Follow by Email

Friday, June 29, 2012

Opera House, 539 Washington Street, Boston, MA

Boston Theater-1901
B.F. Keith Memorial Theatre-opened October 29, 1928
RKO Keith Memorial-open late 1940's-closed June 13, 1965
The Savoy-August 3, 1965
Savoy II-1971-1973
Opera House-1982
Opera House re-opened July 16, 2004

Capacity-2907 in 1950 (The Film Daily Yearbook)

The confusing history of the Opera House begins with its original incarnation, built on Huntington Avenue in 1901. The venue was a popular spot for local and traveling opera troupes. Unfortunately, the building fell into disrepair in the time between the Great Depression and World War II. The first and second demolition companies gave up in frustration, as the opera house resisted their demolition efforts. It was eventually demolished; a Northeastern dormitory building sits where the old Opera House formerly did. This can be the first confusion.

The second confusion is that there was an original B.F. Keith's Theater that sat across from the Boston Common in the city's theatre district, with an entrance on Tremont Street and another on Washington Street.[3]

The third confusion is that Keith's Memorial Theater later sat on the former location of B.F. Keith's Boston Theater.

The current Opera House's entrance facade on Washington Street is in the exact location of the Boston Theatre's entrance. 
After about 1908, the Boston was run by the Keith organization. Next to the Boston's north wall on Mason Street was a firehouse, which later closed. When Ed Albee decided to build the Keith Memorial Theatre, he acquired the firehouse and demolished both it and the Boston Theatre. This provided a larger site which means that the Opera House is wider than the Boston Theatre was.

Horse drawn carriages and cars!

"The main floor was full so we had to sit in the balcony. As we started up the grand staircase, I noted with glee that some wit had placed two pieces of popcorn in the eyes of the B.F. Keith bust on the stair landing making it appear that he had two cat eyes or lion eyes. (Well, he was a lion of show business!) This big heavy bronze bust was removed for safekeeping in the mid-1970s and was stored at the Teele Sq. Theatre in Somerville. Now, it's back in place where it belongs."(Ron Salters)

The building permit was issued on December 3, 1925, but demolition of B. F. Keith’s Boston Theatre to clear the site delayed construction for nearly a year. Construction was well-advanced when the cornerstone was laid on August 25, 1927.(1)

A ceremony  took place on August 25, 1927 at the foundation of the Keith Memorial Theatre  14 months before the theatre opened. The description does not describe exactly where along the foundation site the ceremony took place. It was led by Malcolm Nichols, mayor of Boston. Other speakers included Henry Chesterfield of the National Vaudeville Association, noted show folk George M. Cohan, Julia Arthur and Raymond Hitchcock, followed by Ed Albee himself. Old vaudevillian and musical comedy star Fred Stone then spoke briefly. He handed a trowel to his daughter, actress Dorothy Stone, who then sealed a memorial stone and plaque. The ceremony was concluded by the Boston Meister Singers choir. Fred Stone performed many times at the old Keith's Theatre (Normandie); he played 5 weeks at the old Boston Theatre in "The Wizard of Oz" (he originated the role of the Scarecrow) in Oct. 1904.(2)

A Wurlitzer theater organ opus 1910 style 250 special was installed in Keith's Memorial Theater on July 20, 1928.
It opened on October 29, 1928 with the film "Oh Kay" starring Colleen Moore. 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 McIntyre, Tom Heath, Will Cressey and Eddie Leonard. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts was represented by Governor Alvan T. Fuller, and Mayor Malcolm E. Nichols represented the City of Boston. Former Mayor James Michael Curley was also a guest of honor. The Radio-Keith-Orpheum organization which by that time owned the theatre was represented by the host of that great occasion, Edward F. Albee and none other than Mr. Joseph Kennedy, CEO and the father of the late president and the former Senator from Massachusetts.(1)

The entrance on Tremont Street was located right next to the south wall of Tremont on the Common. It was constructed in the mid-1890s for the original Keith's Theatre which had opened in 1894.

It was very ornate in appearance.  One went in, purchased a ticket, and then went downstairs into a tunnel under Mason Street and then up into the north side of the Keith's Theatre.

The entire structure including the tunnel was beautifully decorated.

