Sunday, October 7, 2012

Music Hall, 270 Tremont Street, Boston, MA

1928 postcard

Architect Clarence H. Blackall
French Rennaisance

In a 1918 Boston street directory, the site of the Wang Theater (Music Hall)., between the Wilbur Theater and Hollis St., was occupied by the New Richword Hotel.(Ron Salter-cinema treasures)

Built in 1925, the theater was originally intended to be named Capitol rather than Metropolitan. The building combines a 14-story Renaissance Revival office building of granite and cast stone, with an auditorium seating 4225 people. The interior is characterized by a series of vestibules and lobbies, highly decorated in marble, bronze, ornate gilding, and painted friezes.
According to Donald C. King's new book The Theatres of Boston: A Stage and Screen History, the Metropolitan opened on October 17, 1925, with 4407 seats. 
Photo courtesy of Noah Kern

Photo courtesy of Noah Kern

The interior, modeled after Garnier's Paris Opera and decorated in the Louis XIV style, was appropriately advertised as "the public castle" with "a thousand and one wonders" including the grand lobby with four tiers of prominades, spacious lounges, marble doorways, rose jasper pillers, tow 1800-lb. gold plated chandeliers, bronze details by the Gorham Company, and $10,000 in gems decorating the central mural painting by Edmund Philo Kellog.(1)
Photo courtesy of Noah Kern

The Metropolitan opened on October 17, 1925, with 4407 seats.(2)

The Metropolitan presented a first-run film, symphony orchestra overture and ballet, followed by vaudeville. It booked famous stars like Amos and Andy, Kate Smith, and Rudy Vallee, whose acts were not completely absorbed by the house's vastness and grandeur. Such huge auditoriums hastened the demise of vaudeville, whose very intimacy had been its greatest attraction.

'American Theatres of Today' Vol 1 (published in 1927) credits the following as architects of the Metropolitan Theatre;- Blackall, Clapp & Whittemore; C. Howard Crane, Kenneth Franzheim, George Nelson Meserve, Associated architects.(KenRoe-cinema treasures)

1929 photo courtesy of George Mann
The initial developer of the Metropolitan was Boston movie mogul Nathan Gordon. The cost was over $8,000,000. The theater employed a corps de ballet, a 100-voice chorus, and a 55-piece orchestra.
There was a 3100-pipe 4/26 Wurlitzer organ.

In October 1973, the instrument was not in playing condition. The Metropolitan Theater had been booking rock concerts, and at least at one of those concerts, some overly energetic fans broke into the Solo Chamber, walked through and crushed much of the Orchestral Oboe, Kinura, Krumet, and Solo Strings. Gerry Duffy and the late Dr. Gordon Potter to remove, crate, and have it shipped to Portland in December, 1974.  The four manual console from the Boston Metropolitan Theatre ended up as part of the Oriental Wurkitzer in the Portland Organ Grinder, a restaurant. It's since closed and the organ was sold and then parted out.(14) The console went to Garrett Shanklin of Groton, MA (30 miles west of Boston) for use in his 4/34 Conference Center installation. The 32 foot Diaphones went to Organ Stop Pizza in Mesa, AZ. (4) Bummer.
1973 damage
 They had forced open some shutter blades and promptly plopped their stoned-asses in the middle of the chest, grooving to some gawd-awful rock band.  The English Post Horn was also missing—but its 16’ octave was still there. The Brass Trumpet had been replaced with a Gottfried French Trumpet. Gerry Duffy and the late Dr. Gordon Potter removed, crated, and had it shipped to Portland in December, 1974.(14)

Along with the stage shows, the musicians and dancers presented tableaux, ballet, and operatic moments. Admission cost 35 to 75 cents. To amuse people waiting to be seated, there were musicians playing in the Grand Lobby, paintings by area artists hung on the walls, and ping pong and billiards downstairs. After the show, couples danced in the Grand Lounge, and in 1932 a small Art Deco restaurant called the Platinum Salon opened in the lounge area.

Resident producer John Murray Anderson arranged his own stage shows.
A seating board and cadre of 40 well-mannered, costumed ushers made sure that no seat remained empty long.
There was a screening room in the Met with some 90 seats in it for showing new movies to "the trade". It was located upstairs somewhere at the front of the house. The space is still there, but the mini-cinema is long gone.(7)

In February 1938, the Metropolitan dropped its stage shows. 

