The Citizens Bank Opera House is one of the finest examples of the vaudeville circuit palace at the pinnacle of its development. Designed in a combination of French and Italian styles by Thomas White Lamb, one of the foremost theatre architects of his day, it was erected under the close personal supervision of Edward Franklin Albee to memorialize his late partner, Benjamin Franklin Keith. Because it was constructed as a memorial and tribute to vaudeville’s greatest impresario, it was built with a degree of luxury in its appointments that is almost unrivaled.
The building permit was issued on December 3, 1925, but demolition of B. F. Keith’s Boston Theatre to clear the building site delayed construction for nearly a year. Construction was well-advanced when the cornerstone was laid on August 25, 1927, and the inaugural program took place on October 29, 1928. The opening was attended by many theatrical luminaries, among them George M. Cohan, Lew Fields, Joe Weber, Fred Stone, Maggie Cline, Al Jolson, Julia Arthur Cheney, May Irwin, Raymond Hitchcock, James McIntyre, Tom Heath, Will Cressey and Eddie Leonard. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts was represented by Governor Alvan T. Fuller, and Mayor Malcolm E. Nichols represented the City of Boston. Former Mayor James Michael Curley was also a guest of honor. The Radio-Keith-Orpheum organization which by that time owned the theatre was represented by the host of that great occasion, Edward F. Albee and by R. K. O. Board Chairman Joseph P. Kennedy.
Following speeches by dignitaries came a program of stage entertainment and a screening of the feature film “Oh Kay!” The theatre continued its policy of vaudeville and feature film presentation for a few months. In the spring of 1929 it dropped the films and was presenting two-a-day vaudeville shows only. In September of that year the vaudeville was discontinued, and a return to pictures was made. The theatre then continued to remain a first-run picture house, but with the advent of the Depression the stage was used with less and less frequency. In February 1935, however, there was offered a gala, month-long stage event to celebrate the 52nd Anniversary of B. F. Keith’s entrance into the exhibition business. Personalities famous throughout the great days of vaudeville appeared onstage, as was the feature film “The Good Fairy” which starred Margaret Sullivan.
In 1965 Sack Theatres purchased the B. F. Keith Memorial Theatre from R. K. O. The new owners refurbished the building, making great efforts to restore its opulent beauty, and renamed it the Savoy Theatre. By 1973 the proscenium arch was bricked up and a second auditorium was installed within the stagehouse. The theatre was then named the Savoy 1 & 2. The twinned theatre continued to operate as a pair of film houses until 1978 when it was bought by the Opera Company of Boston.
In August 15, 1979 the mortgage was burned and the Opera Company of Boston acquired full ownership. The name of the theatre was then changed from Savoy to the name it now bears, the Citizens Bank Opera House.
Under the direction of the renowned opera impresario Sarah Caldwell, the Citizens Bank Opera House hosted some of the most acclaimed stagings of opera performances in the modern era.
Unfortunately, the costs of maintaining the theatre outstripped the ability of the Company to keep up. As tax and utility bills went unpaid, the theatre began to suffer deterioration. The Company closed the theatre in 1991 and the deterioration accelerated at a sad and alarming rate.
In 1995, the Citizens Bank Opera House was placed on the Nation Trust for Historic Preservation’s 11 Most Endangered Buildings list.
With the assistance of Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, Clear Channel obtained the necessary building permits in late 2002 and commenced work to completely renovate and restore the Citizen Bank Opera House on a very tight 18-month schedule. The project team was led by Clear Channel managers, Suffolk Construction Company, Martinez and Johnson Architecture and Finegold Alexander and Associates. In order to accommodate the needs of large Broadway touring productions, the old stagehouse and attached dressing rooms were completely demolished to make way for a larger, state-of-the-art stagehouse and new dressing rooms.
Meanwhile, everything between the proscenium wall of the stage and the Washington Street facade was carefully restored to the exacting standards for historic preservation of the National Park Service and the Boston Landmarks Commission.
While all the mechanical, fire protection and HVAC systems were installed to conform with modern standards, a rare assembly of old-world craftsmanship and highly-skilled trades went to work restoring sculptural plaster, gold leaf finishes, Carrara marble, paintings and tapestries, grand staircases, chandeliers, walnut and oak paneling.
The restoration included replication of historic carpet, seating and silk wall panels. When the historic patterns for the silk wall panels proved too large for modern looms, a loom was custom-built to create the historic pattern.
The original capacity of 2,900 was reduced to 2,677 in order to provide patrons with more comfortable seating and excellent sight lines.
On June 28, 2004 the Citizens Bank Opera House re-opened with The Hard Hat Concert: A Boston Vaudeville. The sold-out benefit show was a tribute to the hard work of the entire project team and a nod to the theatre’s vaudeville origins. On July 16, 2004 the Citizen Bank Opera House opened a 6-month run of The Lion King, and the schedule since then has featured a steady rotation of touring Broadway productions, Boston Ballet Nutcracker holiday presentations and other shows by performing artists, comedians, troupes.
New Ownership and a Bright Future
The Citizens Bank Opera House recently entered yet another phase in its storied history. Local businessmen Don Law and David Mugar joined forces to launch Boston Opera House Ventures, LLC, purchasing the Boston Opera House from Live Nation and returning the theatre to local ownership for the first time in decades. After the renovation was complete the Boston Ballet launched its first full season with the Citizens Bank Opera House as their new home. A new, expanded orchestra pit was unveiled to the public for the first time as the Boston Ballet’s Night of Stars opened their new season to a sold-out house. The stage performance was dazzling and the building’s remarkable acoustics were on display for all to hear.
With Broadway Across America and Boston Ballet as primary tenants, and a host of other presenters lining up dates between those runs, the Citizens Bank Opera House Calendar of Upcoming Events will rank as the busiest theatre schedule in New England for many years to come.
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.
For those interested in further information on the history of the Citizens Bank 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/Citizen Bank 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.