originally on this same site; erected in 1836; it was later, in 1839 called the Melodeon. In 1878 the name was changed to Gaiety and finally, on December 18, 1882, to the Bijou. The Bijou featured musicals, operas and plays on the building’s second floor. It was also the first theater in the United States to be entirely lighted by electricity, which was personally installed and supervised by Thomas Alva Edison.
By the end of 1881, George H. Tyler, manager of the Park Theatre, had formed a partnership with Frederick Vokes to establish the Boston Bijou on the site of the completely renovated and enlarged Gaiety Theatre. Later, Vokes relinquished his share in the theater and a new partnership was formed with T.N. and E.H. Hastings. On December 11, 1882, the Bijou opened with the production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe, and in 1882, Lillian Russell played the lead in Patience at the Bijou (See Jenks, Box 7, no. 37). By September 27, 1886, the reins of ownership and management passed to a showman from Hillsborough, New Hampshire, Benjamin Franklin Keith and George R. Batcheller. Keith played a leading role in the Boston theater world as the founder of B.F. Keith’s Theatre, one of the first vaudeville theaters in the country. Keith eventually took over the Bijou, developing variety theater into what he first termed “vaudeville”, allowing him to open a large chain of theaters in other cities and eventually, directly under the Bijou, B.F. Keith’s Theatre on March 24, 1894. Eventually the playhouse became a movie house called the Bijou Dream.
In his book The Theatres of Boston: a Stage and Screen History, Donald King takes the reader on a melancholy tour of what little that remained in the mid-20th century of the Bijou structure sandwiched between the Opera House and the Paramount Theater. Although the theater continued to operate as a movie house, the tragic Coconut Nightclub fire in 1942 brought about stricter fire codes which, in turn, hastened the Bijou’s demise. Most of what remained of the theater was demolished in 2008 and only its front façade remains today.
The Boston Athenæum’s collection of Bijou programs is limited to the period 1883-1891. With their colorful covers, the playbills are very attractive, and the cover illustrations with the theater plan on the back provide visual documentation of the Boston theater scene in the 1880s. Most of the library’s Bijou programs date from the 1880s and are especially interesting in that the cover design and layout change every few years. From the multi-colored chromolithograph covers dating from around 1883 to the simpler, more generic covers of the late 1880s, the changing layout testifies to the changing ownership and management of the theater.
Bibliography: Historical Review of the Boston Bijou Theatre. Boston: E.O. Skelton, 1884.
Boston Museum (1841-1846 and 1846-1903)
First theater at Tremont and Bromfield Streets, second at Tremont Street, between Scollay Square and School Street
Perhaps the most beloved of all the Boston theaters was the second Boston Museum (1846-1903). As its name implies, this performance hall housed a gallery of curiosities in addition to its theatrical features, best known for its wax tableaux, music programs and displays from the New England Museum. A description of the Boston Museum building is found in William W. Clapp’s A Record of the Boston Stage (1853), an excerpt from which follows:
“In the year 1846 the present Museum was built by Mr. [Moses] Kimball and his associates, and on the 2d November of that year the first entertainment was given. The building, designed by H. & J. E. Billings, and erected under the supervision of Anthony Hanson, is admirably adapted for the purposes for which it was built. It was during the season of 1846-7 that ‘Aladdin’ was brought out, which had a run of eight weeks, and was performed ninety-one times to crowded houses…”
Built by Moses Kimball in 1841, the first Boston Museum had become so successful that a new building was erected on Tremont Street in 1846, and performances continued there until 1903. Kimball was a self-made showman whose initial decision to create a cabinet of curiosities is not surprising when considering his association with that ultimate showman, P.T. Barnum. A collection of Barnum’s letters to Kimball dating from the 1840s can be found in the Athenæum’s manuscript collection and provide a fascinating window into the nineteenth century world of sensationalistic entertainment, precursors to the circus and amusement park industry.
