A hundred years ago, most American towns had a theatre to host the traveling performers who came through on the vaudeville circuit. Vaudeville productions were basically variety shows—everything from acrobats to animal tricks, comedians to contortionists, singers to swing dancers. Remember, there was no TV, no radio and movies were black, white and silent. Vaudeville was America’s entertainment.
In a small town, the theatre might simply consist of a stage, seating and a “three-piece band” – a piano player, a piano and a stool. Small as they were, these theatres could be lovely, with surprisingly decorative interiors. Big time vaudeville theatres were opulent beyond anything we build today, with marble staircases, gilded prosceniums, massive chandeliers and powder rooms the size of a small ballroom.
Here are some of the most interesting—and oldest!—theatres in Massachusetts that still operate as entertainment spaces today.
539 Washington St.
Boston, MA 02111
The B.F. Keith Memorial Theatre opened its doors in 1928 to honor the great vaudeville circuit owner, and no expense was spared. With Carrara marble, gold leaf finishes, and walnut and oak paneling, it seats almost 3,000. In 2002, the theater saw a major renovation and exacting refurbishment including replication of original carpet and silk wall panels. The former vaudeville house is now home to the Boston Ballet and Broadway Across America, as well as other presenters.
58 High St.
Clinton, MA 01510
Built in 1924, the Strand began as a vaudeville and movie theatre and was a fixture in downtown Clinton for over 50 years. It fell into disuse, but was purchased and renovated in 1995, removing seats to widen the aisles and add tables for dining. Theatre goers can now order beer, wine and pub fare, and enjoy dinner while watching movies that update weekly.
7 Medford St.
Arlington, MA 02474
The Regent celebrated its 100th birthday this year with vaudeville-reminiscent performances and guests in period dress, much like the day it opened, when it hosted performances and a showing of silent film “Rags,” starring Mary Pickford. To accommodate movies with synchronized sound—or “talkies,” as they were known at the time—the theatre underwent a major renovation in 1926. The theatre now hosts a variety of movies, performances, and its annual “The Sound of Music” Singalong with a showing of the movie and on-screen lyrics during Christmas Week.
2 Southbridge St.
Worcester, MA 01608
Built in 1904 as the Franklin Square Theatre, it originally held an impressive 1700 seats and drew Broadway touring companies with stars like Sarah Bernhardt. Purchased by renowned vaudeville impresario Sylvester Poli in 1912, he completely redesigned and expanded the theatre in 1926 to seat 3,500. The new design included a grand staircase in the two-story lobby, mirrored walls, marble columns and an enormous chandelier. After another major renovation in 2008 by its current owner, the non-profit Worcester Center for the Performing Arts, Hanover Theater is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places and once again hosts national touring companies.
55 Davis Square
Somerville, MA 02144
Located in the 1914 Hobbs building in Davis Square, the Somerville hosted vaudeville, plays, opera and silent movies, with performers such as Tallulah Bankhead, Francis X. Bushman and Ray Bolger, who would later play the Scarecrow in “The Wizard of Oz.” During the Depression, the theatre began showing movies exclusively, as they were less expensive, and continued to do so until the 1980s. A series of renovations beginning in the 1990s both expanded and restored the original theatre, which now hosts lives shows by performers as prominent as U2, Bruce Springsteen, Phish, and Adele.
Related: 5 Historically Rich Southern Sites
7 Eliot St # A
Jamaica Plain, MA 02130
Built an astonishing 185 years ago, Eliot Hall is the oldest on our list of historic Massachusetts theatres, and is host to America’s oldest community theatre company. In 1889, The Footlight Club purchased the building, and nearly 100 years later embarked on a major refurbishment of the auditorium, structural repairs, and the addition of new dressing rooms. Eliot Hall is now quite appropriately on the The National Register of Historic Places.
684 Purchase St.
New Bedford, MA 02740
On opening night in 1923, vaudeville superstar George Jessel performed, however The Zeiterion soon transitioned to showing silent movies only. Over the decades, it became a hotspot for first run movies, hosting five movie premiers. After several remodels, the Zeiterion benefited from a major refurbishment in the early 1980s, bringing it back to its original grandeur, and securing its position as the region’s premier performing arts center.
1 Hamilton Pl.
Boston, MA 02108
In 1852, the Orpheum, then known as the Boston Music Hall, was completed and served as the original home to the Boston Symphony Orchestra until it moved to Symphony Hall in 1900. The Orpheum was then converted to use as a vaudeville venue. By the 1930s, with the slow death of vaudeville, it began showing movies only, and continued through the 1970s, when it began offering live performances again. Many major musicians have played the Orpheum, including The Police and U2, both of which have recorded live albums there.