Columbia Theatre

978-986 Washington Street,
Boston, MA 02445

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The Columbia Theatre opened on October 5, 1891, converted from what was originally a Congregational church built in 1828. The initial show was Belasco and DeMille’s play “Men and Women”, followed a month later by “Mr. Wilkinson’s Widows”, starring Georgianna Drew Barrymore.

Although intended as a first class theatre, there were soon problems in getting suburbanites into the neighborhood, which was rapidly deteriorating by the end of the 19th century. The theatre shifted from serious drama to Irish comedies and action filled thrillers designed to appeal to the local district.

1901 brought another problem to the Columbia: heavy elevated rail lines opened on two sides of the theatre, with trains roaring by day and night.

The Shuberts acquired the Columbia Theatre in 1903, but gave it up the next year. It soon thereafter became a burlesque and vaudeville hall. The first motion pictures to be shown at the Columbia Theatre were scenes of the Burns vs. Johnson heavyweight fight in 1909.

Marcus Loew took over on August 21, 1911, renaming it Loew’s South End Theatre, featuring “High Class Vaudeville and Motion Pictures. Prices: 5-10-15 Cents.”

A fire destroyed much of the Columbia’s auditorium during the winter of 1916. Loew commissioned architect Thomas W. Lamb to create a new Adamesque style theatre out of the ruins. It reopened as Loew’s New Columbia Theatre on September 24, 1917. Its reopening featured the film “His Wedding Night”, starring comedian Fatty Arbuckle, who made a personal appearance on opening night, along with several acts of vaudeville.

Over the following two decades, vaudeville and second-run films alternated with Sam Cohen’s Sunday amateur nights.

Loew’s gave up the Columbia Theatre in 1937, and it once again became a burlesque house. That lasted only two years, and the Columbia Theatre spent the remainder of its life running last-run double-feature movies.

The Columbia Theatre was demolished in 1957. A parking garage for Teradyne Corporation now occupies the site, but it appears to be of much more recent construction. I don’t know what was on the site after the theatre was demolished but before the garage was built.

[The information above comes primarily from an essay by Richard O. Card, founder of Boston’s South End Historical Society, and from a second essay by J. Paul Chavanne of the same organization. Also helpful was Donald C. King’s book, “The Theatres of Boston: A Stage and Screen History”.]

Contributed by Ron Newman

Recent comments (view all 17 comments)

rsalters (Ron Salters)
rsalters (Ron Salters) on November 26, 2006 at 7:35 am

The Columbia Theatre is listed in the 1897-98 edition of Julius Cahn’s Official Theatrical Guide. The seating capacity is given as 1,800. Ticket prices were 15 cents to $1. The house had both electric and gas illumination. The auditorium was on the ground floor. The proscenium opening was 36 feet wide x 38 feet high. The stage was 40 feet deep. The house orchestra had 10 members.

rsalters (Ron Salters)
rsalters (Ron Salters) on December 11, 2006 at 9:07 am

The MGM Theatre Photograph and Report form for the Columbia Theatre has an exterior photo dated May 1941. The entrance featured a large centered boxoffice with a double door on each side. There were poster cases on either side of the entrance and the marquee above. An upright for the overhead el structure sits just to the north of the marquee. The Report states that the Columbia is on Washington St., that it has been showing MGM product for over 10 years; that it was built in 1890 (close); is in Poor condition, and has 1000 seats on the main floor, and 700 in the balcony, total: 1,700 seats.

TLSLOEWS on June 13, 2010 at 2:03 pm

Interesting History.

rsalters (Ron Salters)
rsalters (Ron Salters) on February 14, 2011 at 11:33 am

As “Loew’s New Columbia Theatre”, this house is listed in a 1918 Boston street directory at 978 Washington Street (east side), South End, at Motte Street and railroad right-of-way.

rsalters (Ron Salters)
rsalters (Ron Salters) on May 10, 2011 at 12:01 pm

The 1906 edition of the Julius Cahn Official Theatrical Guide lists this theater as the “Columbia Music Hall” and says it was “Devoted to Burlesque” (as a schoolboy in the 1950s, I too was “devoted to burlesque”!) Tickets cost 10 cents to 75 cents. The proscenium opening was 38 feet wide X 39 feet high, and the stage was 43 feet deep. It says there were 1,923 seats, but the breakdown does not add up to that: Orchestra 491, 1st balcony 320, 2nd balcony 362, gallery 600; total: 1,773 plus box seats. I believe there were only 2 balconies, so “1st balcony” and “2nd balcony” were probably the same structure divided by a cross-aisle.

Ron Newman
Ron Newman on May 29, 2011 at 4:07 pm

This theatre is mapped on the wrong Washington Street (Brookline, instead of Boston’s South End), miles from where it belongs.

EdwardFindlay on July 1, 2011 at 6:39 pm

An article from one of the Boston Globe about the 1917 fire from the Boston Fire Historical Society:

rsalters (Ron Salters)
rsalters (Ron Salters) on September 15, 2012 at 10:56 am

The Boston Globe report of the fire in 1917 states that it was believed that the walls would have to be demolished. But that did not happen. The facade was saved, and possibly parts of the side and rear walls. The auditorium that Thomas Lamb designed right after this fire did not look anything like the original auditorium. I wish I had known more about the history of this building back circa-1953 when it was still standing. I would have gone over there and looked all around the place.

rsalters (Ron Salters)
rsalters (Ron Salters) on May 19, 2015 at 11:18 am

I recently looked at a photo which was taken for the Boston Elevated Railway Co. showing construction of the connecting link from the existing el structure down into the new Washington Street tunnel (today’s Orange Line). The link and the tunnel opened in November 1908, so the photo dates from earlier in 1908 or in 1907. Clearly seen in the background is the Columbia Theatre. The odd thing is that the fire escape doors from the gallery on the upper portion of the north wall (left side of theater) have no fire escapes under them! It’s possible that the photo was taken just after the old fire escapes were removed and while awaiting the installation of new ones. Otherwise, it was a very unsafe situation.

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