By the 1940's costs were mounting and big name headliners became increasingly necessary to draw crowds. The Big Bands, including Duke Ellington, the Dorsey Brothers, Benny Goodman, and Gene Krupa, played here. Bob Hope, Al Jolson, and Dorothy Lamour performed at war bond drives. After world War II attendance declined due to the impact of TV. Stage shows were abandoned for a while, but after the Boston Opera House was destroyed in the late 1950's, the theatre became attractive to large touring productions.

The Film Daily Yearbook 1941 gives a seating capacity of 4,330, by 1950 it was listed as 4,100 seats in the F.D.Y.(Ken Roe-cinema treasures)
The attendance record at the Metropolitan was broken in the early fifties when Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis were booked live on stage for a week. The shows were continuous every day and featured Les Brown & his Orchestra, Helen O'Connell and Gene Sheldon. The crowds were almost uncontrollable. There is a secret door leading from the dressing rooms directly into the downstairs Mens' Lounge. This is how Martin & Lewis escaped the mobs at the Stage Door. They simply mingled with the patrons walking out of the Lounge and out into the street.(Chet Dowling-cinema treasures)

According to an unpublished draft manuscript by Douglas Shand-Tucci entitled The Puritan Muse (available in the Fine Arts room of the Boston Public Library), the last show as the Metropolitan was on May 31, 1962.

Over the years it moved from the M&P chain to ATC to New England Theaters, and finally to Sack.(Ron Newman-cinema treasures)

The Metropolitan was acquired by the Ben Sack chain and reopened on July 13, 1962 as the Music Hall with "Boys Night Out" with James Garner and Kim Novak. Brad Roberts-cinema treasures)

During Sack's operation, the Music Hall presented occasional road stage productions, opera, and ballet, as well as movies.(Ron Newman-cinematreasures)
The theatre hosted such groups as the Bolshoi Ballet, the Boston Ballet, and the Metropolitan Opera. However, stage depth and production facilities were inadequate, and many touring shows were forced to bypass the Boston audience.
At that time in 1962 Sack was bringing nostalgia back to the theater, had installed huge bright red velvet curtains, and the movies were preceded by 'Louie Wier at the Mighty Wurlitzer'-the huge pipe organ rose on an elevator from the pit, an ancient Louie played things like the 'Skaters Waltz' with a spotlight on him, then sank back into the pit. All that heaven camp in 1962. He used to have Italian tenors occasionally perform between films also.

Ben Sack guaranteed 20th Century Fox $200,000 to obtain "Cleopatra" for the Music Hall, a fortune of money in those days. In advertising the film, a big deal was made over the fact that all seats were in the orchestra; but Sack and his manager A. Alan Friedberg - who later ousted Sack from his own company - notoriously sold "strip tickets" in the balcony on weekends when demand was high. These tickets were very unlikely reported in the ticket manifest that went to Fox, helping Sack get a quicker return on his "guarantee."(Bill Liberman-cinema treasures)

The world premiere of "Torn Curtain" which Hitchcock scheduled for 9AM on a Wednesday morning, to cut a 50 layer cake for his 50th film (not surprisingly, Newman and Andrews did not attend). (Brad Roberts-cinema treasures)

By the late 60's rock concerts started up there and it was a perfect venue to see great rock acts before the era of stadium rock. Some of the great concerts  there were Jefferson Airplane (a few times), Neil Young (an all acoustic set in 1970), Joni Mitchell, The Moody Blues, Linda Ronstadt and more.(Brad Roberts-cinematreasures)

In 1974 the Boston Redevelopment Authority identified the Music Hall as a theatre with potential to serve the city and suggested to the owners, the New England Medical Center Hospital, that a non-profit group by established to lease and renovate the facility. Metroplitan Center, Inc. was incorporated in 1976.
The Boston Globe and Herald archives, I see that the theatre officially changed over from Sack Theatres' Music Hall to the Metropolitan Center on July 7, 1980.(Ron Newman-cinema treasures)

In 1983 the roof was seriously damaged, and the theatre was about to be demolished. A plea went out to the community to save the theatre, and Dr. An Wang of computer fame answered the plea with a gift of $4,000,000. The theatre was renamed in his honor. The(Ron Newman-cinema treasures)

For the record, it's probably worth clarifying that the Music Hall was renamed The Metropolitan Center in the 1970's, then (as noted in a previous post) renamed The Wang Center following Dr. Wang's donation in the mid-1980s. (7)

