Boston Theatre

Boston, MS / (1854-1925)

Federal and Franklin Streets and 539 Washington Street

With the first Boston Theatre, later called the Federal Street Theatre, Boston can be said to have inaugurated its theater history. One of Charles Bulfinch’s early creations, the playhouse opened on February 3, 1794 with Gustavus Vasa and Modern Antiques. It was soon considered the finest theater in the country. Four years later, the building burned down only to be quickly rebuilt. In its early days, the Federal Street Theatre was managed by Charles Stuart Powell, who retired after two seasons. The building continued to operate as a theater until 1835, when it was converted into a lecture hall called the “Odeon”. In 1846, it again reopened as a playhouse under its old name, the Boston Theatre. The structure was razed in 1854, eventually making way for the lavish second Boston Theatre on Washington Street in 1854. Julia Dean and Edwin Forrest were among the more prominent actors at the first Boston Theatre.

Among the many theaters represented in the Athenæum’s theater collections, the programs of the second Boston Theater are undoubtedly among the most numerous. Designed by Edward and James Cabot and Jonathan Preston from plans by Henri Noury, this playhouse had a noble history. Renowned for its spaciousness and beauty - the much-admired auditorium seated 3000 - the second Boston Theatre hosted such theatrical luminaries as Sarah Bernhardt, Maurice Barrymore and Edwin Booth. Not did the world-famous playhouse limit itself to theater; this was also where Bostonians first heard Beethoven’s Fidelio in 1854, Carmen in 1879, and several other American operatic premieres of note until the Boston Opera House was built in 1909. It is no wonder that playwright and producer, Dion Boucicault dubbed the Boston Theatre the finest theater in the world. In October 1860, the playhouse, then known as the Boston Academy of Music, also played host to a grand ball honoring Edward, Prince of Wales. For this occasion, the theater’s parquet was floored over for dancing.

Noteworthy Boston Theatre playbills in our collection include Edwin Forrest in King Lear and others featuring such thespian luminaries as Edwin Booth, Charlotte Cushman, Henry Irving and Ellen Terry. Also of some historical interest is a program to The Lady of Lyons starring society beauty Lily Langtry. A perusal of Boston Theatre programs dating from the 1840s up to the turn of the century reveals the changing appearance and design of theater playbills in general. The earlier examples from about 1840 to 1880 are mainly broadsides, often printed on thin, fragile paper. As broadsides, these programs could have been nailed or mounted on building walls, billboards or even tree trunks. Use of very large type face and often imaginative layout made these simple, unadorned programs effective as proclamations. By the late 1870s, programs are printed in brochure formats with title and cast information on the cover, customarily surrounded and followed by pages of advertising and pieces of miscellaneous information and commentaries. In the 1890s Boston Theatre programs had evolved into the booklet form that most of them still retain to this day; an often decorative cover followed by several pages of advertising and theater miscellany - more of a magazine than a playbill.

thanks to Boston Aetenaeum

Programs available from this theatre:

  • Shore Acres (1898)

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