Friday, 26 April 2013

The Tale of the Boston Opera House: A Lost Jewel from Retro Boston 1909-1958

Hello, My Fellow Retro Boston Lovers!

Welcome to my first update on my new retro Boston blog!

As many of you may already know from reading my other blog, I was a child fascinated by stories about places in Boston that no longer existed.  I heard many tales about such places from my mom and dad as I grew up and longed to know more about each building that I, sadly, would never see in person. These early seeds were planted in my young mind and today have flourished into my passion for researching and rediscovering the lost gems of retro Boston.

I am not sure how many times as young boy I was driven up and down Huntington Avenue in Boston and heard my mom or dad speak about the grand old opera house that once stood on the corner of Huntington Avenue and Opera Place. Northeastern University loomed all around at this stage in my young life and the idea of this once great structure filled me with wonder.

I asked what it looked like. Mom or dad said it was a great deal like Symphony Hall but larger in size and taller with many seats. That simple description was enough for a five year old and I always asked why it was gone. The answer stayed simple...too big, too old...nobody wanted to spend the money to fix it. I was crushed and made up my mind I would find out more...someday.

I soon learned about other fascinating buildings in the Back Bay- Fenway area that also no longer legendary Mechanics Hall that once graced the area just outside Copley Square along Huntington Avenue. An update will be devoted to this unique structure in the near future!

As I grew up and became a serious collector of all things retro Boston, I managed to find out plenty about the once highly renowned...Boston Opera House. A tale that speaks volumes about Boston in those days when culture was king and making Boston a hub of enlightenment was a mission of many influential, wealthy and philanthropic folk.

The entertainment and cultural life of Boston was mainly contained in the area of central downtown Boston until the dawn of the 20th century.  But the area from Copley Square moving along Huntington Avenue towards the lush green of the Fenway, would become a new area for Boston culture and society...fondly known as “The Avenue of Arts”. The Boston Public Library and the Museum of Fine Arts were early residents and became the anchors for more additions to the cultural world of Boston.  Mechanics Hall was another very early sentinel on this artistic avenue and soon came Symphony Hall. A new cultural heart of Boston was born in this period of time and in 1908, Eben D. Jordan (son of Jordan Marsh Company founder) proposed the building of a proper opera house to accommodate an opera company based in Boston. Jordan, a great patron of the arts and beloved Boston philanthropist not only funded much of this venture but also guided it until his untimely death in 1916.

Boston society was a thrilled with the idea of grand opera based in Boston and performed in a world class opera house. Boston would keep up with New York and Europe...Boston would not be second rate!
Jordan provided much of the costly sum to build the magnificent structure but also relied on the proceeds of subscriptions being sold by early annual box holders. Jordan and the architect from Wheelwright and Haven toured the world looking at opera houses and using what they saw as the basis of what eventually would be constructed and opened to mass acclaim on November 8th, 1909.

The Boston Opera House was a glory to behold. Built in the old European tradition with many shallow tiers of boxes and a large grand foyer with two marble staircases as you entered from the large main doors on Huntington Avenue...a setting for grand opera right in Boston!

The interior decor was considered subdued and yet dramatic with much satin gray wall color ,  gold leaf detailing with robust red satin fabric covering the seats and rails. The high looming ceiling adorned with an inset of sky blue and clouds with electric chandelier hanging gracefully from the center. Other noted features by the world critics were the stage size, the stage equipment, the large attached building in the rear to build scenery and house numerous dressing areas for casts that may include hundreds of performers. Another added feature in this elaborate structure...Boston society could mingle in a restful grand salon overlooking Huntington Avenue through large arched windows and sip refreshing beverages in between the acts of the latest opera productions.

The tale of this fascinating structure reads like so many in cities all over the world. The early success of the Boston based opera company and link with the Metropolitan Opera Company proved exciting.  Grand opera was well received and money was made to sustain the venture. The opera house was used for college, university and society functions as well since it seated around 3000. This number changed over the years. When it first opened it had more boxes and less standard theatrical it was less than 3000. But the seating was changed and modified to accommodate more patrons in a slightly less opulent way. More on that in a minute!

The untimely death of Eben Jordan in 1916 plus the fact that the novelty of grand scale opera was just beginning to fade caused serious issues for the large opera house. Financially it was not pulling its own weight as it had done in the early years of its life. The Boston based opera productions were a huge money drain and became less and less frequent. The property was sold and altered...slightly. The new management wanted less box seating and more row style seating to make it more “user friendly” for other types of shows including movies, variety, musical and standard plays and ballet. The new management held on until 1918 when Lee and J.J. Shubert took it on.

The story of the Boston Opera House in 1918 becomes the story of what some in the building and entertainment trade call...a white elephant. The Shubert plan was simple...some opera brought in from other cities, touring musicals and plays, ballet and other large scale variety shows. Movies were never right for the space and so that feature was never part of the grand revitalization plan. The Shuberts also felt that even more seats needed converting into rows rather than boxes and the stage apron in front of the curtain needed cutting back for more room for the orchestra. Grand opera could have casts of hundreds but not the average musical less stage floor area was needed in front of the curtain. The removal of the small structural walls between the boxes not only created more seating spaces but also created better acoustics. The auditorium had been acoustically perfect for the thunderous tones of opera but a Shakespearian comedy whisper would be lost in the cavernous inner heights of the central area over the orchestra seating.