The Boston Museum has the distinction of staging the first American performance of Gilbert and Sullivan operas; notably H.M.S. Pinafore on November 25, 1878. The operas were instant successes with the Boston public. Among the luminaries of the Boston Museum stage were Edwin Booth, Annie Clark, E.H. Sothern, and Richard Mansfield. In 1887, Mansfield played the lead in the Museum’s first American production of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; the actor was later one of several individuals briefly suspected of playing an even grislier role in real life, namely that of Jack the Ripper. Actors of the older generation were Mrs. J.R. Vincent (Mary Ann Farley), an English born actress who made her career at the Museum from 1852 until her death in 1887, and was much beloved by Boston theater goers. Even after she died, Mrs. Vincent continued to benefit the Boston community through her private charities which led to the founding of the Vincent Memorial Hospital and the Vincent Club, whose members still put on a show regularly for the benefit of the hospital. William Warren was another prominent actor who stayed with the Boston Museum for more than thirty-six years.
The actors mentioned above are all well represented in the library’s collection of Boston Museum programs, which date from 1844 to 1848 and 1859 to 1903.
Boston Theatre (1794-1852 and 1854-1925)
Federal and Franklin Streets and 539 Washington Street
(Programs: 1854-ca. 1904)
With the first Boston Theatre, later called the Federal Street Theatre, Boston can be said to have inaugurated its theater history. One of Charles Bulfinch’s early creations, the playhouse opened on February 3, 1794 with Gustavus Vasa and Modern Antiques. It was soon considered the finest theater in the country. Four years later, the building burned down only to be quickly rebuilt. In its early days, the Federal Street Theatre was managed by Charles Stuart Powell, who retired after two seasons. The building continued to operate as a theater until 1835, when it was converted into a lecture hall called the “Odeon”. In 1846, it again reopened as a playhouse under its old name, the Boston Theatre. The structure was razed in 1852, eventually making way for the lavish second Boston Theatre on Washington Street in 1854. Julia Dean and Edwin Forrest were among the more prominent actors at the first Boston Theatre.
Among the many theaters represented in the Athenæum’s theater collections, the programs of the second Boston Theater are undoubtedly among the most numerous. Designed by Edward and James Cabot and Jonathan Preston from plans by Henri Noury, this playhouse had a noble history. Renowned for its spaciousness and beauty – the much-admired auditorium seated 3000 – the second Boston Theatre hosted such theatrical luminaries as Sarah Bernhardt, Maurice Barrymore and Edwin Booth. Not did the world-famous playhouse limit itself to theater; this was also where Bostonians first heard Beethoven’s Fidelio in 1854, Carmen in 1879, and several other American operatic premieres of note until the Boston Opera House was built in 1909. It is no wonder that playwright and producer, Dion Boucicault dubbed the Boston Theatre the finest theater in the world. In October 1860, the playhouse, then known as the Boston Academy of Music, also played host to a grand ball honoring Edward, Prince of Wales. For this occasion, the theater’s parquet was floored over for dancing.
Noteworthy Boston Theatre playbills in our collection include Edwin Forrest in King Lear and others featuring such thespian luminaries as Edwin Booth, Charlotte Cushman, Henry Irving and Ellen Terry. Also of some historical interest is a program to The Lady of Lyons starring society beauty Lily Langtry. A perusal of Boston Theatre programs dating from the 1840s up to the turn of the century reveals the changing appearance and design of theater playbills in general. The earlier examples from about 1840 to 1880 are mainly broadsides, often printed on thin, fragile paper. As broadsides, these programs could have been nailed or mounted on building walls, billboards or even tree trunks. Use of very large type face and often imaginative layout made these simple, unadorned programs effective as proclamations. By the late 1870s, programs are printed in brochure formats with title and cast information on the cover, customarily surrounded and followed by pages of advertising and pieces of miscellaneous information and commentaries. In the 1890s Boston Theatre programs had evolved into the booklet form that most of them still retain to this day; an often decorative cover followed by several pages of advertising and theater miscellany – more of a magazine than a playbill.
