Site History BF Keith Memorial Theater - Opera House, Boston Massachusetts

Almost no site in the United States has a longer theatrical history, and none has a more complicated history, than the Boston block bounded on the north by West Street, on the east by Washington Street, on the south by Avery Street, and on the west by Mason Street. In the 18th century, two taverns on the west side of Washington Street stood side by side, the Lamb Tavern adjoining the south side of the Lion Tavern. By l835, the Lion Tavern was gone, and its site became the first within the block to be used for theatrical purposes. (The Lamb Tavern, then kept by Laban Adams, was replaced by a hotel, the Adams House, by the end of the 1850s.)

The estate formerly known as the Lion Tavern in Washington Street, having been purchased by the New York Zoological Institute, was converted into a spacious theatre within two short months; and was opened on January 11, 1836, under the stage management of Mr Barrymore. Equestrian performances being a novelty in the city, this theatre was patronized to a considerable extent in its commencement.

The orchestra or pit of the Lion Theatre was a ring for equestrian performances extending under three shallow tiers of boxes. During the summer of 1836, the wooden front building was replaced by a brick building with first-floor stores, its upper rooms later absorbed in the Adams House. The Lion Theatre was refitted as the Mechanics Institute, a lecture and concert hall in 1839, and was used by the Reverend Theodore Parker's congregation for a time. In December 1839 the theatre was renamed the Melodeon. Thereafter it continued under various name changes, Melodeon Varieties when Lola Montez appeared there in l857, New Melodeon in 1859. Melodeon again in 1860, and Gaiety Theatre in 1878. In l88l the Gaiety Theatre was completely gutted. The walls were built much higher and reroofed, and a new theatre, the Bijou, was constructed within the enlarged space.

The Bijou Theatre, said to have been the first theatre in America lighted by electricity, opened on December 11, 1882, with Gilbert and Sullivan's "Iolanthe." The auditorium and foyer were on the second floor, a then common arrangement, and were reached by two stairways that ascended through part of the Adams House from a small lobby on Washington Street. There was a horseshoe-shaped balcony with a pair of small kiosk-like proscenium boxes below it. The orchestra pit was within the reveal of the proscenium arch, which had a horseshoe-shaped elevation. The pseudo-Islamic decor included a "Kehdive" (Khedive) chandelier of Egyptian design.

By the 1885-1886 season, Keith and Albee had leased the Bijou, and by 1892 they owned the theatre and the stores and portion of the Adams House in front of it, After moving pictures became popular, the Bijou was altered into a movie house called the Bijou Dream. The most memorable feature of the Bijou Dream was the staircase of heavy glass under which flowed an illuminated waterfall. That stairway flanked an escalator with another stairway at its left. In its last days, the theatre was renamed the Intown. Four of its exits led into adjacent theatres, a hazardous arrangement. After the tragic Coconut Grove nightclub fire in Boston, the Intown, a fire marshal's nightmare, was ordered closed. Eventually, it was razed to its orchestra floor, which became the roof of the stores below, enlarged by the removal of the stairs and escalator.

The next site within the block to have a theatre built upon it adjoins the north line of the Lion-Melodeon-Gaiety-Bijou-Intown site and is the site of the present B. F. Keith Memorial Theatre (Opera House). The first theatrical occupant of that site was the (third) Boston Theatre. The first Boston Theatre had been erected on an altogether different site at the corner of Federal and Franklin streets from plans by Charles Bulfinch. (By 1793, the orthodox Calvinists, who regarded the theatre as the "anteroom of Hell," could no longer muster enough votes to prevent the repeal of the old Puritan law that had until then kept theatres out of Boston.) The first Boston Theatre opened on February 3, 1794, and burned in 1798. The second Boston Theatre, also by Bulfinch, was built in that same year and, after alterations and additions, burned in 1852. It was then that a company was formed to provide a Boston Theatre on the Washington Street site.

