Wilton Town Hall and Theater // 1885

Welcome to Wilton, New Hampshire! With a population less than 4,000, the tiny New England town sure packs a lot of old buildings into its borders. The town was first part of a township chartered as “Salem-Canada” in 1735, by Colonial Governor Jonathan Belcher of Massachusetts, which then claimed this area. The land here was granted to soldiers from Salem, Massachusetts, who had served in 1690 under Sir William Phips in the war against Canada. “Salem-Canada” was one of the towns on the state’s border intended to provide protection against attack from native tribes. In 1762, residents of the town petitioned New Hampshire Governor Benning Wentworth to incorporate the town as Wilton, likely named after Wilton, England. The town prospered as a sleepy farming town, largely concentrated around Wilton Center. By the 1860s, the village of East Wilton developed around the Souhegan River, with mills and businesses centered there. The town decided to relocate their town hall “closer to the action”. Land was acquired on a triangular piece of land in the center of the village, which was recently cleared by the destruction of Whiting House, a hotel that formerly occupied the site. The architectural firm of Merrill & Cutler of Lowell, MA, were hired to design the building, which blends Richardsonian Romanesque and Queen Anne styles perfectly on the difficult site, opening in 1885. Silent movies were first shown in the auditorium in 1912 and by the 1930s, the auditorium was used most often as a movie theater. A large part of the building has since been occupied as a theater for the community.

Strand Theatre – Strand Ballroom // 1915

This three-story brick and stone building in Downtown Providence was built in 1915 as a motion picture theatre, one of the first purpose-built movie houses in the city. Local architect Thomas J. Hill Pierce designed the building which had a central theatre core with offices at the street which enhanced the
building’s income by optimizing rental space and providing a sound buffer between the street and the auditorium. Taken over by Publix, the building was briefly known as the Paramount Theatre from 1930-34, when the Strand name was restored. After WWII, populations were moving farther and farther from downtown, the theater struggled to attract customers, so like many other downtown movie theaters, the Strand shifted its clientele by featuring adult films, a revenue stream that only worked for a few years before the owners converted some of the auditorium space into commercial/office use. When Downtown Providence began to see a resurgence, owners re-opened the old Strand as a live music venue, known as Lupos Heartbreak Hotel and Roxy Providence. In 2017, new owners closed the theatre for a three month, $1 million renovation project, reopening as the Strand Ballroom, a wildly popular venue.

Johnson Hall // 1864

After heading west to seek his fortune in the California Gold Rush, Gardiner resident Benjamin Johnson, moved back to his hometown and immediately spent money to buy one of the finest hotels in town. He renamed the hotel Johnson House and served as the manager of the hotel through the American Civil War. The hotel included a two-story stable to the side which allowed visitors to keep their horses and carriages nearby. In December 1864, he completed a two-story vertical addition which added a large hall with gallery above for events and shows, retaining the stable on the ground floor. The demarcation of the two sections is evident from the windows on the main facade and the difference in brick. The hall opened to great fanfare, and with Johnson as manager, hundreds of plays, musicians, and events were held in the event space, which made Gardiner a major hub for socio-cultural life in Kennebec County. In the 1880s, he added a new wood floor upstairs which allowed the hall to be used for rollerskating, a very popular update. Not long after, the stable was converted to commercial space at the ground floor, and upstairs an opera hall. Benjamin died in 1903, and his widow, Henrietta took over, and kept-up with the times, changing the upstairs hall to a moving pictures and silent film theatre. The theatre closed in the mid-20th century, like so many other small local theaters. Good news though! A group of locals is working to fully restore all three floors of Johnson Hall, creating a new state-of-the-art performing arts theater, while maintaining the architectural character of the building.

Brookfield Theatre // 1907

The Curtis School for Boys was founded in 1875 in Bethlehem, Connecticut by Frederick S. Curtis as a private school for young men aged 9-13. Curtis moved the school to Brookfield Center in 1883 and began constructing a campus. Buildings for the 30 pupils and five instructors included a dormitory, President’s residence, schoolhouse, caretaker’s cottage, and gymnasium on 50 acres. The school never expanded beyond a few dozen students, likely under Frederick Curtis’ supervision. The school closed in 1943, at the onset of America’s involvement in WWII, and it never re-opened. The campus sat in the village center for over a decade, with many of the buildings falling to the wrecking ball for safety reasons. Possibly the only building remaining is the 1907 gymnasium, constructed of rubblestone. The building was purchased by the Brookfield Country Players in 1959 and remodeled as a community theater. The theater group was founded two years prior, and it required its own theater space after a school complained about an actor appearing on stage without a shirt, the horror! The group remains a regional institution in the arts and is a great caretaker of their historic Arts and Crafts style building.