Bowdoin Square Theatre (1892-1955)
1 Bowdoin Square
Another one of Blackall’s many playhouses; the Bowdoin Square Theatre had a resident troupe in the early 1900s that performed both sophisticated European drama as well as melodrama and comedy. The theater’s managers and owners were William Harris and Charles F. Atkinson. In August of 1897, impresario George Lothrop took control of the theater, presenting melodrama at popular prices and featuring the Lothrop Stock Company. The library’s collection of Bowdoin Square programs dates from Feb. 15, 1892 to Dec. 31, 1894.
The Boylston Museum specialized in variety shows, such as sketches, minstrel shows and dancers. The Athenæum owns only a few programs from this theater; all dating from 1882 to 1884 and none of them intact.
Of the smaller theaters represented in the library’s collection, only three playbills come from the Casino Theatre, which should not be confused with C.H. Blackall’s 1909 playhouse of the same name. The Casino programs are all undated, but were probably printed in the late 1870s or early 1880s.
The Castle Square Theatre (1894-1932)
421 Tremont Street
(Programs: 1894, 1897, 1901-1902, 1907-1908, 1911, 1913-1914)
The Boston Athenæum owns a sizable collection of playbills from the Castle Square Theatre in Boston’s South End. This relatively small but ornate playhouse was built by E.M. Maynard in 1894, retaining the circular wall and roof of the old Cyclorama. Often the home of opera and touring plays, Castle Square’s stock company (1908-1916), operated by John Craig and Mary Young, was popular in its day. Between 1912 and 1914, a young actor named Alfred Lunt was a new member of the company; he later toured with Lily Langtry. Lunt married Lynn Fontanne in 1922, forming what some regard as the greatest American acting team of the twentieth century. Several programs in the Athenæum’s Jenks collection feature Lunt among the cast.
An excellent description of Castle Square Theatre is found in a souvenir playbill which describes and praises the Rococo/Renaissance style interior and also mentions the playhouse’s new system of gradually dimming the stage lights through the use of a switchboard.
Succumbing to the popularity of film over theater, the Castle Square Theatre, re-christened the Arlington (see entry above), was razed in 1932 and its furnishings auctioned off.
Our Castle Square programs include ones for George M. Cohan’s Broadway Jones and David Belasco’s The Girl of the Golden West.
The Colonial Theatre (1900- )
106 Boylston Street
(Programs: miscellaneous, dating from 1900-1915, 1934)
The oldest Boston theater to survive intact and one of C.H. Blackall’s finest creations, the Colonial Theatre opened on December 20, 1900. Apart from the Tremont Theatre, it was the first playhouse to be erected in the Boston theater district that originated around the turn of the century around the southern end of Tremont Street. Outwardly modest in appearance, the Colonial’s interior is in the Rococo style, featuring lavishly carved detail and paintings in the style of Francois Boucher. An extensive sequence of murals by Blackall and H.B. Pennell are unique within Boston. The Colonial opened with the production of Ben Hur, which featured William Farnum and W.S. Hart in the principal roles. Both actors later became silent film stars. This was also where Flo Ziegfeld launched his follies, playbill examples of which can be found in the library’s collection. The Colonial is notable for its association with Irving Berlin, Sigmund Romberg, Richard Rogers, and Oscar Hammerstein.
The Athenæum owns an intact copy of the Colonial’s opening night program of Ben Hur. In fact, several of the theater’s earliest programs can be found here. Playbills follow the basic booklet format. Intact programs dating from 1912 and on feature colorful cover illustrations with characters in 18th century costume, and additional advertisements, perhaps an indication of the Colonial’s growing prosperity.
George Bernard Shaw’s acclaimed play Pygmalion was first produced in Vienna in 1913 with the part of Eliza Doolittle expressly written for the British actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell (nee Beatrice Stella Tanner, 1865-1940). Mrs. Campbell performed the part at the Colonial in 1915 (See Jenks, Box 7, folder #42). Enamored of the actress, Shaw maintained a correspondence with her, which was published after his death. American actor Jerome Kilty created a dramatic dialog of extracts from the correspondence entitled Dear Liar, which was successfully performed in the United States and London between 1959 and 1960.
