Empire Theatre

368 Westminster Street,
Providence, RI 02903

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Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on April 13, 2018 at 4:36 am

The Westminster became the Empire on August 26, 1915. Later it would become the Bijou, before reverting in its last months, 1948-1949, to Empire once again.

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on May 24, 2015 at 5:58 am

Here is a photo of the Bijou Theatre taken in 1950 after it had closed. From 1948 to 1949 it was renamed the Empire or “New Empire” after the earlier Empire (Keith’s, Victory) closed in 1948. BIJOU RENAMED EMPIRE, 1950 PHOTO

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on January 24, 2011 at 6:37 am

A typical live Burlesque program at the Empire (a.k.a. Bijou, Westminster) in 1929:
NEWSPAPER AD from February 16, 1929.

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on January 5, 2011 at 12:37 pm

Updated link on this last entry.

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on June 22, 2010 at 3:15 am

Preference shown to Bijou over Metropolitan in in distributor bookings.
“Testimony on Providence Metropolitan is Taken"
Boxoffice magazine on June 10, 1939 ran this long piece on the Metropolitan Theatre, dealing with an anti-trust suit in film bookings, and preference shown to the nearby Bijou in the supplying of films by distributors.
View link

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on June 11, 2010 at 4:41 am

Report on demolition of Empire Theatre (long known as the Bijou). Boxoffice Magazine, January 7, 1950:


“PROVIDENCE[/b] -The oldest theatre in this city started falling under tha hammers and crowbars of a wrecker, as the Empire, long a landmark, passed into memory. Abe Spitz, who took over operation of the house in 1900, could not furnish the exact date in 1870 when the house opened, but he mentioned that it and the old Providence Opera House, which long since passed into oblivion, were at one time the only two theatres in the city.

“Opened originally as the Westminster, it featured old-time burlesque and ‘traveling musicals, minstrels and the like.’ When Spitz took over at the turn of the century, he named the house the Bijou.

“‘Cheri’ was one of the last musical revues to play the Bijou. That was in March 1930.

“Shortly after that Spitz converted it into a second-run house and changed the name to the Empire. It was under this title that the theatre operated until about six months ago when it was shuttered for good.

“Advertising recently appeared in local newspapers offering ‘over 1000 seats,’ from which generations of theatregoers had watched melodramas, burlesque, and films. The seats were snapped up by local sports arenas and the Salvation Army.”

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on November 24, 2007 at 7:08 am

A newspaper ad for April 24, 1949 shows that the Empire (New Empire, formerly Bijou) was showing a double bill of Shoe Shine and About Face. Shoe Shine, the Italian neorealist tragedy by Vittorio De Sica, was hardly a typical film for this flea-pit theatre. Its pairing with About Face, a 1942 B-film with William Tracy and Joe Sawyer, was certainly very weird. Two months later, in June of 1949, the theatre would have its last programs (see above) and then be closed and soon demolished.

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on June 12, 2006 at 2:19 am

This FIRST PHOTO shows the Bijou around the year 1906 as the Westminster Theatre, a vaudeville-burlesque house commonly called “The Sink."
ThisSECOND PHOTO shows the Bijou, after being named the Empire for the second time, in preparations for demolition in 1950. The fire curtain carries promotions for local businesses including the renowned Harry’s Lunch/Deli.

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on October 6, 2005 at 1:37 am

The film program for the last day of this theatre as the Bijou on August 16, 1947 was the The Beast With Five Fingers and That Way With Women. As I noted above, it reopened on April 4, 1948 as the “New” Empire. In 1949 it closed for good and was demolished.

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on September 17, 2005 at 10:12 am

As I wrote earlier, the Bijou Theatre closed as the Bijou on August 16, 1947. It then reopened as the “New” Empire on April 4, 1948. So the place was dark for about eight months in between. I don’t have any information as to whether the staff from the Empire at 260 Westminster moved over to the “New” Empire at 368.