The Boston Theatre Company was incorporated on May 15, 1852. It bought the Melodeon (former Lion) property, as well as land extending back to Mason Street owned by the Boston Gas Light Company. When the (third) Boston Theatre opened on September 11, 1854, it was the largest in the United States, having a capacity of 2,972. It was designed by Edward C. Cabot (l8l8-1901) and J. E. Cabot in association with Jonathan Preston (1801-1888) from a competition-winning design by H. Noury.

long outer lobby led west from Washington Street to the foyer, which was at a right angle to the lobby and ran north along the rear of the auditorium. Basically, that was the same plan used in the succeeding theatre on the site, the B. F. Keith Memorial Theatre, although the auditorium block of the latter is wider. A parlor extended north from the foyer of the Boston Theatre, forming an ell beyond the northern limit of the auditorium. The auditorium was approximately 84' deep by 90' wide. Above the first-floor orchestra and parquet, there were three horseshoe-shaped "balconies, and the 48' wide and 41'-high proscenium was flanked at each side by a tier of four private boxes. The domed ceiling, 54' above the floor, was one of the first constructed on wire lath. An immense prism-hung gas chandelier was suspended from the center of the dome. The grand staircase to the first balcony, or dress circle, rose against the east wall of the foyer in sweeping curves from a mirrored landing. A self-supporting oak spiral staircase 9' wide led from the west end of the lobby to the second balcony, and third balcony, or gallery.

The stage had an extreme depth of 90' and was entered from Mason Street. Below the stage were storage and machinery rooms and a subcellar with a total depth of 32' below the stage floor, which contained 26 traps. Toward the rear of the understage space there was an assembly area from which as many as a dozen horses and scores of men could ascend an inclined "run" to the stage. Below the auditorium, numerous columns were arranged in four concentric circles and connected by vaulting. The spaces between them were used to store scenery fabricated for use on the immense stage of the Boston Theatre and never discarded but saved for use in revivals of the plays for which they were created.

The original Boston Theatre Company incorporated in 1852 foundered in the financial storm of 1858, and a new corporation, which promptly relinquished ownership of the Melodeon Theatre, was formed. The name of the Boston Theatre was changed to Boston Academy of Music during the 1859-1860 season, but by 1862 the original name had been restored. On October 18, i860, the theatre sheltered one of the greatest social events in Boston history, the ball given in honor of Queen Victoria's eldest son, H.R.H. Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, later H.M. King Edward VII. As the l8-year-old prince was traveling "incognito," the event was called the Renfrew Ball after the least of the royal guest's titles, Baron Renfrew. The parquet and orchestra were floored over to the level of the stage to form a great dance floor, and an opening was broken through the solid brick south wall to give access to the Melodeon Theatre, which served as a supper room. In contrast to that festive event, a tragic event tangentially affected the Boston Theatre in April 1865, when Edwin Booth, who was appearing there, received the news that his brother John Wilkes Booth had assassinated President Lincoln. Edwin Booth withdrew from the stage for nearly a year thereafter.

The Boston Theatre underwent only minor alterations during its 71 years of use. In 1888 the stage apron was cut back 10' because current stage usage by then kept the action behind the curtain line, box sets having been introduced. That eliminated the forestage overlooked by proscenium boxes and brought the added orchestra seats closer to the action onstage. In 1890 electric light was installed. The great central gas chandelier was replaced by eight electric clusters and was stored in the attic. In 1892 Keith and Albee acquired the 38-year-old house and changed its name to B. F. Keith's Boston Theatre, the name under which it continued to operate for 33 additional years until it closed in 1925. In 1895 the house was completely redecorated and provided with new seats. The original seats were described as "folding chairs," but that term merely meant that the seats folded up against the backs. The 1851 seating was set in fixed rows fastened to the floor. The seats were not folding chairs in the modern sense of the term. In 1908 the seating capacity was given as 3,140. The increase of 168 over the original 2,972 seats may be accounted for by the extra space made available by the cutting back of the stage apron in 1888. The unusual clock over the proscenium announced the time in two number panels and may have dated from the 1895 redecoration. By 1915 convenient access from Tremont Street to Mason Street for B. F. Keith's Boston Theatre users was provided by a passage through a building between those two streets. The building was four-and-a-half stories high, three bays wide, and adjoined the north party wall of another passage building, the entrance from Tremont Street to B. F. Keith's New Theatre. The ground floor had a central entrance arch supported by caryatids, and above the second-floor windows a two-tiered electric sign spelled NEW ENTRANCE BOSTON THEATRE. In early 1926, the theatre was raised.