The Columbia Theatre (1891-1955)
978-986 Washington Street
Designed by Leon H. Lampert & Sons, the Columbia Theatre opened in 1891. Built in the style of a Moorish temple, the theater also had its own stock company. Reopened after remodeling in 1899, the Columbia became a burlesque house in 1906 and changed its name to Loew’s South End in 1911, when it began featuring vaudeville and movies at low prices. In 1939, the former Columbia Theatre was converted to a last run movie house. The theater was razed in 1955.
Judging by illustrations found inside several of the library’s Columbia playbills – all, thankfully, intact – the inside was decorated in the same Moorish style, with rounded arches, onion-shaped turrets and slender pillars (See Rare Book Lg PN2277 .B67 C6).
The Athenæum’s collection of theater programs from the Columbia Theater date from 1891-1894, and represent such plays as Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan and Brandon Thomas’ Charley’s Aunt, among many others.
The Copley Theater (1916-1957?)
188 Dartmouth Street, later entrance at 461 Stuart Street
The Copley Theater began as the second Toy Theater, erected in 1914, and re-christened Copley in 1916. In 1922, the Copley moved to Stuart Street, between Dartmouth and Huntington Avenues. It became the Capri movie house in 1957, and has long since been razed to make room for the Massachusetts Turnpike Extension.
Located in what architectural historian Douglas Shand Tucci has called the “aching void” in Copley Square, the Copley Theater was one of the pioneering “Little Theatres” of America that sought to present vital, contemporary plays in intimate settings. The Copley was also known for its George Bernard Shaw premieres. The theater’s beautiful staircase was the gift of Isabella Stewart Gardner, who, like society painter John Singer Sargent, was a regular patron of the Copley.
From 1917 to 1923, the Copley was under the direction of Henry Jewett, who also had his own repertory company there. E.E. Clive assumed the directorship of the Copley in the 1920s. In the 1930s, the theater hosted productions by the federal government’s Works Progress Administration’s Federal Theatre project for unemployed theater workers.
Unfortunately, the Athenæum’s collection of Copley playbills is not intact. All of them can be found in the Swan collection of scrapbooks (Rare Book Lg PN2277 .B67 S92 1883). Players featured at the Copley included Lionel Atwill and Joseph Cotten.
Globe Theatre (1867-1873,1874-1903 and 1903- )
364 Washington Street
No fewer than three Boston theaters were called the Globe, and the Boston Athenæum owns playbills and portions of playbills from the first two. When the first theater was erected in 1867, it was initially called Selwyn’s, but burned down in 1873. The third Globe at 692 Washington Street was built by Arthur H. Vinal in 1903. Most of the Athenæum’s Globe Theatre programs originate from the first and second playhouse, which was built by B.F. Dwight in 1874. All three theaters were known for their celebrated stars. Among the actors featured at the Globe in the 1870s and 1880s were Helena Modjeska, Henry Irving, Ellen Terry and Richard Mansfield, all of whom are well-represented in the library’s theater collection.
In the early 1880s, Madame Modjeska starred in several plays at the Globe, opposite the handsome Maurice Barrymore, father of the illustrious Lionel, Ethel, and John. A large number of programs featuring Modjeska and Barrymore are found in the Athenæum’s collection of theater scrapbooks.
Grand Dime Museum
Only about two 1888 theater programs from this relatively obscure playhouse exist in the library’s collection. The Grand Dime Museum was located at the corner of Washington and Dover Streets, and apparently presented variety shows. One of its many attractions was a swimming pool.
Hollis Street Theatre (1885-1935)
14 Hollis Street
Located between Washington and Tremont Street, the Hollis Street Theatre was in its day the most fashionable theater in Boston. Built in 1885 by John R. Hall, Hollis Street opened with Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta, The Mikado, and featured such well-known actors as Dion Boucicault, Madame Modjeska, Maurice Barrymore, E.H. Sothern, Sarah Bernhardt and, around the turn of the century, Ellen Terry, Henry Irving, William Gillette, and Maude Adams. Isaac B. Rich was the theater’s general manager and proprietor until management of the Hollis Street Theatre passed to Charles Frohmann sometime between 1907 and 1910. In 1917, Hollis Street was only one of three remaining legitimate stage theaters in Boston without a projection room. Sadly, during the theater’s demolition in 1935 the roof collapsed, killing several workers.
