Historic Structures

BF Keith Memorial Theater – Opera House, Boston Massachusetts

Date added: June 10, 2016 Categories: Massachusetts Theater

Benjamin Franklin Keith (January 26, 1846 - March 26, 1914) was born at Hillsborough, New Hampshire, the youngest of eight children born to Samuel C. and Rhoda Keith. At the age of seven he began to work on a western Massachusetts farm, remaining there for 11 years and attending the district school and village academy during the winter months. When he was 17, Keith was greatly attracted by a country circus which he had visited, and shortly thereafter he left for New York, where he found employment with Bunnell's Museum. He later worked for P. T. Barrium and with Adam Forepaugh's Circus, remaining in the circus business as employer and proprietor until the early 1880s. During that time he added to his theatrical experience fy taking small shows on the road, thrice bankrupting himself in the process.

Keith's career as a vaudeville entrepreneur began in Boston. In January 1883 he opened the Gaiety Museum in partnership with Colonel William Austin in a room only 15' x 35' that tapered to 6' at the rear. Those premises were immediately south of the Adams House Hotel adjoining the south side of the present B. F. Keith Memorial Theatre, now renamed the Opera House. The partnership with Austin, soon dissolved, and the enterprise "became "Keith and Batcheller's Mammoth Museum" with George H. Batcheller as Keith's new partner. The partners soon added an upstairs lecture hall with 123 seats, and it was there, above the hall of curios, that continuous performance vaudeville first began. In 1884 Batcheller left, and Edwin F. Albee, an old friend of Keith, joined to form a partnership in 1885 that lasted until the latter's death in 1914.

During the 1885-1886 season, the partners leased the Bijou Theatre and offered five daily performances of Gilbert and Sullivan's "Mikado" at ten cents a seat. From that time forward their business flourished. The Bijou Theatre, on the site of the Gaiety Theatre (not to be confused with Keith and Austin's Gaiety Museum), adjoined the south wall of the present B. F. Keith Memorial Theatre (Opera House), In 1894, Keith and Albee invested over $600,000 in building the flagship house of their expanding chain of theatres, the B. F. Keith's New Theatre. That theatre, notable for its luxurious appointments and lavish decor, occupied a site behind the Bijou and also adjoined the south wall of the present B, F. Keith Memorial Theatre (Opera House).

The partners operated a chain of popular-priced vaudeville theatres furnishing refined entertainment to the public,and raised the standard of vaudeville from the coarse and vulgar variety shows that had hitherto been typical. In l8?3, Keith had married Mary Catherine Branley, a very pious Roman Catholic whose moral concepts deeply influenced her husband. Risque" lines were not tolerated on Keith stages, and even so relatively innocuous a term as "slob" was banned. Albee, who was as devoted to physical cleanliness as he was to moral cleanliness in his theatres, strongly supported the policy of genteel censorship.

Keith and Albee induced legitimate-stage stars to appear in vaudeville and greatly improved performers' salaries and backstage accommodations. By the turn of the century, the Keith Circuit had achieved a virtual monopoly of vaudeville entertainment in many areas and had successfully invaded the Hew York market. The partners maintained their position by forming the United Booking. Office, an agency many of their chief rivals found it expedient to join. One of those rivals, Frederick Freeman Proctor, for whom Keith had scant regard, became a partner in 1906, when the Keith and Proctor Amusement Company was formed. That uneasy partnership was dissolved in 1910. The United Booking Office continued until 1919, five years after Keith's death, when it was reorganized as the B. F. Keith Vaudeville Exchange. During his last years, Keith was apparently content to enjoy his fortune, and his name on an estimated nearly 400 theatres, leaving active participation in the business to Albee. Keith's wife, Mary Catherine, died in 1910, leaving one son, Andrew Paul Keith. On October 29, 1913, Keith married Ethel Bird Chase, but that marriage had little effect upon the disposition of his assets, most of which were given equally to his partner and his son to avoid inheritance taxes before his death on March 26, 1914.

