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Drama unfolds in the life of a burlesque theater

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 27, 2003


The crumbling embossed letters over the doorway announce that a playhouse must have once flourished here. But it takes a sharp eye to find the words "Gaiety Theater." The building, on a run-down block in downtown Boston, long ago lost its marquee and looks nothing like a theater - or a lost chapter in African-American history.

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The 1,700-seat auditorium on Washington Street is still here, completely intact, hidden within an old office building that has always contained it and that has been vacant for more than two decades.

A group trying to save the theater, built in 1908 to house vaudeville-style "clean" burlesque shows, says it is a cultural treasure - a stage that hosted innovative, racially integrated shows and that provides a window into working-class popular entertainment of the early 20th century. If restored, the group says, the Gaiety Theater could become a jewel in Boston's cultural crown, a musical venue of the highest order in a city in need of more such facilities.

In this historic-preservation cliff-hanger, the question is a familiar one across the country: Can citizen interest in a historic place expand to a point where it attracts backers - and cash - in time to keep the demolition ball from swinging?

The current owner, Kensington Investment Co., wants to raze the structure and replace it with a 336-unit, 30-story apartment tower. Kensington says its studies show that saving the theater, even trying to build the housing project over or around it, just isn't financially feasible.

The theater was home to both black and white entertainers, sometimes on the same bill. A Gaiety ad for the 1926 show "Rarin' to Go" trumpeted "the greatest array of white and colored artists ever assembled in one show." Roaring Twenties black cultural icon Josephine Baker performed there in 1926. And Sammy Davis Jr. got his start at the Gaiety, says Frank Cullen, a theater historian and head of the American Vaudeville Museum in Boston. Mr. Cullen, who has toured the Gaiety, says, "As an entertainment venue, it's quite superior to almost everything in Boston. It turned out to be a jewel."

Richard Sklenar concurs. "It's rather unusual" to find a virtually intact burlesque house built for "polite burlesque before you had girls taking off their clothes," says the executive director of the Theatre Historical Society of America in Elmhurst, Ill.

More common are the larger opera houses built in the late 19th century or movie palaces opened after 1910. Most theater-restoration projects in the country today involve these smaller movie houses.

Fred McLennan, a Boston theater historian who used to attend the Gaiety after it was converted into a movie house, says 15 theaters once lined Washington Street. The Gaiety is the last example of one built especially for burlesque, the working man's entertainment. "Boston really can't afford to lose any more theater spaces" because of growing demand from arts groups for performing spaces, he says.