Boston Opera House

539 Washington Street,
Boston, MA 02111

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spectrum on September 23, 2007 at 10:41 pm

Just got to visit the Opera House for the first time since the restoration, and it is quite stunning. Although the basic layout of the auditorium is virtually identical to many of Thomas Lab’s other “adamesque” theatres, the ornamentation is another matter. Since this was built as a memorial to Benjamin Franklin (B.F.) keith, Lamb was told money was no object and to indulge himself, and he packed the walls and ceilings with the most elaborate and finely detailed ornamentation in any of his theatres. It was interesting to see the original color scheme – not flashy but fairly restrained – shades of ivory and beige, with generous application of gold leaf on the ornamentation, all expertly antiqued – looks quite like I remembered 20 years ago, except much cleaner and in pristine shape. The large blank panels between the ornamentation and columns is covered with luxurious red damask, and the ornamentation is just as elaborate at the very back of the balcony as on the proscenium. Even the balcony stairways have the damask and fine plasterwork. The main lobby and entrance library are both sights to behold – both very elaborate, and an impressive lobby ceiling with even more generous applications of gold leaf. At the top of the grand staircase, other staircases wind around a “podium” outdent forming the front of the oval landing appearing there. The podium area sticks out and would make a great place to address the crowd milling below (I couldn’t take the position of honor since the space was taken with a temporray concession table for the musical). At the back wall of the oval was the giant bust of B. F. Keith back in its place of honor. The foyer at mezzanine level (serving the “dress circle seats” has an elaborately carved multi-bay ceiling with several impressive seiling domes. The theater is carpeted throughout with the original carpet of black with gold designs. The seats were nicely covered with black and red patterned velvet, and the original chair ends at the aisles were restored. Lots of crystal chandeliers throughout the lobbies and auditorium. Accoustics were excellent and so was the amplification system – heard the entire musical clearly without having my ears hurt.

Took a peek outside afterwards – the new stage house is huge, even has a nice pattern to the concrete back wall. The NIMBY apartment dwellers got to keep their segment of Mason Street open, although it is more of a walkway than a street. (See my comments at the Bijou, and Paramount pages for what I saw of those venues) The old Tremont Street entrance and corridor of course is all gone, demolished when the new tower was built on Tremont Street. But the new arcade walkway built into that building has a replica of the old facade on the back of the building as well as the front. Inside the arcade looks all modern (but nice modern, much more attractive than the old entrance in its final form). The arcade that ran the length of the Opera House on the southside is all closed up beyond the back of the large Washington Street lobby. Just see the closed doors back there as I turn right to enter the inner lobby. No idea what is there now.

Interestingly, the report on file that the Library of Congress indicates that there was an internal entrance to the Bijou Theatre off of the men’s 2nd floor lounge (whose window looks out down onto the main entrance lobby) and in fact that the restoration of that space left a restored staircase leading to a blank wall (beyind which was the bijou theatre). I forgot to look for that staircase when I was up there but it would certainly be an interesting curio!

Overall, it was great to see the place again and to see it so well restored.

Ian on March 17, 2007 at 3:02 pm

Two photos from 2000 when it was just beginning it’s revival here:–

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DennisJOBrien on January 16, 2007 at 10:04 pm

One of my pleasant memories of this great cinema was seeing the 1968 re-release of “West Side Story” in its original 70mm widescreen format. The lobby was magnificent and I liked the long passageway that connected to the Boston Common. I saw a number of other films here and I think this was my second favorite theater in Boston after the Music Hall (now the Wang Center). It is good to know the old Savoy has been saved.

rsalters (Ron Salters)
rsalters (Ron Salters) on October 22, 2006 at 10:36 am

On page 236 of the bio “Fred Stone” by Armond Fields (McFarland, 2002) there is a description of a ceremony which took place on August 25, 1927 at the foundation of the Keith Memorial Theatre. This was 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. He played the Old Howard in 1896, and many times at the Colonial in various musicals. He ended his long career playing small character parts in RKO movies in the 1930s. Some of those movies undoubtedly screened at the Keith Memorial/Opera House, as well as the RKO Boston.

Life's Too Short
Life's Too Short on September 15, 2006 at 6:10 pm

I visited this place in order to shoot photos around ‘91. It commanded great respect even in marginal shape. It must be unbelievable now.

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on March 26, 2006 at 2:43 am

Caldwell was a great cultural force. I saw her conduct many times both at the Opera House and the Orpheum.

