|December 7, 2004
Mayor’s Chief of Staff
Boston City Hall
Dear Ms. Hopkins:
In 2005, the city of Boston will be celebrating its 375-year history. As fitting, a large part of the tribute will come from the arts community. It is more than ironic, it is reprehensible even, that at this time the city is contemplating destroying the Gaiety Theatre, an architectural and artistic icon of its cultural legacy. What is being put up in its place? A high-rise tower, temple to greed, is being considered for the site of a shrine to music and the arts. Mammon replaces Melpomene.
In celebrating the city’s past, what will be highlighted are all the populations that came together to make Boston vibrant and strong. Under that rhetoric, what is really happening behind the scenes is that a few with authority and pull in the city, namely Alan Lewis in this instance, are intent on mowing down impediments to their plans, even if illegal, and are focused on filling the coffers. Working together to make life better for all is what is put in a press release; it is not what matters on a daily basis or what guides official decisions.
As a theatre historian, I am impressed with the significance of the Gaiety Theatre from several perspectives. The theatre, constructed with a great deal of care and attention to audience safety, is a testament to the work of Clarence Blackall, an architect of the Chicago School, who was also trained in Paris. Blackall came to Boston at the end of the nineteenth century and opened an architectural firm. In the ensuing years, Blackall and his firm contributed immeasurably to the current cityscape. Some of the buildings with which Blackall was associated include the Winthrop Building, the first steel frame skyscraper in Boston, the Tremont Temple, the Colonial Theatre, and the home offices for the Boston Herald and the Boston Post. In all, Blackall worked on fourteen theatres in Boston, including the Music Hall, which is now the Wang. The Gaiety, which later in its career exhibited films as the Publix, was built in 1904, during a time when the city was engaged in a burst of theatre building. Last, but certainly not least in significance, the Gaiety began life as a vaudeville house, and Boston by rights should be proud that the city gave birth to vaudeville. The city’s connection to vaudeville deserves to be more known, and would be a fitting feature for the 375 year celebration of Boston history.
As an African American woman and a theatre historian, I was surprised and pleased to learn, through research connected to the Gaiety, that several African American women were owners in a touring circuit that provided entertainment to black audiences and connected theaters in many different cites throughout the South. African American men were also involved in circuit ownership. The most prominent one was S.H. Dudley, a performer turned producer and businessman, who owned over 20 theaters in the 1920s. Before Dudley became involved, that circuit, T.O.B.A., was anecdotally referred to as Tough on Black Asses; nevertheless, it represented the bread-and-butter for many early black performing acts. A number of theatres in northern cities such as Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, and Washington replicated the T.O.B.A. pattern. In Boston, the Gaiety and the Casino, since demolished, belonged to the northern compact; if the Gaiety were to be torn down, the last remaining participant in that part of the city’s multicultural history would be gone. Over the years, the stage at the Gaiety has been graced by the likes of dancers Buck & Bubbles (for whom Gershwin wrote the role of Sportin’ Life in Porgy & Bess), Florence Mills, musical star of Shuffle Along, the show credited with starting the Harlem Renaissance (featured in the PBS special on the American Musical), and vaudevillians Butterbeans & Susie, who enjoyed a stage career that lasted almost fifty years.
As an academic, an African American woman, and a theatre historian, I am distressed by the idea that the city of Boston would so cavalierly tear down a cultural monument of such significance not only to the past but also to the future. As someone who works with the younger generations on a daily basis, I am convinced that we owe it to them to preserve some of what has been bequeathed to them by time. And not just save it, but explain and explore its significance. The archives do not just exist down the dusty halls of old libraries. Some of the archives stand, unacknowledged, on the streets through which we walk every day. The Gaiety is one such archive. There is history in those stones. There are stories that deserve to be told and remembered and honored. There is much work that professors and students at a public university could do in unearthing the wealth of history about the social conditions of the time when the Gaiety was built and throughout the course of its existence, in its various incarnations. What were the conditions that led to the energetic building of theaters at the beginning of the twentieth century, what were the multiple factors that occasioned the conversion of the Gaiety into a movie theatre, when did the Gaiety begin producing shows that addressed the needs of the African American community that was coming to the city as a result of the migration? When and how did the Gaiety become incorporated into Chinatown? The foregoing represents rich, and under-explored, terrain.
The conclusion, it seems to me, is clear-cut. A high-rise tower can be built anywhere. The Gaiety, a true cultural gem in the metropolitan city of Boston, the navel of America, is irreplaceable. I urge you not to destroy the Gaiety Theatre. As the city celebrates its 375 years of proud existence, please recognize that some cultural pyramids from the past are too priceless to sell.
Barbara B. Lewis, Ph.D.
Director, the Trotter Institute