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Benjamin Franklin Keith (1846-1914)

Benjamin Franklin Keith was born in 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 that 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. Barnum and with Adam Forepaugh’s Circus, remaining in the circus business as employer and proprietor until the early 1880’s. During that time he added to his theatrical experience by taking small shows on the road, thrice bankrupting himself in the process.

Benjamin Franklin KeithKeith’s career as a vaudeville entrepreneur began in Boston. In January 1883 he opened the Gaiety Museum in partnership with Colonel William Austin – the premises were immediately south of the Adams House Hotel adjoining the south side of the present Boston 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 Edward F. Albee, an old friend of Keith, joined to form a partnership in 1885 that lasted until Keith’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 Boston 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 décor, occupied a site behind the Bijou and also adjoined the south wall of the present Boston Opera House.

The partners operated a chain of popular 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 1873, 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 New 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. Keith died on March 26, 1914.

This information was excerpted in part from The Library of Congress, Historic American Building Survey – H.A.B.S. No. MA-1078, B.F. Keith Memorial Theatre, Boston, Massachusetts. A link to these Library of Congress American Memory web resources is http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query

For those interested in further information on the history of the Boston Opera House and of theatre in Boston, we recommend you visit www.historictheatres.org and search for the link to Back Issues of their fine publication “Marquee - The Journal of The Theatre Historical Society of America”. The Special Issue featuring the Historic American Buildings Survey of the Keith Memorial Theatre/Boston Opera House and featuring beautiful illustrative photographs is Volume 15, Number 2 published in the second quarter of 1983. A history of The Three Boston Theatres was featured in Volume 32, Number 1 published in the first quarter of 2000. Reprints are available and can be ordered through their website.