Ron Newman
Ron Newman on March 25, 2006 at 9:48 pm

Sarah Caldwell, founder and director of the Opera Company of Boston, died last Thursday night at 82.

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on March 19, 2006 at 12:09 pm

This postcard shows the theatre as it might have appeared in 1945, with the Adams House Restaurant next to it.

Ron Newman
Ron Newman on February 25, 2006 at 4:15 am

This 1928 map shows at least 11 downtown Boston theatres. West is at the top of this map.

The very large B.F. KEITH MEMORIAL THEATRE is on the west side of Washington Street, just south of West Street. As you can see, it had (and still has) only a narrow entrance on Washington Street. Most of its street frontage is on the back alley, Mason Street.

Just south of the Keith Memorial is the theatre it replaced, KEITH’S THEATRE, along with the BIJOU DREAM, which was also part of the Keith circuit.

This map was published the same year that the Keith Memorial opened, and the old Keith’s closed (at least under that name).

Ron Newman
Ron Newman on February 22, 2006 at 5:52 am

This 1895 map shows part of downtown Boston. West is at the top of the map.

Near the top left of the map, take a look at the block bounded by Washington, West, Mason, and Avery Streets. In this block you will see the “BOSTON THEATRE”, which was torn down in order to build the Keith Memorial Theatre (now called Opera House).

To the left of the Boston Theatre are KEITH’S NEW THEATRE, and just barely visible, the Bijou (labelled “BIJOU OPERA HOUSE” on the map).

treed on January 3, 2006 at 12:24 pm

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 – but maybe I’ve embellished the memory a bit.

rsalters (Ron Salters)
rsalters (Ron Salters) on December 14, 2005 at 10:28 am

There are 2 photos taken inside the tunnel under Mason Street in 1970 on page 147 of the new book “Theatres” by Craig Morrison. When Savoy II, the 2nd 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. At about the time that the Savoy II opened, I heard that the old KM dressing rooms, which were at the rear of the south end of the stage, were converted into tiny studio rental apartments. I don’t know if this actually happened, or if it was only a plan.

rsalters (Ron Salters)
rsalters (Ron Salters) on December 13, 2005 at 11:02 am

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. I don’t know if it was an adaptation of an existing building, or if it was new construction. It was very ornate in appearance. I don’t know what was located in the upper floors. 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. 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. I used this entrance many times. 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. I last used it on April 11, 1984 to leave after a performance of “Madame Butterly”. A large number of other audience members also 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. I went into it for a few yards during an open house at the theatre around 1978 and again in 1983. In March 1987, the Tremont St. lobby was demolished. I went by the site and noted that heaps of bricks had been pushed into the west end of the tunnel. I don’t know what happened to the east end of the tunnel when the Opera House stage was reconstructed in 2004. In 2003, I was astonished to see that the Tremont Street lobby building had been recreated on the original site. Although not fancey like the 1895 original, it has a theatrical look. Someone told me that 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. Does anyone know anything about why that structure was built ?

rsalters (Ron Salters)
rsalters (Ron Salters) on December 12, 2005 at 11:20 am

The 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. The Opera House 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. I first went to this theatre in the late-1940s with older brother and his friends. 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.

Forrest136 on September 6, 2005 at 5:26 pm

Does projection equipment still exist in this theatre? Is there a 70mmm screen there?

Ron Newman
Ron Newman on August 24, 2005 at 6:19 am

It’s official: The Opera House will not be renamed ‘Citizens Bank Theatre’. From Steve Bailey’s column in today’s Globe:

This spring, Citizens Financial signed a deal with Clear Channel Entertainment to rename Boston’s Opera House ‘'The Citizens Bank Theatre.“ But then Tom Menino, who worked hard on the renovation, let it be known he was not happy about seeing the name disappear. Citizens got the message and pulled out.

‘'To change it to Citizens Bank Theatre didn’t make a lot of sense to me,“ said Menino, who cost Clear Channel a reported $4 million in a seven-year naming rights deal.

Citizens declined to comment. Clear Channel didn’t return my call about future plans to sell the naming rights.

Ron Newman
Ron Newman on August 4, 2005 at 7:52 am

No, it has never had the word “Boston” in its name.

Ron Newman
Ron Newman on August 4, 2005 at 7:33 am

The original agreement to save this theatre included a stipulation that Sarah Caldwell’s Opera Company of Boston be granted the right to continue staging operas here for several weeks each year. However, the company doesn’t exist anymore, and Sarah Caldwell is quite old now.

