Drama unfolds in the life of a burlesque theater

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.

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.

Proving that demand for more performing space truly exists - and that as much as $25 million for restoration can be found - presents huge hurdles for the Friends of the Gaiety Theater, the group trying to save the theater. But the first step, members say, is to gain official recognition that the building has the kind of historical and cultural merit worthy of a Boston landmark.

So far, the situation favors the developer: City officials seem to prefer to see the luxury apartments - 50 of which are to be set aside for "affordable" housing - on the site. Local preservation groups and arts organizations have not exactly rallied around the Friends either. Even a Boston Landmarks Commission study recommended that the theater not receive landmark designation, a crucial step in halting its demolition. The commission will hold a public hearing April 8 and issue a final recommendation afterward.

The cool reception the Friends have received from the city and some other preservationists baffles them, though they surmise that the city has committed to the apartment project and is reluctant to now admit it's making a mistake. Some see the preservation group as a coterie of historians and architects who are simply tilting at windmills, unwilling to see the practical impossibilities. Members of the Friends feel they're just trying to open others' eyes to what they see.

"Don't count us out yet!" says Lee Eiseman, vice president of the Friends. "I'm realistic about the forces arrayed to build something else on that site." He says he believes a project could be formulated that saves the theater while allowing for new construction as well. "I just wish they had some imagination."

As he's researched the Gaiety's history, he says, he's become "astonished at the significance of the theater." The city has overlooked it because it lacked an ornate street marquee and facade, and because its historical and acoustic virtues have been unpublicized until now, he says.

The Friends have gathered letters of support from groups like the National Comedy Hall of Fame, Screen Actors Guild, Theatre Historical Society of America, and New-York Historical Society.

An endorsement from Henry Louis Gates Jr. at Harvard's Department of Afro-American Studies reads: "A restored Gaiety Theater could resonate as a unique link to [a] period of Black History for which all Americans should feel pride" and notes, the "integrated nature" of the shows "was particularly moving [to] me."

Elsewhere in Boston, the entertainment conglomerate Clear Channel is restoring the B.F. Keith Memorial Opera House to host Broadway shows. The city, too, is working to preserve the facades of the historic Paramount and Modern movie houses. Because of its large size and expected long bookings, the Keith isn't likely to contribute much to new performing space for local arts groups, the Friends say. The Gaiety could be that space.

Architectural historian Stephen Jerome, a Friends member, adds he hopes the Gaiety won't be overlooked just because it represents the city's African-American and working-class history. "All elements of society are worthy of preservation," he says, not just the history of Boston's elite.

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