On October 5, 1925, Albee opened a new theatre on the opposite (east) side of Washington Street designed by Arthur H. Bowditch. That building was first named B. F. Keith's New Boston Theatre and was later given the same name. B. F. Keith's Boston Theatre, as the 1854 house, with which it should not be confused, nor should the 1925 house be confused with yet another theatre with a similar name, B. F. Keith's New Theatre (1894), later simply named B. F. Keith's Theatre.

In March 1926, as the wreckers were demolishing B. F. Keith's Boston Theatre of 1854 to prepare its site for the erection of the B. F. Keith Memorial Theatre, a curious discovery was made. Immured within the theatre, there was a slate-roofed two-and-a-half-story 18th-century frame house with one dormer window, the lower fenestration of which suggested an old conversion from domestic to commercial use. It is not certain why the house was retained when the 1854 theatre was built. The house had once been used by the theatre staff as offices, but later construction completely concealed it, and it was then evidently forgotten. The house was not, as has been frequently stated, under the theatre stairs. It was adjacent to them.

The house apparently adjoined the part of the theatre containing the long lobby which extended from Washington Street to the auditorium entrance and the gallery staircase. It has been entered by means of the roof over that lobby. When the great staircase is torn down the old house will be more accessible and more readily seen. ("Wreckers Find Boston Theatre Encased House Whose Origin and History Remain Mysteries," New York Times, March Us 1926, p. 23, col. 4.)

Shortly after Keith and Albee acquired the Boston Theatre in 1892, the partners decided to build a new theatre. For that purpose, they purchased the property behind their Bijou Theatre extending west to Mason Street between the Boston Theatre of 1854 on the north and the rear portion of the Adams House on the south. That property was the third site in the block, chronologically, to have a theatre built upon it. The theatre, B. F. Keith's New Theatre, later simply renamed B. F. Keith's Theatre, was designed by the noted theatre architect John B, McElfatrick (l8-?-1906) and opened on March 24, 1894. For reasons that will appear below, it was a true landmark in American theatre design. The long mirror-lined lobby leading west from Washington Street was between the entrance to the Bijou Theatre on the north and the Adams House on the south. The main foyer ran north-south behind the stores underneath the Bijou and, above, the Bijou stage on the east. The stage of the new theatre opened onto Mason Street.

A chief glory of B. F. Keith's New Theatre was the unprecedented care given to public accommodations. Within the entry arch of the stained-glass-ornamented Washington Street facade was a loggia with an inlaid mosaic floor and a Siena marble wainscot. There were large mirrors on each side of the room. The ceiling was elaborately decorated and lighted. At each side of the entrance was a circular Siena marble and plate, glass box office with decorations in silver and a papier mache ivory and gold dome. Heavy doors with stained glass panels and papier mache ornament opened into a lobby foyer painted Nile green with an ornamental fireplace on the left and the doors to the main foyer at its end.

