Boston Opera House

539 Washington Street,
Boston, MA 02111

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Showing 101 - 125 of 144 comments

ejcamt on May 23, 2005 at 9:39 am

From 1983 to 1986, I was a member of the Opera Company of Boston [beginning as an intern and ending up as their production stage manager and occasional onstage actor] and I have such fond memories of working at the Opera House.

Although it was somewhat run down at that time, and replacement parts for everything from the seats to the heating system were hard to come by, it was still very elegant and a fascinating place to explore.

The lobby, fashioned after the Paris Opera, was beautiful and was used for a series of lunchtime and holiday concerts, as well as the company’s 25th anniversary dinner. [A kitchen was tucked under the grand staircase.]

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.

Our 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.

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?”

He led me to the stage’s pin rail. At 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. [i told you the place was fascinating!]

My first production for the company took place during a very cold Boston winter and marked Eva Marton’s first American performances in Puccini’s “Turandot.” There was no onstage heating and numerous small openings in the stage house roof. For rehearsals we scattered a few small space heaters about the stage on extension cords. It was mostly a psychological gesture. It was only through Ms. Marton’s good graces and that of the other leads and company chorus that we managed to make it through to a spectacular opening night.

But the most wonderful aspect of the theatre, to us, was its perfect acoustics and clear sightlines. That made suffering all the house’s mechanical problems worthwhile…for the singers, the company members, and our audiences alike.

Restoration of the theatre at that time was not a financial option for the Opera Company of Boston. There were occasions when Sarah Caldwell would take a drive and return with a check from a Board member just to forestall Boston Edison from terminating service!

A year or two after I left, the Opera Company shuttered and the theatre went dark. There it stood for many years alongside the old Paramount Theatre, both decaying away. It filled me with sadness just to think about that.

I am so happy now that Clear Channel has saved the Opera House in time and beautifully returned it to use as a theatre.


Ron Newman
Ron Newman on May 1, 2005 at 10:24 pm

I very much doubt it. I believe that Sarah Caldwell’s Opera Company of Boston is the only organization ever to present any form of classical music here.

mrt1924 on May 1, 2005 at 10:18 pm

Has Arthur Fiedler or John Williams ever conducted in this venue?

Ron Newman
Ron Newman on May 1, 2005 at 9:03 am

Clear Channel has announced plans to spin off its live-entertainment division. I don’t know what effect, if any, this will have on the Opera House.

Ron Newman
Ron Newman on April 15, 2005 at 9:14 am

A 1945 photo of the RKO Keith’s and the Paramount. The photo is described here. It looks like someone is part way through repainting the Paramount’s vertical sign.

Sandwiched between the RKO Keith’s and the Paramount is another marquee. You can just barely see the words “New Normandie” on top of it. This is actually the first B. F. Keith’s Theatre, which by 1945 was no longer part of the RKO-Keith circuit and had been renamed several times.

Here’s the same scene, but taken from the opposite direction. Photo is described here.

Ron Newman
Ron Newman on April 5, 2005 at 7:43 am

The ‘Opera House’ sign is back, but now in white-on-black letters that match the ‘Phantom of the Opera’ logo in style. Maybe they’re going to wait until June, when Phantom’s run is scheduled to end, before renaming the theatre.

Ron Newman
Ron Newman on April 4, 2005 at 9:06 pm

The former 163 Tremont Street entrance predated this theatre. It was built in 1897 as an entrance to the first BF Keith’s Theatre, and included a stairway and tunnel under Mason Street. Unfortunately, its elaborate detail had been either removed or covered over by the time Sack Theatres took over. Few people mourned it when it was demolished in the mid-1980s.

Some picture postcards of that entrance, when it was still grand:

1905 picture postcard, described here. Keith’s entrance is the green, arched building near the left side.

Another picture postcard, from 1908, described here.

Keith’s by Night, described here.

Keith’s Theatre at Night postcard, described here.

Ron Newman
Ron Newman on April 2, 2005 at 12:43 pm

The Library of Congress Historic American Buildings Survey has an extensive online record)) of this theatre. It contains 31 black-and-white photos, 9 pages of blueprints, three pages of photo captions, and a 63-page report on the theatre’s history and architecture.

Ron Newman
Ron Newman on April 1, 2005 at 4:56 pm

A picture postcard of the RKO Keith’s and the ‘New Adams House Restaurant’ next door. Sorry, I don’t know the date, but the marquee advertises the movie State Fair with Jeanne Crain, which was released in 1945.

