Academy Building, Fall River Massachusetts

Date added: November 21, 2009 Categories: Massachusetts Theater Gothic Revival

The Academy Building, also known as Borden Block and Academy of Music, was constructed by the Borden Family, textile entrepreneurs of Fall River. The prominent structure, with Ruskinian Gothic details, was designed by Hartwell and Swasey of Boston In 1875. The Academy of Music, located within the block, was a local cultural center, housing performances by nationally renowned actors and actresses as well as concerts, lectures and civic events. After World War I, the auditorium was used predominantly for movies. It was modernized in 1946. The building was restored in the 1980s, the offices were converted into apartments and the theater portion was demolished.

The Academy of Music opened its doors on January 6, 1876, boasting the second largest stage in Massachusetts. The opening program was the Theodore Thomas Orchestra. Ushers were drawn from the young scions of Fall River's most prominent families, including Jireh Borden, Billy Handcock, Billy Edgar, Levi Lawton, John Burrell, George Bamford. Music continued on the Academy's program, and O. Elton Borden brought the Boston Symphony Orchestra to Fall River every year in the 1880's, always at personal loss.

The Academy's real fame, in the years from its opening to the First War, came from stage presentations. Such small cities as Fall River were regular stops for many theatre companies, brought in by the railroads recently developed to export the city's industrial wealth. Visits were almost always "One Night Stands," since longer engagements were seldom profitable. The manager's strategy was to book three or four separate attractions each week, and he would split the gate 60/40 or 65/35 with the visiting company, allowing them the larger share. Typically, the program for the first two weeks of April, 1878, began with a Tuesday historical drama. "A Soldier's Trust," which was held over one day by popular acclaim. Thursday was left free, and Friday offered a lecture by Professor Marshall on "The Age of Gold," describing the history and manufacture of this precious metal. The second week offered one-night-stands of a light operetta, "Chimes of Normandy," and a melodrama, "A Celebrated Case," and a session with Dr. A Hastings, "the mysterious Indian physician who tells you your diseases without asking any questions."

Burlesque "leg shows" fared poorly in Fall River and drama and comedy did best. Operettas, especially Gilbert and Sullivan were favorites. The Board of Alderman banned Emily Soldend and her English Burlesque Company in the mid-1880's because tights and short dresses were to be displayed on the stage. Nevertheless, the Howard Atheneum Company, a forerunner of Vaudeville, played repeatedly, as did Charmion, a lovely lady who did a disrobing act on a trapeze (ending, of course, still fully dressed). The one-night-stand system encouraged repetition, and the identification of individual artists with a single play. The same actor would come year after year to do the same play, and the theatre would be packed with repeat audiences who knew every line.

Frank Mayo played Davy Crockett year after year to capacity houses, with everyone waiting for the scene in which he used his massive arm as a bolt for the door on which his enemies were pounding. When an excellent play, "Nordeck," was written just for him, it failed,' and he went back to "Davey Crockett." Tom Kean was idolized as Richard III but no one wanted to see him as Richelieu, a role identified with the great Edwin Booth. James O'Neil's fame as Monte Chrlsto allowed him to advertise in 1885, that "at every house I appear, the best seats bring $1.00." In Fall River only the first three rows were priced at this high level, and the rest of the Orchestra sold at seventy-five cents. Mesteyer and Teresa Vaughan, a famed husband and wife team, played "Tourists in Pullman Car," which required the construction of a full car in section along the full width of the stage.

Most celebrated of the actors and actresses was Edwin Booth. Mr. Booth always took ninety percent of the gate, but his prestige was such that none questioned this. Lotta Crabtree, the celebrated "Miss Lotta", appeared many times at the Academy. She subsidized her brother Jack's investments in the local cotton business, and he lived in the city for many years before leaving to manage Miss Lotta 's new Park Theatre in Boston. Sarah Bernhardt herself, on one of her last American tours, came to the Academy on March 6, 1917.

Other renowned actors and actresses who appeared at the Academy included John McCollough, who appeared in the "Gladiator" and in "Virginius", Joseph Jefferson, famous for his Rip Van Winkle, John Drew, Louis James, Lawrence Barrett, Madjesca, Maude Adams, Joe Howarth, Phoebe Gary. Denise Kellogg, Minnie Madden, Joe Murphy, Fannie Davenport, David Warfield, Mrs. Fiske, Otis Skinner, Mrs. Scott Sijjdons, William Redmond, Mrs. Barry, The Salvinis, Patti Feversham, all the Barrymores, Wilson Barrett, Barry Sullivan, . Lillian Russell and E.H. Southern.

Some companies managed to go beyond the "one-night-stand" by offering variety at low prices. The Bennett and Moulton Opera Company started the trend to 10/20/30 companies (referring to the price range for seats, in cents), and played Fall River for a whole week every spring and fall. Such companies and variety shows held elaborate parades on their arrival, with all their actors and performers decked out in appropriate costumes. Bartholomew's Equine Paradox, a trained horse show, went so far as to lead the horses up the theatre's front stairs. Charley Hoyt, a noted playwright (The Rag Baby, Bunch of Keys, The Parlor Match, Temperance Town, Trip to China town. The Tin soldiers, etc.), was often in Fall River. When he came with his new play, "Black Sheep" - which of course had nothing to do with sheep - his manager, Fred Wright, strolled all over town in the company of a black sheep with a bright red ribbon, going into stores banks, and public buildings. Citizens of Fall River could hardly ignore the passing events at their theater.

The record attendance at the Academy of Music was set on the occasion of an appearance by the Lester and Allen Minstrels, with the great boxer John L. Sullivan as part of the group. The house was sold out, and 826 people crowded the standing-room only second balcony. This balcony sometimes featured wooden benches, and was reached by its own ground level entry. Admission was ten cents to a quarter, and the audience tended to be all male. So much tobacco was chewed that a residential-type gutter was added to the edge of the balcony. Tickets for the reserved seats were kept in a special glass-fronted cabinet which, during the day, was in the L.D. Wilbur & Co. clothing store, adjacent to the South Main Theatre entrance, where sales were made. At 7 P.M., the cabinet was moved upstairs, and the theatre's own box office opened.

A final interaction between theatre and community involved properties, or "props", the objects for stage sets which must be procured locally by travelling companies, and one-night stands made the collection of props quite critical. Local merchants loaned the bulk of these for advertising purposes, so that a little familiar Fall River was always on the stage, and the use of such recognizable items as the full-sized horse in front of Wooley's Harness Shop on South Main Street, always caused much excitement.

Academy Building, Fall River Massachusetts DETAIL OF THEATER ENTRANCE, WEST ELEVATION