Many of the Boston Athenæum’s theater playbills have survived intact. The Hollis Street Theatre scrapbooks include programs that, with few exceptions, retain all of the advertising and cover art. The covers of the earliest programs (1886) represent exterior and interior views of the theater itself, valuable images of a playhouse and street that no longer exist. Judging by the covers, the theater was decorated in sumptuous, neo-Baroque style, lending credence to its fashionable status. Intact covers from the late 1880s and seem to have been purely decorative. The Athenæum’s collection of Hollis Theatre programs date from 1886 to the 1920s.
Howard Athenæum (1845-1953)
Of all Boston theaters, the Howard Athenæum is one of the most famous as well as one of the most lamented. To those few Bostonians who still remember it, the theater was affectionately called “The Old Howard”. Originally the site of a Millerite temple whose followers awaited Armageddon, the building was rebuilt as a playhouse in 1845, only to burn down a few months later. In 1846 Isaiah Rogers designed a new structure in a Gothic style unique among American theaters. Like many other playhouses of its time, the auditorium occupied the second floor of the building, with merchants on the first floor. The Howard Athenæum soon became famous for its opera productions: Verdi’s Ernani, performed at the Howard in 1847, may have been Boston’s first exposure to Italian bel canto opera. In 1868, the Howard became a variety theater and as such it became one of the finest in the country under the management of showman John Stetson until he left the Howard for the Globe Theatre in 1877.
Plays and ballets were also featured at the Howard. Gradually, however, as the theater lost much of its audience to the Boston Museum and the Boston Theatre, the variety shows had in 1898 changed to burlesque and incorporated old films between stage shows during the 1930s. From its fashionable grand opera days in the mid-nineteenth century the Old Howard had become a tawdry establishment especially beloved by Harvard undergraduates for its strip-tease acts.
The Boston Athenæum has a very small but interesting collection of programs from the Howard’s early years dating from 1847 to 1848. Notable is a program of Verdi’s Ernani (also called Hernani), which had its American premier at the Howard in 1847.
Jane English’s New Tremont Theatre
104-116 Tremont Street
Located on Tremont Street, opposite Park Street Church, in roughly the same location where Tremont Temple is now, this theater should not be confused with the two other Tremont Theatres built in 1827 and 1889, respectively. In the space of a year, the name “Jane English’s New Tremont Theatre” changed to “New Tremont Theatre” and, later, to “Tremont Theatre.” Judging from the programs, this playhouse mounted many types of theatrical diversions, including variety shows, operas and stage plays. In 1865, the theater changed back to its original name of Allston Hall. (See also Tremont Theatre)
(B.F.) Keith’s Theatre (1894-1952)
547 Washington Street
(Programs: 1901 and 1912)
New Hampshire showman Benjamin Franklin Keith opened his theater next to the second Boston Theatre in 1894. Earlier, Keith had successfully opened a chain of theaters in several cities that he was the first to dub “vaudeville”. Keith’s Theatre was an elegant vaudeville playhouse with reserved seats, two shows a day and an orchestra. The theater’s ventilation system was relatively unique at the time in that it employed a ten-foot blower that drew air from the roof, passed it over heating coils and forced it down and then up through the chair legs. The temperature was controlled by thermostats and air ventilated through the gallery ceiling.
Built by J.B. McElfatrick, B.F. Keith’s Theatre became a landmark of American theater history with some 400 Keith theaters soon built throughout the country. In 1909 B.F. Keith’s took over its great competitor, the Boston Theatre, which became one of Keith’s three-theater complexes seating 7000 people.