Since this image comes from the Google cache of an auction site, I don’t know how long it will stay around. Here’s a another copy of it.

The Adams House Restaurant at 533 Washington St. lingered into the late 1980s, but was eventually replaced by a nightclub called the Hub Club. The current occupant is another nightclub called Felt.

Ron Newman
Ron Newman on April 1, 2005 at 7:19 am

Today’s Boston Globe reports:

Bank to rename theater
Opera House pact to enhance Citizens' image

Citizens Bank has signed a deal to rename Boston’s Opera House.

The bank has agreed to a seven-year pact involving the Washington Street landmark, which is expected to be called The Citizens Bank Theatre. The accord will give Citizens broad reach across Boston’s theater scene, including mentions in all advertising for Broadway in Boston shows, tickets, and the ability to sponsor community events.

Terms of the deal were not disclosed. Clear Channel Entertainment, the division of media giant Clear Channel Communications Inc. that owns the Opera House, first approached Citizens and other Massachusetts companies in December 2003, asking for about $8.5 million over 10 years. At the time, no companies agreed. The deal is likely to be at a lower price because it spans seven years, not 10, and because the bank did not accept Clear Channel’s first pitch in 2003.

Smyth said the bank plans to use the sponsorship to host customers and to give away tickets to community groups. It is planning a special event for nonprofits, which will include an open house, performances and theater classes. The bank also plans to sponsor a concierge booth to loan theater guests opera glasses.

At every performance, Citizens plans to pick two guests at random to receive free tickets and drink coupons. Down the road, it wants to create an exhibit of the theater’s history.

As the theater’s name changes, Clear Channel will switch its advertisements for shows and fix some theater posters to reflect the new name, said Drew Murphy, the president of Broadway in Boston. He said much of the money raised from the naming rights sale will go to restoring the theater.

Ron Newman
Ron Newman on March 31, 2005 at 9:37 pm

The “Opera House” sign on top of the marquee has been covered over. This makes me wonder if a renaming is imminent. (See my March 19 post above.)

Ron Newman
Ron Newman on March 30, 2005 at 10:25 am

A 1950 photo (described here), showing part of the RKO Keith’s vertical sign, marquee, and entrance on Tremont Street. The marquee advertises a premiere of Walt Disney’s “Cinderella”.

This entrance no longer exists, having been demolished in the 1980s to make way for condominiums.

Ron Newman
Ron Newman on March 30, 2005 at 9:34 am

A winter 1934 nighttime photo of this part of Washington Street, showing the Normandie, Bijou, RKO Keith’s, and Modern theatres all lit. The photo is described here.

Ron Newman
Ron Newman on March 30, 2005 at 8:10 am

From the Bostonian Society Library, here’s a 1943 photo of the theatre, along with the accompanying description.

In this photo, the theatre is called RKO Keith’s, and its marquee advertises Ginger Rogers in “Tender Comrade”. Just beyond the Keith’s is the Modern Theatre, advertising a double-feature of Ida Lupino in “In Our Time” and Joel McCrea in “Buffalo Bill”. Across the street is the R.H. White department store (later demolished and replaced by a parking lot).

A banner hanging over the street advertises “COMING IN PERSON / TARS AND SPARS / VICTOR MATURE / CAST OF 50 / RKO BOSTON JUNE 1”. You cannot see the RKO Boston theatre in this photo, because it is behind and to the right of the camera position.

Ron Newman
Ron Newman on March 20, 2005 at 9:11 am

Some of the expanded stagehouse and loading docks for the Opera House appear to occupy part of the space where two earlier theatres once stood: the Bijou (later briefly called the Intown) and the first BF Keith’s Theatre (later called Lyric, Normandie and Laffmovie among other names.).

The Bijou closed in the 1940s as a result of stricter fire laws enacted after the Cocoanut Grove nightclub disaster; its fire exits had led to the two adjoining theatres rather than to the outdoors.

The first BF Keith Theatre, by then called the Laffmovie, was demolished in the early 1950s by the neighboring Boston Herald-Traveler newspaper, which wanted to expand its operations.

[information compiled from several sources in the Fine Arts room of the Boston Public Library, including Douglas Shand-Tucci’s unpublished 1968 draft manuscript The Puritan Muse and Donald C. King’s Historical Survey of the Theatres of Boston, published in the Third Quarter 1974 issue of the Theatre Historical Society’s magazine Marquee.]