In the spring of 1929 it dropped the films and was presenting two-a-day vaudeville shows only. In September of that year the vaudeville was discontinued, and a return to pictures 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.(1)
In February 1935, however, there was offered a gala, 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, as was the feature film “The Good Fairy” which starred Margaret Sullavan.(1)

When the Keith Memorial was built, this entrance on Tremont Street was adapted for it. At some point the tunnel ceased to be used, and one had to go outside and cross Mason Street on the surface. Sometime in the mid-1940s, the structure was "modernized" inside and out. The tunnel staircase was covered over. There was a boxoffice there- you bought a ticket, then went out the rear door and crossed Mason St. to enter the rear of the Keith Memorial arcade. The two doors on Mason street were not opposite one another- you walked a diagonal in a northeasterly direction. But at night, both doors were brightly lit, in contrast to the general darkness of Mason St. You could not get lost ! You then walked east down the arcade and turned left to enter the Grand Foyer and have your ticket taken. The arcade and Tremont St. entrance continued in use right into the Opera Company of Boston era. However, there was no longer a box office in the structure. 

On October 7, 1953, the first CinemaScope feature, The Robe, opened here, on a screen 51 feet wide and 20 feet high.
It became RKO Keith's in the 40's.

The RKO Keith Memorial closed on June 13, 1965.

The theater was renamed Savoy by Ben Sack when in 1965 the D'Oyly Carte Company came to Boston to perform Gilbert & Sullivan; they were originally set to use the old University Theater (later the Harvard Square), which was deemed unfit for their productions at the time. Ben Sack bought it and reopened it as the Savoy Theatre on August 3, 1965. The new owners refurbished the building, making great efforts to restore its opulent beauty.

In May 1967, a crowd of 15,000 people gathered for a free promotional showing of Casino Royale -- scheduled for 4 am! Obviously that number of people could not fit into even this theatre, and a riot ensued.

In September 1971, Sack bricked up the proscenium arch and a second auditorium was installed within the stagehouse and the dressing rooms into apartments, temporarily ending the theatre's use for live shows.

In the early to mid 70s when it was the Savoy Theatre, the Sack Theatre Executive Offices were housed on the second floor. The only access was via a small elevator located in the mirrored wall across from the main box office.

"As a former employee, I have a couple memories: 
1. Jerry Lewis was performing in town and came to see a showing of King Kong (the 1976 remake) 2. Through the generosity of the maintenance crew, I got a tour of the building including the catwalk in the space between the roof of the building and the dropped dome ceiling. As I recall, there was a hole right in the center of the dome that you could look through and see the seats far below. Also the basement was like the backdrop for Phantom of the Opera - old brick arches and tunnels and I think there was even an open canal."
ConnieZ, January 3, 2006

The twinned theatre continued to operate as a pair of film houses until 1978.

When Savoy II, the second screen of the Sack Savoy, was created on the stage of the theatre, it was accessed from the west end of the arcade. It's possible that the Opera Company of Boston used this access doorway for their new stage entrance for performers, musicians and technicians. 

Sarah Caldwell's Opera Company of Boston bought the Savoy from Sack for $885,000 on October 19, 1978 and burned the mortgage the following August. Caldwell and company produced 12 seasons in the hall, some of them spectacular.
But the Opera Company's finances have historically been a shambles, and its lack of money for maintenance showed in the beautiful building, which deteriorated throughout the 1980s.

In 1983, the lobby, fashioned after the Paris Opera, was beautiful and was used for a series of lunchtime and holiday concerts. [A kitchen was tucked under the grand staircase.]
Offices were located in a five-story attachment to the back of the theatre. Some of the rooms had full baths, which implied they could double as overnight accommodations for visiting artists. The most wonderful aspect of the theatre was it's perfect acoustics and clear sightlines. That made suffering all the house's mechanical problems worthwhile.

Under the stage, off of the dingy orchestra "green room," was a tiled room with a large rectangular tub in the center. The room, which was a mess, appeared to be a slop room and was filled with discarded buckets of paint. I asked our tech director one day what the room originally was for and he replied, "It was the seal room." "The seal room...?" I repeated. "What was that?"

At the stage's pin rail, one end was a bricked up opening. It had originally housed a small elevator, which lifted the animal acts from the basement "seal room" to the stage. [The place was fascinating!]

A nursery, whose mirrored walls concealed closets for toys and other supplies, floated above the theater's entry hall. This was one of the remnants of the services the theatre offered in its day as a movie palace.[

 On April 11, 1984 it was used to leave after a performance of "Madame Butterly". A large number of  audience members exited through it. The original stage door of the KM was on Mason Street, just north of the arcade entrance. But the Opera Company did not use it; instead they created a new stage entrance in the west end of the arcade itself. 