The main foyer was decorated in old rose, the walls interrupted at intervals by mirrors and panel paintings by Edward (Eduardo) Tojetti (1851-1930), an artist born in Rome who died in San Francisco. The wainscot and floor were marble. The foyer was richly furnished, and lighted by over 300 brass fixtures finished in burnished gold. In an alcove to the left at the end of the foyer, a marble stairway ascended to the first balcony. Leather-covered doors with silver hardware opened into the orchestra reception room. That room had deep carmine walls ornamented with papier mache crossed bows and arrows and quivers. The floor was carpeted, and a carpeted stairway led to the balcony. Under the stairway was a suite of women's dressing rooms and lavatory. An elaborately carved oak fireplace in which a gas log was kept burning in winter stood in an alcove at the left of the reception room, under the first balcony stairway. The stairway leading down to the men's smoking rooms and lavatory was entered from that alcove. On the second floor, an additional set of reception rooms and parlors served the first balcony.

The lavish Baroque style of the spaces just described was continued in the auditorium, which was conventional in form. The auditorium was 77' wide by 80'8" deep and was 47'4' high from stage to ceiling. There were two balconies and two tiers of boxes at each side of the proscenium. The seating capacity was nearly 3,000. A corner of the Adams House intruded to create a jog in the southeast corner of the auditorium. Wide iron fire escapes led from the south exits through an alley to Mason Street. The north wall adjoined the Boston Theatre. The stage was 60' wide and 42' deep.

The auditorium walls were done in green and rose, giving the effect of silk brocade. The woodwork was cherry, and the upholstery was green plush. The first balcony soffit was decorated in papier mache relief and paintings by Tojetti, and the balcony fronts were done in white and gold. Over the proscenium, a three-panel painting by Tojetti represented music, comedy, and the dance. The ceiling was richly decorated in papier mache and supported a papier mache electric fixture containing 180 lights that nearly spanned the auditorium.

To B. F. Keith's partner and general manager, E. F. Albee, it was extremely important that the public know his theatre was immaculate, with no dirt lurking in obscure corners. (Albee's dedication to public service included so strong a preoccupation with hygienic cleanliness that it was said that he would have made an outstanding sanitary engineer.) Therefore, in B. F. Keith's New Theatre, even the basement and mechanical rooms were opened to the public with direct access from the main lobby. The resulting display was never again matched, even in later Albee theatres. The electric generator room was reached by a stepped passageway under the auditorium, its floor white marble and its wooden wainscot finished in ivory white. The passageway walls were painted rose shaded from a deep tone at the bottom to an almost cream shade at the top. The sky-blue ceiling had a papier mache cornice. The reception room before the generator room was 20' square with a marble floor and a 4'-high wainscot above which the walls were shaded from light green to light pink. One side of the room held the main switchboard composed of three large marble slabs flanked by mirrors. There were three main switches, one for each generator, and 66 circuit switches as well as three ampere meters and a voltmeter. All were of copper and phosphor bronze, nickel plated and polished. At the top of the board, 66 indicator or pilot lights were set into the marble in a double scroll pattern.

The generator room was decorated in the same way as the reception room. A nickel-plated railing supporting hammered brass light standards surrounded the generators. The steel parts of the three large generators were nickel-plated, and the cast iron parts were painted brownish-white. The engineers wore suits of spotless white, and their oil cans stood on an onyx-topped gilt table. Although this I89H extravagance was not repeated, it presaged the lavish public spaces and elaborate staff accommodations of later Albee theatres, culminating in the B. F. Keith Memorial Theatre of 1928.

In the spring of 1928, B. F. Keith's New Theatre, then no longer "new," finished its last season as a Keith-Albee house. Its replacement, the B. F. Keith Memorial Theatre, was nearing completion on the adjacent former site of B. F. Keith's Boston Theatre and was scheduled to open in the fall. On June 30, 1928, the Shuberts bought the l894 structure and reopened it on April 1, 1929, as the Apollo Theatre, a name later changed to the Shubert Lyric Theatre. The house was called the Normandie for a while during its downhill career as a film theatre and was rechristened the Laffmovie in 1949. It was dark for several years but survived in a shabby state until the 1950s, when it was demolished and replaced by a parking lot. The long Washington Street lobby became a bar and cocktail lounge.