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on September 17, 2005 at 3:27 am

This theatre as the EMPIRE, twice:
About five weeks after the Empire Theatre a few blocks away at 260 Westminster Street shut down on February 29, 1948 to be soon demolished, a “New Empire Theatre” opened at 368 Westminster Street, according to newspaper ads. The address was given in the ads for the opening program on April 4, 1948. Now, 368 Westminster was the address of this theatre, which seemed to be given the name Empire once more. (It had previously been called the Empire from about 1915-1924.) This “New” Empire would itself shut down a year later on June 18, 1949, to be demolished in the winter of that year. In his book on Providence theatres, Temples of Illusion, Roger Brett does not mention this final renaming of the Westminster/Empire/Bijou, but Providence Journal newspaper ads, with addresses, give the evidence.

The first program for the “New” Empire on April 4, 1948 was Black Friday with Lugosi and Karloff and The Black Cat with Basil Rathbone and Alan Ladd. HERE IS THE AD for that opening day of the Bijou as the “New” Empire. The last advertised program for this theatre, on June 18, 1949, was Karloff and Lugosi in The Raven and Bela Lugosi in Murders in the Rue Morgue. This theatre and the previous Empire should have been named the Karloff Theatre or Lugosi Theatre. They constantly showed many of those films, which were even then oldies. Roger Brett wrote that in the last years of these two theatres, they were mostly frequented by a handful of people, often old derelicts, whose only interest was to escape the cold or to sleep. There was no real “culture of old films” then as there is more of today, though film-buff Brett expressed gratitude at all the cinema history he was able to see there. These films were booked because they were cheap and filled up the screen time. But it was no longer possible for run-down theatres like these, despite their characterful classic beauty, to survive.

History of “Empire” as a theatre name in Providence:
1) 410 Westminster Street (1899-1915) = Empire
2) 260 Westminster Street (1936-1948) = Low’s-Keith’s-Victory-Empire
3) 368 Westminster Street (1915-1924) = Westminster-Empire-Bijou-Empire (this theatre)
4) 368 Westminster Street (1948-1949) = Westminster-Empire-Bijou-Empire (this theatre again)

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on August 12, 2005 at 12:49 pm

Ads for the theatre often said “next to Public Market.” The building that was Public Market had contained, on the second floor, the concert hall called Music Hall. Music Hall shut after a 1905 fire. The market survived, after some building modifications, until 1955 when it was demolished.

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on June 26, 2005 at 5:18 am

In 1924, when this theatre was known as the Empire, it showed the film He Who Gets Slapped with Lon Chaney.

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on June 24, 2005 at 1:02 am

Here are two photos of the Westminster/Bijou, a.k.a. “The Sink.”

ENTRANCE (expand image for clearer resolution)

INTERIOR – stage area being readied for demolition.

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on June 23, 2005 at 1:26 am

The end comes for two venerable theatres Providence theatres: Keith’s and the Westminster. The following elegy was written by Roger Brett in his 1976 book Temples of Illusion, a history of downtown Providence theatres:

“In the late spring of 1948, the grand old theater of Westminster Street was torn down to provide space for a store. This was the theater built in 1878 as Low’s Opera House; renamed Keith’s Opera House and then Keith’s Theater. It was the house (…) whose stage had held the brightest stars of Keith vaudeville’s most brilliant day.

“Late in 1949, as winter close in once more, the next oldest theatre in the city got the crowbar and wrecking ball treatment.

“The gaudy old house that had opened as the Westminster Musée and Menagerie with variety acts, animals, and freaks on display in 1886, and had become known as the Sink, the city’s most famous burlesque house, made way for a parking lot.

“In their last years when they were known as the Empire and the Bijou, the two houses had shown second-run and reissued films, usually with no more than a handful of old derelicts in attendance. Unlike today, there was no great interest in old movies and it is doubtful that more than a few dozen classic film fans like myself went in these theaters for any other reason than to escape the cold or to sleep. However, it was in the Empire (née Keith’s) that I was first introduced to the Little Caesar of Edward G. Robinson, and The Prisoner of Zenda of Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and Ronald Colman. And it was at the Bijou (née Westminster and Sink) that I was exposed to Eddie Cantor and a bevy of platinum blondes in The Kid from Spain, and to Boris Karloff in the original Frankenstein of 1931. Now, it was no longer possible for a downtown movie theatre to pay its own way if it were anything less than first run, and so, down they came.”

