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Boston's Cultural Heyday

Boston's Cultural HeydayA century ago, the city’s cultural scene experienced a period of rapid growth – creating a unique collection of thriving theaters, says a Tufts drama professor. Medford/Somerville, Mass.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [10.27.03] This year, two theaters are marking their 100-year anniversaries in Boston. Created during a unique period of rapid cultural growth, the landmarks are the last relics of an age when dozens of theaters thrived across the city. But movies and world events, says a Tufts drama professor, forever changed the landscape of Boston's robust theater scene.

"There were at least 17 dramatic theaters in Boston in 1900, and that's not counting musical venues such as recital halls," Tufts' Laurence Senelick told WBUR, National Public Radio's Boston affiliate. "It goes back to the 1870s when the great fire of Boston cleared a lot of the old areas and allowed a good deal of new commercial expansion. There were a lot of people who were not old Bostonians but were new money and were very anxious to create a place for themselves as patrons of the arts."

Theaters including New England Conservatory's Jordon Hall and the Culter Majestic Theater - both still in existence and celebrating 100-year anniversaries this year - were created during this period of rapid growth.

But it was Boston's large immigrant population - which provided one of the largest audiences for the new venues - that played the biggest role in shaping the character of the city's cultural scene.

"When you have immigrants, you have people who want their leisure time filled but aren't necessarily literate in English, and therefore might not go to the standard dramatic presentations," Senelick said in the interview. "That's why so many of the theaters at the time were Vaudeville houses -- things that didn't rely so much upon language."

Despite their popularity, Boston's theaters couldn't avoid the impact of progress and world events.

"Competition came in from the movies -- they became the popular art form and many of the Vaudeville houses converted to cinemas," Senelick said. "[But] I think the crushing blow was the depression."

Today, few of the original structures from this period remain in existence.

"There was that period in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s when cities were destroying their theaters - old theaters right and left - in the name of urban renewal," the Tufts expert told NPR. "That's when the old Howard was destroyed in Scollay Square for Government Center, and that's when the Opera House, which was a gem of architecture, was destroyed."

Those that survived are hard to recognize.

"In many of the old office buildings there are some real jewel boxes of recital halls," Senelick said. "There's one just next to the Colonial Theater opposite the Common, which isn't used anymore. Those should be known. Those should be revived."

Photo by Nick Wheeler courtesy of New England Conservatory.

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