B. F. Keith’s Boston Theatre // 1894-1952

The other day, I was walking in Boston Common along Tremont Street, when I noticed this oddly ornate building wedged between larger, modern buildings. I HAD to investigate! The building was actually constructed as an arcade/covered walkway which ran to Mason Street behind, with a tunnel running under that street into the B.F. Keith’s Theatre. In 1892, Benjamin F. Keith and his business partner E.F. Albee purchased land off Mason Street, a scarcely trafficked street between the busy Tremont and Washington Streets in Boston’s Theater District, with the goal of creating the city’s finest vaudville theatre. The duo hired J. B. McElfatrick & Son, architects who specialized in theatres, to design the new B.F. Keith’s. Due to the site being wedged between two main streets, entrances were built off both Tremont and Washington with flashing lights and marquees, guiding patrons inward. The Tremont facade was especially grand so that B. F. Keith’s New Theatre could be advertised on, and approached directly from, Boston Common, with lights flooding the park. The theater opened in 1894 and was over-the-top with intricate details and sculpture all over, appealing to the city’s wealthy as a place to see the arts. Although it was primarily a vaudeville house during Keith-Albee’s ownership, famed inventor Thomas Edison demonstrated his new Vitascope movie projector here on May 18, 1896. This was the first projection of a movie anywhere in Boston. As live shows made way for motion pictures, the theater adapted, but suffered around the Great Depression when would-be patrons decided to save their limited money. In 1939, the theater was converted to a movie theater named the Normandie. The theater was demolished in 1952 for a surface parking lot to provide better service to the Opera House (originally B.F. Keith’s Memorial Theatre, confusing I know) and Paramount Theater. Today, all we have left of the once beloved B.F. Keith’s Theater is the small annex, which is virtually unrecognizable from historic images as most of its decoration and the top two stories were removed.

1906 image courtesy of Library of Congress.

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