The old tunnel was still there in the 1980s: You could access the east end of the tunnel from the basement under the arcade and stage. It was still fancily decorated, but pitch-dark.
In March 1987, the Tremont St. lobby was demolished. Heaps of bricks had been pushed into the west end of the tunnel. What happened to the east end of the tunnel when the Opera House stage was reconstructed in 2004? 
In 2003, the Tremont Street lobby building had been recreated on the original site. Although not fancy like the 1895 original, it has a theatrical look. It is possible that the developers for that site were required to recreate the entrance, even though the Opera House no longer has access for audience members from Mason St.  (Ron Salters)

Built in the Mediterranen Baroque/Beaux-Arts tradition, the 26-foot-wide by 96-foot-high, high-relief fa├žade on Washington Street is of glazed white terra cotta. The theatre extends 307 feet through the block to a rear entrance on Mason Street. The original bronze ticket booth, bronze poster display cases, and ceiling chandelier and wall sconces are intact. The sumptuous interior combines elements of the European Baroque and English "Adam" styles, with a color scheme of white, red, and gold.

The building has experienced only minor alterations and is in relatively good condition throughout. The stair landing on the second floor is referred to as Memorial Hall because it was originally the location of the bust of B.F. Keith, theatre developer and impresario.

Dedicated to Benjamin Franklin Keith (1846-1914), the founder of vaudeville, the theatre was planned by his successors as a lavish tribute to his memory. During the 1890's Keith established a chain of popularly priced theatres, which by his death numbered 400. He is buried in the Newton Centre Cemetery, his grave fittingly marked by an enormous Corinthian column.

The New Theatre's former entrance at 547 Washington Street still stands and is now a pizza place called The Proper Slice.

Caldwell's company produced its last local opera, "The Balcony," at the Opera House in 1990.

The last performance, by Yanni, took place in May 1991.
The following year, the building was seriously vandalized. Boston Edison shut off the utilities, and the building became so decrepit it came close to being condemned.

After a flood destroyed nearly everything contained in the venue in 1991, interest in restoring the original opulence of the Opera House grew. The theater, unheated, fell prey to a catastrophic flood, [6] destroying the electrical system. The roof, under which decades of costumes were stored, allowed the elements to wreak havoc with them.

The current incarnation of the Opera House opened on July 16, 2004. The theater was renovated, restored, and reopened at a cost of $54 million, in July 2004 by Clear Channel Entertainment, and is now a site for touring Broadway shows and other live entertainment, known as the Boston Opera House.

According to Douglas Tucci, in an article titled 'The Boston Rialto'
The terra cotta entrance on Washington St. served as entrance to 3 theaters, the Opera House, the Bijou, and an older 'B.F. Keith' theater, the auditorium of which apparently ran along Mason St. The Bijou was a small second floor theater whose main attraction was a waterfall enclosed in a glass staircase. All 3 could be accessed from the main corridor that runs from Washington to Mason St. The older 'B.F. Keith was demolished years ago. All 3 could also be accessed from Tremont St. by a passageway that originally went in a tunnel under Mason St., it was only a passageway through some buildings, so you had to come outdoors again, cross Mason St. and enter the current corridor. 1n 1997 that part of the glass waterfall stair was still there, under carpeting, at the rear of a shoe store fronting on Washington St.

To review:
The original B.F. Keith's Theater is not the same as Keith's Memorial Theater and
the Boston Theater was torn down in order to build the Keith Memorial Theatre, which is now called Opera House. The new Opera House does indeed sit on the site of the old Boston Theatre (1854-1925), a big legit house with over 3000 seats, 3 balconies and a huge stage.

Jerry performed here on
6/28/82 John Kahn (acoustic)

2.)^Fields, Armon, Fred Stone, pg 236, (McFarland, 2002)
3.)^Keith's Theatre, no.547 Washington and no.163 Tremont. Boston Register and Business Directory, 1918, 1921
4.)^Cohen, E.J., New York City.


  1. I have to say that I kind of resent you using my memories of working at the Opera House -- of the mirrored nursery and the seal room -- which were posted on another site, without giving me proper attribution.

    Otherwise, I enjoyed coming across your page.

    -- E. J. Cohen, New York City

  2. Sorry Mr. Cohen, I've made a footnote of your comments. I don't recall where I found it.

  3. I grew up in the area, saw The Godfather opening night at the Savoy! I saw a pic on another website; is this the "Tremont St. entrance" to the Savoy?