Boston would be missing a heartbeat essential to the city’s very essence if not for the flashing neon and moving picture billboards calling city dwellers into seats of the thriving theater district. For over a hundred and fifty years Boston’s theater history has boasted tens of thousands of performances with some of America’s finest actors. Wednesday night, the Boston Public Library’s Local & Family History Lecture Series featured a timeline of Boston’s theaters and its early performers given by New England native and theater expert Susan Roberts.
Roberts is not only an expert on Boston’s old theaters but a collector of artifacts. She has been gathering relics specific to Boston for over thirty-five years, and attributes her passion partially to her parents, who were also antiquers. The pieces displayed at the lecture included an exquisite glass shoe, which Roberts indicated is a souvenir from an 1888 Boston performance of “The Cristal Slipper.” Roberts also brought nearly mint condition programs—some over a hundred years old—with type that seemed to shout off the page a more boisterous attitude toward these performances, an attitude that seems to be missing from programs today. One in particular reads the classic drama “East Lynne” lying beneath the curious comedy, “School For Scandal!” Roberts explained that sometimes, “We wonder what they really were,” perhaps campy, “[the comedies] were always interesting, if nothing else.”
The lecture focused primarily on Boston’s firsts, including the New Exhibition Hall built in 1792 and what we now know as the early theater district. Three primary theaters, according to Roberts, comprised the district: the Howard Athenæum, Tremont Theater, and the Boston Museum. Located not too far from Government Center, plays and music were performed at these theaters, and they even housed paintings that now sit in the Museum of Fine Arts.
The Boston Museum, built in 1841, stood on 18 Tremont Street for over fifty years, and in just one of those years could boast over 150 performances. “It was necessary to change programs frequently,” Roberts clarified, “[in order] to attract audiences.” Theater in the 1800’s did not have the prestige that it carries today, hence the spaces where they were performed were simply called museums and halls, and actors, not unlike today, had to work constantly to survive.
Unlike today, however, even famous actors at the time avoided the public eye, largely socializing and working within the same Stock company for decades. Roberts discussed a few of Boston’s favorites, including Boston Museum’s Kate Ryan, who first graced the stage in 1872, and William Warren, who began his long career in 1847. Warren gave 13,345 performances in his lifetime, comprising 577 different roles. During the height of his fame, roles would have to be written into performances for Warren if one did not already exist so as not to disappoint demanding theatergoers. In some cases actors were raised in the theater, like Annie M. Clark. Born in Boston, Clark began in children’s roles before growing into the leading lady of Boston’s company. One can find Clark’s likeness decorated on the covers of old sheet music in dedication.
Regarding music, where did the early Boston Symphony play? Roberts talked about the Boston Music Hall. Built in 1852 it was the first home of the BSO, but the building is also known for founding the New England Conservatory and its hefty pipe organ, the first of its kind in the United States. Spacious and luxuriously decorated, the theater, also featured an illustrious likeness of Beethoven between the pipe organ and where the musicians stood. Nowadays you can find him still standing in one of the halls of the New England Conservatory, a fitting home for him considering the history.
Unfortunately, these theaters were torn down and replaced by the theaters we see today. Roberts asked the audience to try to imagine sitting in these old theaters, and I did, which brought an unfortunate revelation, something critically missing from the lecture. Going back a hundred and fifty years to horse drawn carriages, corsets, overcoats reaching shoulder to foot, and street lamps, I tried to imagine myself attending one of these performances suddenly remembering I’m a Biracial/Black American. So I asked Roberts to discuss theater policy in Boston. Assuming they were segregated, I wanted to know when Boston’s theaters were desegregated and if there was in some theaters separate seating for Blacks and other minorities. Roberts dismissed my question, maybe because she simply did not know the details, but indicated that segregation would not have been unusual for the time. Segregation being usual for the time is why I asked, and it felt oddly disrespectful to not at least mention these issues especially when the presentation included a photo of three early actors in what looked like yellow face, still an issue today, to advertise Gilbert and Sullivan performances.
Although segregation was the norm in America for most of its history, the discussion is important for many reasons. According to city data, Boston in the 1800s was an abolitionist hub along the Underground Railroad. Massachusetts eradicated slavery in 1783. The city’s records also indicate that Boston’s Black population was “sizable” due to being “the focus of the New England Anti-Slavery Society, founded in 1832.” So when we talk about Boston’s history, even specifically Boston’s theater history, not at least mentioning these details ignores the experiences of non-White Bostonians. According to the Massachusetts electric historical almanac Mass Movements, Blacks sitting next to Whites in a theater could be an act of civil disobedience despite Boston’s more progressive stance in comparison to the South on its overall treatment of Blacks. In 1855, a Black American Sarah Parker Remond tried to attend a performance in a Boston theater and was promptly thrown out due to her refusal to sit in a segregated part of the balcony.
When asked to imagine myself attending the theater in the 1800s, it is actually much easier for me to imagine myself walking along Tremont and admiring the Venetian Architecture from across the street. Perhaps, I would have stopped to see a young actress on the side of the theater taking some air before a performance, her face hidden beneath a generous amount of makeup to mimic my ethnic features. Yes, let’s all try to imagine this too.
—Story and pictures by Adriana Hammond