IanJudge on August 4, 2005 at 7:25 am

I personally think the “Opera House” name is silly – it wasn’t built or designed as an opera house (for example, the way Boston’s late REAL Opera House on Huntington Ave. was). It was built as the B. F. Keith’s Memorial – and was known as RKO Keith’s for the majority of it’s existence.

I love how Menino cares so much about a NAME and yet had no qualms about letting a great theater like the Gaiety/Publix fall to the wrecking ball.

Ron Newman
Ron Newman on August 4, 2005 at 4:49 am

From today’s Boston Globe:

Mayor fighting effort to rename Opera House

Mayor Thomas M. Menino is quietly blocking plans to stamp the corporate logo of Citizens Bank on Boston’s historic Opera House.

Four months after the bank and Clear Channel Entertainment announced plans to rename the newly reopened Washington Street landmark, it remains the Opera House — a name the theater is likely to keep, in one way or another, as long as the mayor has any say in the matter.

Citizens reportedly paid Clear Channel less than $4 million for the seven-year naming rights agreement. Soon after the April 1 announcement of the deal, the bank expected to unfurl banners and to launch a series of promotions touting the showplace as the Citizens Bank Theatre.

But shortly after the deal was announced, Menino and his point man in the Opera House project, Boston Redevelopment Authority executive director Harry Collings, expressed their displeasure to Citizens and Clear Channel.

City officials and bank and Clear Channel executives have been meeting on and off since, trying to come to some resolution, Collings said. Compromises have been floated — calling the theater the Citizens Opera House, for instance — and sunk.

‘'The mayor feels that the Opera House is a very significant landmark, and that we need to do everything possible to protect this historic building,“ Collings said yesterday. ’‘The city and the BRA have worked for years with the preservation community and the arts community to save and restore these three crown jewels — the Opera House, the Paramount, and the Modern Theater.

‘'The Opera House on its own is a very strong Boston identity and brand,“ Collings said.

Menino spent seven years maneuvering and cutting deals to pave the way for Clear Channel to purchase and begin refurbishing the decaying Opera House in 2002. When the theater reopened, following a $37 million restoration last summer, the mayor cut the ribbon and led the first official tour.

‘'The Opera House would be falling down right now" if it weren’t for Boston’s mayor, Clear Channel Theatrical president David Anderson said before the opening ceremony last July. ’‘We owe him. We will help him however we can."

But Menino was not consulted about the Citizens/Clear Channel plans, and the notoriously thin-skinned chief executive was said to have been infuriated. The fact the mayor and his staff learned about the naming rights deal only when they were invited to a press announcement added insult to a sense of injury.

A Citizens spokeswoman declined comment yesterday on the dispute. Anderson of Clear Channel was traveling and could not be reached for comment.

Asked how changing the name of a theater could harm it, Collings said that the Opera House bears a singular Boston identity and brand.

‘'People may say the Opera House used to be the Keith or the Savoy,“ Collings said. But artists who used the theater and the disparate interests who struggled to save it have always referred to the building as the Opera House. ’‘It’s always going to be the Opera House.”

Drew Murphy, recently named president of Clear Channel Entertainment/Broadway in Boston, said yesterday the company is still working with Citizens, its bank, and the mayor’s office to resolve the dispute.

Ron Newman
Ron Newman on June 24, 2005 at 6:22 am

Donald C. King’s new book The Theatres of Boston: A Stage and Screen History has an extensive description of this theatre, with many photos.

It opened on October 29, 1928. Opening policy was “vaudeville at 2:15 and 8:15 P.M., photoplay at 1, 4, 7, and 10 o'clock, continuous shows Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays.” In May 1929 it dropped the feature films and played only vaudeville; I don’t know how long this policy lasted. In September 1933, it dropped vaudeville in favor of first-run double-feature films.

On October 7, 1953, the first CinemaScope feature, The Robe, opened here, on a screen 51 feet wide and 20 feet high.

Ben Sack bought it in June 1965 and reopened it as the Savoy Theatre on August 3, 1965. In September 1971, Sack built a wall within the proscenium arch and turned the stage into the Savoy 2 and the dressing rooms into apartments, temporarily ending the theatre’s use for live shows.

The Opera Company of Boston bought the Savoy from Sack for $885,000 on October 19, 1978 and burned the mortgage the following August.