978-986 Washington Street,
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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”.]
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