B.F. Keith’s featured a variety of vaudeville acts every day. A theater program for May 19, 1902 mentions, among other entertainers, singers and dancers, an “eccentric, juggling comedian” by the name of W.C. Fields. In June, 1928, after a final farewell featuring Ethel Barrymore, the B.F. Keith was shuttered. In 1939, the theater found a new life as a movie house called the Normandie Theater.
Lothrop’s Grand Museum
Located at the corner of Washington and Dover Streets, Lothrop’s was managed by George E. Lothrop and had its own stock company. The library owns only six programs from this playhouse.
661-667 Washington Street (site of World’s Museum)
The Athenæum’s two programs from the Lyceum date from 1892 and 1893. When the World’s Theatre and Museum (see below) changed its name to the Lyceum, all that remained of the original building was its outer wall on Washington Street. The building had been extensively remodeled; fireproof construction of brick and iron added to the façade, among many other improvements. As part of the rush among Boston theaters to incorporate cinema into its offerings in the late 1890s, the Lyceum introduced Cinematoscope in 1897. Judging from the programs the theater specialized in comedy and burlesque acts during its earlier years and was managed by James W. Bingham. The building was demolished around 1907.
Majestic Theatre (1903- )
219 Tremont Street
Now known as the Emerson Majestic, after Emerson College, this theater is the only known local building designed by John Galen Howard. Built in opulent style reminiscent of Viennese Rococo, the Majestic is also the first Boston playhouse to make extensive use of electricity, integrating lighting fixtures into its architectural design. In January 28, 1941, the Majestic premiered Disney’s Fantasia and became a first-run movie house by 1945. Eventually, the theater was re-christened the Saxon and, as the Cutler Majestic Theatre, is now managed by Emerson College. Much of the Majestic’s original splendor survives to this day.
Of the few Majestic Theatre programs held by the Athenæum, only one, dated Oct. 6, 1906, is intact.
National Theatre (1911-ca. 1996)
733 Tremont Street
Located in Boston’s South End, the National Theatre (the 3rd of that name) was yet another building designed by C.H. Blackall. In its day, the National was the largest theater in Boston with 3,500 seats and a movie projection booth built into one of its two massive balconies. Also known as the Hippodrome and the Waldorf Theatre, it was demolished in the 1990s to make way for an expanding arts center.
Both of our Nickelodeon Theatre playbills date from Oct. 1888 and so should not be confused with the later Nickelodeon built in 1894. Like the Boston Museum, this obscure theater included a cabinet of curiosities that also incorporated museum exhibits, a lecture hall, punchinello exhibits, a bowling alley and a shooting gallery. In the so-called “theatridium” theatrical performances were given four times a day. As an example, the Nickelodeon presented in a single day a ventriloquist, a black female impersonator and a dancing minstrel – all for 5 cents!
Located in Roxbury and one of several summer-garden theaters built for summer entertainment only, the Oakland Garden Theatre was managed by Isaac B. Rich in the mid-1880s. Programs in the Athenæum’s collection all date from the mid to late 1880s. Summer theaters like Oakland Garden specialized in light English opera offerings.
Park Theatre (1879-1990 )
619-621 Washington Street
The former Beethoven Hall was located where Cathay Bank is now, and was for a long time one of only two surviving Boston theaters from the 19th century – the other being Tremont Theatre. The Park Theatre was erected by the successful actress Lotta Crabtree, who reputedly became the city’s largest tax payer. The wealthy Ms. Crabtree opened the theater with La Cigale on April 14, 1879. Apart from Lotta herself, prominent actors at the Park included Madame Janauschek, Edwin Booth, and Richard Mansfield.
At her death in 1924, Crabtree left more than $4 million to various charities which still are administered in Boston by the Crabtree Trust. In the early 1930s, after the Minsky brother’s had taken ownership of the Park, it became Minsky’s Park Burlesque where Gypsy Rose Lee did her striptease act. Throughout this century, the theater had been variously known as the “Hub” and the “Trans-Lux”. The Park Theatre was remodeled by Blackall in 1903 and demolished in 1990.