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on June 21, 2005 at 1:53 am

The Westminster (renamed Bijou) was demolished in early 1950. A Providence Journal editorial published on December 30, 1949 reminisced about the glorious/inglorious past of the theatre that was nicknamed “The Sink.” Excerpts from the editorial follow:

“So the Westminster, familiarly and affectionately known as "The Sink,” is coming down. There for many years variegated audiences looked upon that theatrical phenomenon called burlesque, neither musical comedy nor vaudeville, neither comic opera nor revue. It was considered disgraceful in certain circles to be seen in attendance at the old Westminster, but more than one worthy citizen braved public opinion—or tried to sneak in unnoticed… Brown freshmen…considered that they had been initiated into what was known as “the life” when they trooped, with their caps boldly on their heads, into the hallowed precincts of “The Sink.”…

“As one glances back upon Westminster burlesque, there come before the eyes the fully-blown chorines…throwing mocking smiles at the so-called "bald-headed row.” (It was amazing how the ticket seller managed to seat the hairless down in front.)…

“But the real joy…were the comedians: Snuffy the Cabman, Boob McManus, Billy Watson—-artists in their way, some of whom managed to hit the biggest time, like W.C. Fields…Their humor was not of the kind found in refined drawing rooms…They were the Falstaffs of the modern legitimate stage…. Many a staid resident of Providence will wipe away a furtive tear, before his wife catches it, as he recalls the Westminster of old as a Providence institution.”

Note: this theatre is not to be confused with the Westminster Playhouse (the Modern) further up Westminster Street at 440. In its final incarnation as the Bijou, this theatre showed second-run movies.

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on June 18, 2005 at 6:38 am

The original Westminster Theatre (Westminster Musée? 1888?) was torn down in 1915 and a new one replaced it.
re: The New Westminster…
From “The Board of Trade Journal” of April, 1915:
“The Westminster Theatre is coming down right away, and in its stead will be erected a fireproof combination business block, of fine architecture, and a commodoous and right-up-to-the-mark theatre. June 1 will see the work begun, and under contract the house must be ready to open in 90 days. This may seem great haste, but then it must be remembered that the Providence Opera House was put up in 90 days, at a time when there were not the facilities now used for rapid and yet durable business operations.”

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on June 17, 2005 at 11:35 pm

A book called "Temples of Illusion,” by Roger Brett, was published in 1976. It is Mr. Brett’s detailed history of all the old downtown area theatres of Providence from 1871 to 1950. It includes numerous rare photos, a list of theatres with name changes, and a map to show exactly where they all were. The book is an invaluable resource and is owned by many libraries in the R.I. CLAN system. I found a copy for sale online and will use it as a reference for future postings.

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on June 16, 2005 at 1:29 am

The Providence Evening Bulletin of June 30, 1937 reported that the Empire, RKO Albee, and Carlton were closing for various periods of time for “overhauling.” At that time this theatre was known as the Empire. Empire should be added as an alternate name for this theatre.

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on June 15, 2005 at 11:06 am

This theatre had been originally built in 1888 as a dime museum called Westminster Mus̩e. The theatre had three names: Westminster РEmpire РBijou. Its address was 368 Westminster Street.

I found a map of downtown Providence theatres (1871-1950) and their name changes in the files of the Rhode Island Historical Society. That clears up a great deal of confusion for me on several theatres.

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on June 13, 2005 at 12:37 pm

The 1948 Providence Journal Almanac says this theatre closed on August 16, 1947. It had a seating capacity of 1148. It had been leased to Associated Theaters, Inc, owner; Lawrence MacGillivary, manager.

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on April 12, 2005 at 5:59 am

Some comments on this theatre were posted on the listing for the earlier Bijou before this listing went up. You should check that one too at:

Does anyone have an actual street address for this second Bijou?