B.F. Keith Memorial Theatre // 1928

Not to be confused with the former B.F. Keith’s Boston Theatre (last post), the B.F. Keith Memorial Theater on Washington Street, remains as one of the most sophisticated architectural compositions found in Boston. The Keith’s Memorial was one of his most elaborate designs of the prominent theater architect Thomas W. Lamb. The B. F. Keith Memorial Theatre was erected under the close personal supervision of Edward Franklin Albee as Albee’s tribute to the memory of his late partner and friend, Benjamin Franklin Keith. For that reason, it was built with a degree of luxury in its details and design that is almost unrivaled. On October 23, 1928, just before the theater opened, the Radio-Keith-Orpheum (RKO) company was formed and became the owner of the theater after consolidations and mergers. The Keith Memorial theater opened on October 29, 1928, presenting first-run films along with live vaudeville. By 1929, the theater had converted to showing only films and remained a leading Boston movie showcase through the 1950s. In 1965, the theatre was purchased from RKO by Sack Theatres, and the new owners refurbished the building, and renamed it the Savoy Theatre. The theater used the frontage, formerly used by the B.F. Keith’s Boston Theatre on Tremont Street to showcase a large marquee. In the early 1970s the massive arch framing the opening between the stage and the auditorium was bricked up, and a second auditorium was installed within the stage. 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, who renamed the building the Boston Opera House. After a decade, the group could not maintain the ornate building and The Opera Company closed the theatre in 1991, and the building began a period of rapid deterioration. In the early 2000s, the gorgeous building was restored and re-opened as the Citizens Bank Opera House, which (pre-Covid) runs a steady rotation of touring Broadway productions, Boston Ballet Nutcracker holiday shows and more. Also, if you havent been inside the building for a tour, you are missing out!

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-Albeeā€™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.