The library’s collection of Park Theatre programs includes a premier theater program for La Cigale, which also contains fascinating information on the design and decoration of the theater as well as on the demolition of Beethoven Hall.
Most of our Park Theatre playbills date from 1879 to 1898; with a small number from about 1899, 1905-1907 and 1910-1913 in the Swan collection of scrapbooks.
Plymouth Theatre (1911-ca. 1980)
131 Stuart Street
The Plymouth Theatre was originally known as the “Gary” and eventually converted to a movie theater. Yet another Blackall creation, the theater was dubbed “one of the crucibles of the American drama” by Elliot Norton because of the many significant plays that reached their maturity there. The Plymouth premiered on October 16, 1911 with John Millington Synge’s controversial Playboy of the Western World at which theatergoers William Butler Yeats and Lady Gregory were forced to hire a pack of Harvard graduates for protection against local agitators. This theater was apparently not afraid of staging daring, contemporary plays!
The few playbills in the library’s collection date from 1911-1913 and 1931-1934. Of special interest is a Plymouth program for Elmer Rice’s play Counselor at Law starring Paul Muni.
Pompeiian Amphitheater (extant in 1880s)
Only five programs from the Pompeiian Amphitheater can be found in the Athenæum’s Jenks collection consisting of programs and playbills taken from dismantled scrapbooks donated to the library by Francis H. Jenks, drama critic for the Boston Evening Transcript in the late 19th century. According to one of these programs, the theater was located on Huntington Avenue, near Westchester Park, and had a seating capacity of about 8,000. The building, apparently modeled after the Coliseum, had been erected by J. Pickering Putnam, Esq., and specialized in variety acts, especially pyrotechnical displays and spectacles of various kinds such as The Lost Days of Pompeii. Apart from one undated theater broadside, the four remaining programs date from 1888 and 1889.
St. James Theatre
(1871- , not same as 1901 Chickering Hall on Huntington Ave.)
744-756 Washington Street
Formerly the Continental, the St. James Theatre was located roughly where Tufts Medical Center is now. It was converted into a clothing factory sometime after 1873. The Athenæum’s St. James Theatre programs date from 1871 to 1872.
Selwyn’s Theatre (1867-1870)
364 Washington Street
Selwyn’s Theatre programs at the Athenæum date from about 1868-1870 and 1873. This playhouse should not be confused with the Cort Theatre (1914-1915) which was later renamed the Selwyn Theatre. Located on Washington Street near the corner of Essex Street, Selwyn’s Theatre was named after its manager John H. Selwyn who had worked for the Boston Theatre both as actor and scenic artist. In 1870 it was re-christened the Globe and burned down three years later. Among its repertoire, Selwyn’s included operettas such as Jacques Offenbach’s La Grand Duchesse de Gerolstein.
Shubert Theatre (1910- )
265 Tremont Street
The Athenæum owns only two programs (1911-1912) from the Shubert Theatre, known as “ Boston’s Little Princess”, which was designed by Thomas M. James in 1910. From its opening night production of The Taming of the Shrew starring E.H. Sothern and Julia Marlowe, the Shubert has had a long history of first-rate theatrical productions. Here was where Laurence Olivier first introduced John Osborne’s critically acclaimed drama The Entertainer to American audiences, and where in 1950 Ethel Merman starred in Call Me Madam. The Shubert was also where Robert C. Sherwood’s The Petrified Forest opened its pre-Broadway tour in 1936. Starring Leslie Howard, this production also featured a then unknown actor in the role of Duke Mantee named Humphrey Bogart. The Shubert’s marquee is the last of its kind in Boston.
240 Washington Street
(Theater dates unknown, not same as 1906 theater)
Programs from the Theatre Comique date from 1858-1860 and 1864-1867. Formerly Andrews Hall and located on what used to be the site of P.T. Barnum’s Museum and Aquarial Gardens, the theater was managed by J. Wentworth and presented mostly variety shows, including ballet, acrobatics and pantomime among its productions.