After the Adams House was razed in the late 1920s, still another theatre, the Paramount, was built in the block bounded by West, Washington, Avery, and Mason streets. However, as that Art Deco house by architect Arthur H. Bowditch on the Adams House site was neither connected with, nor adjacent to, the B. F. Keith Memorial Theatre, it remains outside the scope of this report.

Washington and Tremont Streets, two of the most frequented thoroughfares in the Boston downtown shopping and theatre district, are separated by Mason Street, a one-block-long service street that parallels them between West and Avery streets. Tremont Street borders Boston Common, and in 1897 Keith and Albee built an entrance-building annex at 163 Tremont Street so that B. F. Keith's New Theatre could be advertised on, and approached directly from, Boston Common. The new, narrow annex penetrated the block between Tremont and Mason streets and led by a tunnel beneath Mason Street into the B. F. Keith's New Theatre auditorium behind the boxes at the north side (stage left) of the proscenium. There was also an exit from the annex onto Mason Street, across which one could walk to a side entrance to B. F. Keith's Boston Theatre.


The Tremont Street elevation of the annex is one bay wide and the equivalent of five stories high. The original design, now partially altered and completely concealed by an enameled metal facade, was an elaborate fantasy making much use of stained glass, which was illuminated at night to produce a jeweled effect. The elliptical entrance arch was flanked by engaged Renaissance Ionic columns and sheltered by a rectangular glass and metal marquee with an elliptical half-dome. Electric-bulb-studded high-relief letters crossing the spandrels of the arch spelled B. F. KEITH'S THEATRE. Each of the engaged columns supported an entablature block above which was a large semi-octagonal dome-roofed kiosk-like stained-glass "lantern." There were very narrow elongated stained-glass windows above the lantern-like elements. Over the entrance, there was a large three-sided oriel window above which was a tall arch-headed stained glass window crowned by bas-relief Rococo mantling. Both the oriel and the window over it were enclosed by a shallow arch. The oriel soffit was "supported" by four gynastic putti, one posed on the shoulders of another and holding the outstretched arms of the other two. There were ornamented panels below the three pivoted stained-glass casements of the oriel, and striped awnings shaded the casements, at least. during the summer of 1905. At that time there were also four brackets suspending carbon arc lights flanking the oriel. The flat oriel roof had a bracketed cornice and a low parapet with a slender finial on each of its four posts. Above the curvilinear roof line, there was a large square cupola with arch-headed stained-glass windows facing west toward the Common, north, and south. The cupola roof was domical, and the herm-supported projecting arches capping the cupola windows each carried freestanding letters spelling B. F. KEITH'S. The base of the cupola was flanked by a pair of "lanterns" like those already described.

At an undetermined date, a new rectangular marquee with three-tiered attraction boards and bulb-bordered parapets spelling RKO KEITH'S replaced an earlier marquee and a four-story-high bulb-bordered vertical sign was cantilevered from the facade. Below the RKO symbol, the vertical shaft spelled B. F. KEITH'S, and at the base, a cross bar spelled MEMORIAL THEATRE in much smaller letters. By 1938 the "lanterns" had disappeared, and the oriel had been shorn of its ornaments and stained glass. None of the original facade has been visible since 1946.

The passageway within the annex was originally lavishly decorated. The grand staircase leading to the tunnel under Mason Street (which could also be reached by an elevator) was marble, its marble parapets ending in newels supporting elaborate vasiform electroliers. The ceiling over the staircase had a deep Rococo cove painted green and a large rectangular center painted by Tojetti. Statues and potted palms abounded around the stairwell. Those splendors were swept away when the grand stairway was removed and the interior, as well as the Tremont Street facade, was altered beyond recognition. The rear (Mason Street) elevation, however, remains intact, and the basement and tunnel are still accessible from the B. F. Keith Memorial Theatre (Opera House). The basement contains the former green room of B. F. Keith's New Theatre with fragments of its elaborate ceiling, Baroque fireplace, mantel mirror, and marbleized walls, as well as the elevator. The tunnel, with its inlaid marble floor, Tojetti mural of three putti dancing in a rose-strewn niche, and Rococo plasterwork, has steam pipes running through it and, like the rest of the basement, is unused. Since l897, when it was built, the annex at 163 Tremont Street has been in the same successive ownerships as B. F. Keith's Boston Theatre and the B. F. Keith Memorial Theatre (Opera House), the structure that now occupies the former Boston Theatre site. Although greatly altered in appearance, the annex continues to serve as a passage from Tremont Street to Mason Street, across which patrons may conveniently enter the B. F. Keith Memorial Theatre, now the Opera House.