And on February 22, 1991 (a Friday night) it squeezed in a special showing of Ben-Hur with Charlton Heston sitting in the audience. he stayed for the entire film, although the 70mm print was a blown up, cropped version of the original Cinemascope film.(Dan Petitpas.cinematreasures)
A shame that the Wang isn't viable as a film house, because it is far from ideal as a venue for live theater. While the large seating capacity---more than twice the size of a typical Broadway house---means a high gross potential, the acoustics and sightlines are mediocre and charging near-Broadway prices for the rear orchestra and mezzanine makes little sense due to the considerable distance from the stage (bring binoculars).(7)

The Wang Theatre (formerly the Metropolitan Theatre), along with the Shubert Theatre, the two theatres operated by the non-profit Wang Center for the Performing Arts has been converted into a grandiose performing arts center that, until spring of 2005, delighted movie audiences with ocasional showings of classic films.

Conrad Schmitt Studios restored the elegant decoration, gilded moldings, murals, scagliola and marbleized surfaces of the Renaissance Revival and Baroque style theatre, which is one of the largest historic theatres in New England. Prior to the restoration, layers of dirt and darkened varnish muted the splendor of the original finishes. Entire murals were missing. Other pieces clung to the ceiling.
An investigation of the original colors and finishes was conducted by CSS as a guide for the restoration work. To commence the project, years of accumulated dirt was lifted from the surface of the four-story lobby, followed by the application of paint, gold and aluminum leaf and tinted varnishes. The newly restored lobby then served as a large-scale visual sample to encourage donations for the restoration of the entire theatre. Two teams of artists and decorators worked around the clock to complete the restoration of the 3,600-seat main house in just 18 weeks.
A theater whose beauty is really the 'big' thing, the Wang Theatre has state-of-the-art sound technology along with beautiful decorations and gold plated figures. It also features a large stage, with the auditorium containing a 1,500 seat balcony, a mezzanine, and 20 box seats along its edge.

There were, and still are, two brass-doored elevators to take people up to the top of the balcony. They were the old kind that required an elevator operator.

It is still possible to go from the lobby to back stage by way of a passageway in the basement which leads from the lounges at the lower level to the basement under the stage.(4)

Irregularly-shaped Renaissance Revival "palazzo skyscraper" with symetrical, 11-bay Tremont facade. Two-story colonnade of engaged fluted Greek Ionic columns at level 2-3. Shaft of building organized by rising piers, recessed spandrals and paired metal window units, with ornament concentrated at level 4 and 5. Building terminated by two-story colonnade of engaged Corinthian pilasters at level 12 and 13, plus denti cornice and roof cresting of palmettes and theatre masks.

The Music Hall/Metropolitan is highly significant as the largest theatre in Boston history and one of the largest in the country, as the best example of the sumptuous "movie palace" of the roaring twenties and as the last of Clarence Blackall's 14 Boston theatres.

The theatre reputedly cost 8.5 million, seats 4200-4400, and is housed in a large office building, first to be constructed in Boston under a new height limit of 14 stories.

The Orpheum and the old Music Hall are four blocks apart.(15)

Jerry performed here on
4/7/71 New Riders Of The Purple Sage and Grateful Dead
4/8/71 New Riders Of The Purple Sage(3) and Grateful Dead
12/1/71 Grateful Dead
12/2/71 Grateful Dead
9/15/72 Grateful Dead
9/16/72 Grateful Dead
11/30/73 Grateful Dead
12/1/73 Grateful Dead
12/2/73 Grateful Dead
6/9/76 Grateful Dead
6/10/76 Grateful Dead
6/11/76 Grateful Dead
6/12/76 Grateful Dead
3/14/78 Jerry Garcia Band
11/13/78 Grateful Dead
11/14/78 Grateful Dead(2)

1.)^Boston Theatre District: A Walking Tour", Boston Preservation Alliance, 1993.
4.)^Salter, Ron, 2011-11-08,
5.)^Andy, comments,
6.)^Newman, Ron, comments, 2008-09-26,
7.)^EricH, comments, 2005-01-04,
8.)^danpepitas, comments, 2008-08-28,
9.)^Borisbadenov, comments, 2004-12-25,
10.^KenRoe, comments, 2004-11-02,
11.)^BraqdRoberts, comments, 2002-05-13,
12.)^bliberman, comments, 2008-09-22,
13.)^King, Donald, The Theatres of Boston: A Stage and Screen History
14.)^Hedberg, David, Theater Organ, American Theatre Organ Society, Inc.
15.)^Keenan, Walter, Garcia historian.


  1. My father saw Benny Goodman here in 1938. He had lionel Hampton, Gene Krupa, Harry James, etc. in the band. What a show it was he said.

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