Tremont Theatre (1889-1949)
176 Tremont Street
Several Boston playhouses were named Tremont Theatre (built in 1827, 1889 and 1908, respectively), but the major one represented in the Athenæum’s playbill collection is the second Tremont built in 1889 by J.B. McElfatrick and Sons, and located on Tremont Street at the corner of Avery. Extremely successful and fashionable in the 1890s, this theater is famous for hosting the great Sarah Bernhardt, who enraptured Bostonians in 1891 with her performance of La Tosca.
In his September, 1895 article in Bostonian Magazine, Atherton Brownell wrote about the Tremont Theatre:
“The Tremont Theatre may fairly be called the first of the modern theatres of Boston, i.e. the first to be built from the ground up for the purpose for which it was designed from modern plans. The result is that it is most complete in every way, not only from an architectural standpoint, but also as decorations and accessories. As it was opened by the British comedian Mr. Charles Wyndham that seemed to give it a certain foreign stamp, which later events have carried out and accentuated. Being built by Messrs. Henry E. Abbey and John B. Schoeffel, it is but natural that their attractions from abroad should be seen at this house. Being international managers, they control very largely the American tours of the world’s greatest artists; and thus it comes that the Tremont Theatre has been seen in a short space of time such world-famous players as Henry Irving and Ellen Terry, Coquelin, Sarah Bernhardt, Mounet-Sully, and Rejane. With this class of attractions as a foundation the standing of the theatre is beyond question, especially as the standard is kept up in other lines. The theatre is cosy, and of just the right size to admit of a wide variety of productions.”
In 1913, the Tremont was adapted to a feature-length movie theater. When D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation opened at the Tremont in 1915, a riot broke out. Until that time, motion pictures had been a relatively minor entertainment medium, but Griffith’s pioneering albeit admittedly racist epic inaugurated a new era for films and film-making. Twelve years later, the first sound film, The Jazz Singer, was also seen here. By 1945, Tremont Theatre, along with Old South and Majestic, was a first-run movie house for lower quality films. One might say that the Tremont Theatre exemplified the cultural transitions of an era when many “legitimate” stage theaters were either razed or converted into movie houses featuring the new entertainment of choice. In 1947 the Tremont became a movie theater named the Astor and briefly, before its demise, a juice bar. Loew’s Boston Common Theater multiplex now occupies the site.
(See also “Jane English’s New Tremont Theatre”)
Wilbur Theatre (1914- )
250-252 Tremont Street
The Wilbur Theatre was named after its original owner, A.L. Wilbur who originally called the playhouse Ye Wilbur Theatre. The playhouse was designed by C.H. Blackall and features a colonial façade of burned Harvard brick, its three main doorways copied from those of the Thomas Bailey Aldrich House on Beacon Hill. Major actors performing at the Wilbur Theatre include Marisa Tomei, Quentin Tarantino, Fred Astaire, and Ethel Barrymore. In 1947, the Wilbur helped launch the career of a young Marlon Brando with its production of A Streetcar Named Desire.
Windsor Theatre (ca. 1881?-1888)
(Grand Dime Museum, 1886 – see also under this entry. Also, New Grand Theater, 1896)
Previously known as the Novelty Theatre and located at the corner of Washington and Dover Streets, the Windsor Theatre was initially owned by John A. Stevens, who often acted as both the playwright and the leading actor in many of the theater’s productions. By late October 1882, ownership of the theater had been passed on to G.E. Lothrop who renamed the Windsor the New Grand Museum and incorporated a museum featuring a large heated swimming pool called a “Natatorium” on the ground floor. The Athenæum’s Windsor Theatre programs date from 1881 to 1883.
World’s Theatre and Museum (ca. 1886-1892)
661-667 Washington Street
The Athenæum owns only two 1892 programs from the World’s Theatre and Museum, which specialized in burlesque and variety shows. Formerly called the New Boylston Museum, it was owned by F.P. Clough. On Sept. 19, 1892, the theater was renamed the Lyceum Theatre (see entry above) and all that remained of the old building was its outer wall on Washington Street.