The B. F. Keith Memorial Theatre was erected under the close personal supervision of Edward Franklin Albee as Albee's tribute to the memory of his late partner and friend. For that reason, it was built with a degree of luxury in its appointments that is almost unrivaled. The building permit was issued on December 3, 1925, but the demolition of B, F. Keith's Boston Theatre to clear the site delayed construction for nearly a year. Construction was veil advanced when the cornerstone was laid on August 25, 1927, and the inaugural program took place on October 29 of the following year. The opening was attended by many theatrical luminaries, among them George M. Cohan, Lew Fields, Joe Weber, Fred Stone, Maggie Cline, Al Jolson, Julia Arthur Cheney, May Irwin, Raymond Hitchcock, James Mclntyre, Tom Heath, Will Cressey, and Eddie Leonard. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts was represented by His Excellency Governor Alvan T. Fuller, and His Honor Mayor Malcom E. Nichols represented the City of Boston. Former Mayor James Michael Curley was also a guest of honor. The Radio-Keith-Orpheum organization was represented by the host of that great occasion, E. F. Albee, and by RKO Board Chairman, Joseph P. Kennedy.

Following the speeches from the dignitaries came a program of stage entertainment presenting Jack Pearl, a German dialect comedian and his company in a skit, "The Interpreter"; a Juggler, Rastelli; the Foy Family, six in number and all with the talents of their father, Eddie Foy; Frankie Heath, doing song stories; Frank Mitchell and Jack Durant in a slapstick skit; and Day and Eileen and Maris with twelve girls in an ensemble dance. On the screen Colleen Moore starred in the feature film, Oh Kay! The program lasted until after midnight, and before departing, members of the theatre audience were treated to an opportunity to see themselves in a hurriedly processed movie film strip of the opening-night throng waiting outside the theatre. The music was provided for the occasion by guest organist Henry Rogers.

The theatre continued its policy of vaudeville and feature film presentations for a very few months. By the spring of 1929 it had dropped the films and was presenting two a day vaudeville only. In September of that year the vaudeville was discontinued, and a return to pictures, alone; was made. The theatre then continued to remain a first-run picture house, but with the advent of the Depression, the stage was used with less and less frequency. In February 1935, however, there was offered a gala, a month-long, stage event to celebrate the 52nd Anniversary of B. F. Keith's entrance into the exhibition business. Personalities famous throughout the great days of vaudeville appeared onstage, and the feature film, "The Good Fairy," starred Margaret Sullavan.

In I965 the B. F. Keith Memorial Theatre was purchased from RKO by Sack Theatres, a subsidiary of Cadence Industries of West Caldwell, N. J. The new owners refurbished the building, making great efforts to restore its opulent beauty, and renamed it the Savoy Theatre. The house reopened as the Savoy with the feature film "Darling." By 1973 the proscenium arch was bricked up, and a second auditorium was installed within the stage. The theatre was then named the Savoy 1 & 2. The twinned theatre continued to operate as a pair of film houses until 1978, when it was bought by the Opera Company of Boston.

On August 15, 1979, the mortgage was burned and the Opera Company of Boston acquired full ownership. The name of the theatre was then changed from Savoy to the name it now bears, simply, the Opera House.