Edward Franklin Albee (October 8, 1857 - March 11, 1930) was born at Machias, Maine, the son of a shipwright, Nathan S. Albee, and his wife Amanda. When Edward was four, his parents moved to Boston, where he grew up. His formal education ended at the age of twelve, and after a variety of odd jobs, he succumbed to the lure of a travelling circus when he was nineteen. He learned his showmanship during seven successive seasons with Barnum's "Greatest Show on Earth" before joining his friend Benjamin Franklin Keith in the autumn of 1885. The course of that famous partnership, which endured until Keith's death in 191^, has been briefly outlined above.

One of Albee's greatest contributions to American vaudeville was certainly his interest in the planning and construction of suitable theatres, of which there had been a widespread lack. The B. F. Keith's New Theatre of 1894 in Boston was only the first in a series of beautiful and commodious playhouses erected in the leading cities of the East and the Middle West. As Keith's chief of staff, Albee was also concerned with the working conditions of the actors under his management. The growing prosperity of the vaudeville circuits made a marked increase in actors' pay possible, and Albee, in planning new theatres, provided for better dressing rooms and other facilities.

“This amazing man was a specialist in theatre construction. He was a fanatic when it came to sanitation and ventilating systems. His rest rooms were models of size and perfection. He is said to have invented the mushroom system of air conditioning where exhaust air was removed from under the auditorium seats, while fresh air was introduced at the ceiling level. In the summer the incoming air passed through chambers of ice, in winter through coils of steam pipes.

He introduced hotel-like dressing rooms in his new "palaces." He decorated his lobbies with valuable oil paintings, expensive antique furniture, and art objects. He loved red and gold decor from his circus days. He used quantities of marble where others used plaster. His theatres had much gilt, in some cases real gold leaf.” (Donald C. King, "Keith, Albee, Et Al," Marquee, Vol. 7, No. 3, 3rd quarter, 1975), p. 8)

Andrew Paul Keith survived his father by only a little over four years. He died in 1918, a victim of the terrible Spanish influenza epidemic of that year. Upon his death, Albee fell heir to most of his assets, but some Keith holdings, including the Boston Theatre on the actual site of the present B. F. Keith Memorial Theatre (Opera House), were bequeathed elsewhere. The William H. O'Connell whose name appears as trustee in the chain of title was none other than His Eminence, William, Cardinal O'Connell, trustee for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston. The next owner, the Harvard Corporation (President and Fellows), was then headed by President A. Lawrence Lowell. Thus, two of the most influential men in the nation in their respective fields of religion and education held the property in trust for their institutions. In 1919 the United Booking Office, which then had assets of nearly $50,000,000, was reorganized as the B. F. Keith Vaudeville Exchange controlling between 350 and H0O theatres. The circuit later became the Keith-Albee-Orpheum, or K-A-0 Theatres. In 1926 Albee bought the Pathe and F.B.O. film companies, and by 1927 his personal fortune was reported as $25,000,000.

With the advent of sound films in 1927, the death knell of vaudeville was sounded, although the actual demise was still a few years in the future. In 1928 Albee was 70 years old, and Joseph P. Kennedy, father of the future President, bought up his stock. K-A-0 became submerged in Radio-Keith-Orpheum, or R-K-0, an amalgam of the Radio Corporation of America, the Keith-Albee-Orpheum Theatre Circuit, the F. B. 0. and Pathe picture companies, the R.C.A. Photophone sound system, Victor Records, and the National Broadcasting Company. Albee "stepped down" from the presidency to become a member of the R-K-0 board of directors. That same year saw the opening on October 29, 1928, of the B. F. Keith Memorial Theatre, which had been erected under the close personal supervision of Edward F.. Albee as a final tribute to his late partner. On March 11, 1930, Albee died at Palm Beach, leaving his wife, the former Laura S. Smith, whom he had married on May 13, 1881, and two children, Ethel and Reed.