Transforming the Boston Opera House into a viable performance space for more universal productions was a key to its survival and the Shuberts did what they could and reopened it with a varied bill and positive reviews from the general public. Many kinds of shows....including a circus graced the fine stage over the next series of years to come. The Metropolitan Opera Company had gone but did come back in the 1930’s as an annual event only to be told in 1940 that the building was in need of serious repairs. 

The building was nearly sold during this uncertain time and converted into a large supermarket...but the Shuberts found no buyer and the needed repairs were done. Life carried on. The opera house was not as easy to book as the Shuberts other Boston locations (among them The Shubert, The Wilbur, The Majestic and Plymouth) and was dark more than lit. It did host many touring productions each year but these shows may only do three or four days and then move on....the other legitimate Boston theatres had runs that sometimes went for weeks and weeks.

An interesting note from this period in the early 1940’s...the epic Walt Disney movie, Fantasia nearly made its Boston debut here but in the end it landed at the Majestic. The Majestic was better suited to movies and needed less alterations for this unusually elaborate movie screening.

The 1950’s found the Shubert chain again wondering to do with the BIG old Boston Opera House.

The grand old dame continued to host some memorable shows with top performers and even Ed Sullivan himself did a live telecast of his long-established Sunday night show from there in the later part of 1950. The tale of the Ed Sullivan telecast is more like grand opera. The large variety show arrived amidst a union strike that nearly threatened to cancel it completely but if that was not bad enough...a huge city-wide power failure in the hour before the live telecast nearly finished it off in darkness. But the fates were kind...the power flickered to life just in time to get the ball rolling and Ed said his famous “hello” to America from the heart of Boston and the Opera House shined like a princess.

They painted it and kept it looking smart...but structurally it was in need of some serious work. The building was sitting on very sandy soil and the foundations back in 1908-9 were very difficult to build.  Could the work have been done? Sure. It would have been costly but the building could have been saved if...if the powers that be wanted it saved. Boston wanted no part of buying it as a civic auditorium and unlike The Majestic and Plymouth was no good for movies. The term “white elephant” was again making the rounds in the entertainment trade papers.

The avid opera lovers did speak up. Boston said a new modern facility (to be covered in another upcoming update) would be built in the near future that would do the job of a civic arts performance space and host trade shows. The writing was on the wall for both the poorly treated Boston Opera House and the vast Victorian era Mechanics Hall just down the road.

The sad fact was that despite being less active than the other legitimate Boston houses, the Boston Opera House was booked right up until the bitter end. As a matter of fact, bookings for 1958 had to be re-housed in other large venues such as the ill-fated Loew’s State just around the corner.

Norteastern University had been busy buying land all around the fated building and bought the structure and land from the Shubert chain in September of 1957 for a very small fee. The fact the building was “officially” condemned helped make it all very happen fast. The horrified outcry came but the glorious structure was gone by early become an extra parking area at first and then later developed as more of the university itself. 

I present for you here a mixture of press clippings, articles, theatre programs and photos that chart the history of this former Boston landmark from 1908 until 1958.

A sad but relevant fact remains as you can clearly see from the 1957 interior shot that was taken just before the building was stripped and gutted...she was gorgeous, refined and still delightfully elegant to the very end! Boston lost a gem. White elephants can be pleasingly unique and highly treasured...but creativity and money are part of the success equation.

Boston has learned some very hard lessons about preservation.

Many felt that dear Eben Jordan would have been utterly heartbroken at the loss of this gift to Boston and...the pride of his family...the original structures of the Jordan Marsh Company on Washington Street.
Thankfully, Jordan Hall stands as an enduring testament to his great love for the arts and Boston’s cultural life! 

Enjoy this look back! More soon!

Charles Boston

My other retro Boston blog:




  1. Oh my so great to read this! I lived my entire childhood within a minute of this GRAND building. My address was 327 Huntington Ave. We lived in the basement and that was not grand. We grew up quite poor -my Father was the Superintendent of three apartment buildings in that next block. Some nights he worked part time as a costume attendant at the Opera House. I was born in 1945 but did not go to the theater until I was about 8 or 10 yrs. old. I remember so many wonderful sites but the only star I remember meeting was Tyrone Power. I do remember there was an opera singer that lived upstairs in our building who would give me some of her old gowns "to play with"! I wish I had those now! Very elegant people lived in our building. Interior decorators, symphony musicians, ballet dancers, opera singers, a couple who wanted to adopt me! They owned gold mines in Nova Scotia. What great memories you help me have. Thank You. Mary Ellen

  2. Thank you so much for taking you time to share your research with us. I was always puzzled about there being an opera house in Boston or not. I couldn't find a company specifically dedicated to opera when I was there even though there was (and still is) a theatre called Boston Opera House, which produced virtually every kinds of show except for opera. I went to the Majestic once and didn't find it particularly interesting. If only one could have been there and choose between the 2!!... Greetings from Portugal

  3. Thanks to both of you!!!!! Great comments and I am pleased you enjoyed the research and findings:-)