Ron Newman
Ron Newman on March 19, 2005 at 11:53 pm

According to an unpublished 1968 draft manuscript by Douglas Shand-Tucci entitled The Puritan Muse (available in the Fine Arts room of the Boston Public Library), the RKO Keith Memorial closed on June 13, 1965, at which point Ben Sack bought it and reopened it as the Savoy.

Ron Newman
Ron Newman on March 19, 2005 at 9:00 am

From today’s Boston Globe:
[quote]Citizens Bank is nearing a deal to put its name on the newly renovated Opera House in downtown Boston, according to people briefed on the talks.

The negotiations are not complete, but are expected to wrap up soon. The deal, if reached, would give Citizens a new and prominent platform in the arts and entertainment community to rival the presence of major competitors, such as Bank of America Corp. and TD Banknorth Inc.

No details about either the possible price or the proposed new name for the Opera House were available yesterday.
I don’t see the point of this, since the Opera House is fully restored and fully booked. It doesn’t need this money. If Citizens wants to put its name on a venue and generate goodwill in the community, how about contributing to restoration of the Modern or Paramount or RKO Boston instead?

Ron Newman
Ron Newman on January 28, 2005 at 7:04 pm

From a Boston Globe article published on June 27, 2004:

Fred McLennan, an expert on Boston theaters who was a projectionist at the Keith and later the Savoy, credits the late Ben Sack, who took over many of the downtown theaters, with saving the Savoy. “They were actually boarding it up when he bought it in 1965,” McLennan says.

(This article also says that the Savoy was split into two theatres in 1971.)

From a Boston Globe article published on June 5, 1995:

Sarah Caldwell’s Opera Company of Boston bought the Savoy in 1978 and renamed it. 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.

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.

bunnyman on January 27, 2005 at 2:14 pm

My memory of the Sack Savoy days is that it was a shortcut from Washington St to the Commons. You could cut through the theatre via a very long corridor lined with movie posters of current and coming attractions then cross a very narrow & smelly alley/street and then continue along another corridor and even more posters till you ended up across the street from Boston Commons.
I was a poster collector and would take the route just to see what was new.

Borisbadenov on January 3, 2005 at 5:38 pm

Some notes on the Opera House (Aka RKO Keith Memorial, aka Savoy)
It got renamed Savoy by Ben Sack when in the late 60s 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.
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., but in my lifetime, was only a passageway through some buildings, so you had to come outdoors again, cross Mason st. and enter the current corridor. Someone told me about 15 years ago that part of the glass waterfall stair was still there, under carpeting, at the rear of a shoe store fronting on Washington st., but I doubt that it would still be there now, with all the construction, redevelopment stuff going on.

Ron Newman
Ron Newman on January 3, 2005 at 9:15 am

The Boston Globe Sunday magazine published this article about the Opera House’s restoration last spring.

When it was still the Savoy, back 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.

Ron Newman
Ron Newman on December 25, 2004 at 10:06 am

I have a booklet called “Boston Theatre District: A Walking Tour”, published by the Boston Preservation Alliance in 1993. It says:

Designed by Thomas Lamb, the Keith Memorial Theatre (later the Savoy and, most recently, the Opera House) was constructed in 1928 in the Mediterranen Baroque/Beaux-Arts tradition. The 26-foot-wide by 96-foot-high, high-relief façade 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 experiencd 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 baried in the Newton Centre Cemtery, his grave fittingly marked by an enormous Corinthian column.

The Keith Memorial was buit on the foundation of the 1854 Boston Theatre, a grand theatre/opera house with a seating capacity of 3140.

bruceanthony on December 21, 2004 at 7:01 pm

It would be nice if somebody could update the photo on this theatre since it has been restored.brucec

janw on November 9, 2004 at 7:47 am

yes my grandfather lived and worked in Boston in the early 1900’s/ He was born in 1898 or 99 we are not sure. He was born in Napoli Italy . He also perfomed in Boston during the vaudville era. I have 2 photographs from then and was wondering where i could go to find out if they were actually taken on the b.f.keith memorial stage(now the Opera House)or somewhere else in old Boston(Scolly Square Theatre).The sign he is infront of on stage reads: RED HOT ALL HOT.THERE ARE 2 MEN ONDSTAGE MY GRANDFATHER AND ANOTHE MAN IN bLACK FACE. No one in our family is alive to tell us the history of the photo. thank you Jan Walsh

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on October 16, 2004 at 11:12 am

I’ve been going to this noble theatre since the late 1950s and have visited it under the name of R.K.O Keith’s, Savoy, and Opera House. Its emergence from long-dormancy arouses ovations. Everything about the place excites us with its class-act beauty.