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The Boston Opera House Site

Almost no site in the United States has a longer theatrical history, and none has a more complicated history, than the Boston block bounded on the north by West Street, on the east by Washington Street, on the south by Avery Street, and on the west by Mason Street. In the 18th century, two taverns on the west side of Washington Street stood side by side, the Lamb Tavern adjoining the south side of the Lion Tavern. By 1835, the Lion Tavern was gone, and its site became the first within the block to be used for theatrical purposes. (The Lamb Tavern, then kept by Laban Adams, was replaced by a hotel, the Adams House, by the end of the 1850’s).

The orchestra or pit of the Lion Theatre was a ring for equestrian performances extending under three shallow tiers of boxes. During the summer of 1836 the wooden front building was replaced by a brick building with first-floor stores, its upper rooms later absorbed in the Adams house. The Lion Theatre was refitted as the Mechanics Institute, a lecture and concert hall in 1839 and was used by the Reverend Theodore Parker’s congregation for a time. In December 1839 the theatre was renamed the Melodeon. Thereafter it continued under various name changes, Melodeon Varieties when Lola Montez appeared there in 1857, New Melodeon in 1859, Melodeon again in 1860, and Gaiety Theatre in 1878. In 1881, the Gaiety Theatre was completely gutted. The walls were built much higher and reroofed, and a new theatre, the Bijou, was constructed within the enlarged space.

The Bijou Theatre, said to have been the first theatre in America lighted by electricity, opened on December 11, 1882, with Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Iolanthe”. By the 1885-1886 season, Keith and Albee had leased the Bijou, and by 1892 they owned the theatre and the stores and portion of the Adams House in front of it. After moving pictures became popular, the Bijou was altered into a movie house called the Bijou Dream. The most memorable feature of the Bijou Dream was the staircase of heavy glass under which flowed an illuminated waterfall. That stairway flanked an escalator with another stairway at its left. In its last days, the theatre was renamed the Intown. Four of its exits led into adjacent theatres, a hazardous arrangement. After the tragic Coconut Grove nightclub fire in Boston, the Intown, a fire marshal’s nightmare, was ordered closed. Eventually it was razed to its orchestra floor, which became the roof of the stores below, enlarged by the removal of the stairs and escalator.

The next site within the block to have a theatre built upon it adjoins the north line of the Lion-Melodeon-Gaiety-Bijou-Intown site and is the site of the present Boston Opera House. The first theatrical occupant of that site was the (third) Boston Theatre. The first Boston Theatre had been erected on an altogether different site at the corner of Federal and Franklin streets from plans by Charles Bulfinch. (By 1793, the orthodox Calvinists, who regarded theatre as “the anteroom of Hell”, could no longer muster enough votes to prevent the repeal of the old Puritan law that had until then kept theatres out of Boston.) The first Boston Theatre opened on February 3, 1794 and burned in 1798. The second Boston Theatre, also by Bulfinch, was built in that same year and, after alterations and additions, burned in 1852. It was then that a company was formed to provide a Boston Theatre on the Washington Street site.

Then the third Boston Theatre opened on September 11, 1854, it was the largest in the United States, having a capacity of 2,972.

The original Boston Theatre Company incorporated in 1852 foundered in the financial storms of 1858, and a new corporation, which promptly relinquished oiwnership of the Melodeon Theatre, was formed. The name of the Boston Theatre was changed to Boston Academy of Music during the 1859-60 season, but by 1862 the original name had been restored. On October 18, 1860, the theatre hosted one of the greatest social events in Boston History, the ball given in honor of Queen Victoria’s eldest sons, H.R.H. Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, later H.R.H. King Edward VII. As the 18-year-old Preince was traveling “incognito”

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.