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-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.

Cabot Theatre // 1920

Located on Cabot Street in Downtown Beverly, Mass, the aptly named Cabot Theater stands as one of the most iconic landmarks in the town and North Shore. The building was constructed in 1920 by Glover Ware and Harris Ware of Marblehead and named the Ware Theatre, at a cost of over $250,000 a century ago. The structure was designed by the architectural firm of Funk and Wilcox, who are credited for dozens of theaters in the Boston area. The lobby of the building was faced with pink marble with a gold-leaf embellished, vaulted ceiling. The auditorium, was furnished with a forty-three foot dome, chandeliers, and a $50,000 pipe organ. During the 1960s, the theater was sold to Loews who renamed it after its location on Cabot Street. In 1976, the building was purchased by Le Grand David and His Own Spectacular Magic Company, restoring the interior spaces, stage rigging, and dressing rooms. For 37 years, The Cabot hosted Le Grand David’s long-running magic show that entertained local audiences, made seven White House appearances and won recognition in the Guinness Book of Records and national magazines. The future of the theater was uncertain until it was purchased and a new board of directors was instituted who provide funding streams, new live acts and maintain the historic structure to this day.

Larcom Theatre // 1912

Why are historic theatres so dang charming??

The Larcom Theatre, in downtown Beverly, Massachusetts, was constructed in 1912, and is the oldest extant motion picture house in Beverly. The theatre was built on land that was formerly occupied by the home of Lucy Larcom, Beverly’s renowned poet and author, who wrote on the lives of the women in the textile mills of Lowell during the mid-1800s, and spiritual life in Massachusetts. Lucy Larcom was born in Beverly and after her father’s death when she was just 8 years old, the family relocated to Lowell as girls were wanted for employment in the mills. She excelled in school and later moved to Illinois and was employed as a teacher. She grew tired of the west and moved back to Beverly, later teaching at Wheaton Female Seminary (now Wheaton College) in Norton, MA. Larcom served as a model for the change in women’s roles in society. Larcom’s home in Beverly was just off the main commercial street and changing demands led to the redevelopment of the site for a motion-picture theater. Local architect George Swan was hired to design the modest theatre, which is adorned by masked faces. The theatre opened to showings of The Count of Monte Cristo, for just 10 cents a ticket! The theatre is used to this day as a multi-arts venue, under the name of Ms. Larcom.

Mohawk Theater // 1938

Local theaters once dominated the urban landscape, providing flashing neon lights and marquees on Main Street USA. After WWII, many downtowns saw populations move to the suburbs and through the advancement in technology, many of these historic movie houses were demolished. Large cineplexes with 10+ screens were built, and the death of the small movie theater coincided with the death of many Main Streets in the mid and late 20th century. Fast forward to today, we see many Main Streets thriving (before the COVID crisis) thanks to women and minority-owned businesses investing in their communities.

The Mohawk Theater in North Adams was built in 1938 and is an excellent example of Art Deco architecture in Western Massachusetts. Loews Cinemas hired the Boston architectural firm of Mowl & Rand to design the 1,200 seat theater which also featured a Native American motif at the lobby. The theater was sold in 1987 to a private investor, who opened the theater for occasional concerts and films, but efforts to maintain the Mohawk were short lived. In 1991, its doors were closed for good.

Lyric Theater // 1919

One of the more identifiable buildings in Dock Square in Kennebunkport Village is one of the first you typically see when arriving from neighboring Kennebunk. The wood-frame building perched on stilts at the edge of the Kennebunk River features a prominent pyramidal roof and stunning windows. Through some digging, it appears the building was built in 1919 as the Lyric Theater, a 350-seat motion-picture cinema, that catered to the summer residents. Sometime after the 1970s, the theater was converted to retail use and now is home to Saxony Imports a place where you can pick up some presidential swag, gag gifts, or touristy clothing.