Colonial Theatre

106 Boylston Street,
Boston, MA 02116

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Colonial Theatre, Boston, MA

Viewing: Photo | Street View

Boston’s beloved Colonial Theatre was built inside a new office building on the site of the old Boston Public Library. The sumptuously decorated house quickly eclipsed the nearby Tremont Theatre (later the Astor Cinema) as the Klaw and Erlanger syndicate’s Boston flagship. It is a richly rococo Victorian-era playhouse, home to both touring shows and pre-Bway tryouts. The opening production was the stage spectacular “Ben Hur”.

The advent of full-length feature “photo plays” after 1910 created “road-show” movie presentations in legit houses. A number of these movies played at the Tremont Theatre and in February 1913, “The Miracle” in “Lyricscope” opened at the Colonial Theatre. Sound films came to the theater in October 1927 with the local premier of “Don Juan” using the Vitaphone process. The feature was accompanied by a number short subjects which were also designed to show off Vitaphone sound. When the engagement ended, these films went into other Boston houses at regular prices.

The Shuberts controlled the theatre from the 1930 to the mid-1950’s. At that time, it boasted a square cinema-style marquee which used white letters on a black background. Around 1956 it was thought that the house would be sold to a movie exhibitor, but that did not happen. Emerson College, which also owns the Cutler Majestic Theatre around the corner, currently owns the Colonial Theatre and leases it to the organization that operates the Wang Center. In 2014, the Colonial Theatre is operated by Citi Performing Arts Center.

Contributed by Ron Salters

Recent comments (view all 57 comments)

rsalters (Ron Salters)
rsalters (Ron Salters) on December 15, 2012 at 11:46 am

In the entertainment section of today’s Quincy (MA) Patriot Ledger there is mention of the musical “Memphis” which it says is now playing “at the Citi Performing Arts Center Emerson Colonial Theater”. How’s that for a mouthful !

Patsy on December 3, 2013 at 12:12 pm

This theatre is the current home of the I Love Lucy Live On Stage production. If you haven’t seen this show and you are in Boston….go! And if you haven’t ever been to the Lucy Comedy Festival in Jamestown NY….go! Jamestown is the birthplace of Lucille Ball, the First Lady of Comedy.

Ron Newman
Ron Newman on September 3, 2015 at 12:14 pm

Today’s Boston Globe reports that Emerson College will close the theatre after the October run of “The Book of Mormon” ends, as the Wang Center’s lease on the Colonial is expiring. The future of the theatre is quite unclear.

Boston Globe story

Rtprovencher on October 10, 2015 at 10:33 am

The very real possibility that Emerson, an institution devoted to the preservation and advancement of the arts, is about to end forever the Colonial’s life as a legitimate theater is sure to generate a lot of protest. Thanks to frequent stories by reporter Malcolm Gay in THE BOSTON GLOBE, the public is slowly realizing that America’s most historically significant theater is about to go the way of the Boston Opera House in the 1950’s. At that time, another Boston university, Northeastern, actually tore down Eben Jordan’s beautiful theater to create a parking lot. While Emerson is not proposing to tear down the Colonial, they might as well. What they are proposing is ripping out the orchestra seats and turning the theater into a gigantic student cafeteria, resplendent with holes punched in the walls to improve access to the food and turning the stage into a black box theater!

People need to tune into this one before it’s too late. Surely in a great university city like Boston, some of our great minds can think of ways to preserve the Colonial for the purpose for which it was built in 1900: a beautiful legitimate theater.

rsalters (Ron Salters)
rsalters (Ron Salters) on October 10, 2015 at 11:05 am

This unsettling story has been developing over the past few weeks. There are certain problems with the Colonial: it’s not a free-standing theater, but is part of an office building. (As J.J. Shubert pointed out to this son in the mid-1950s when his son wanted to sell the theater but keep the office building: How in hell are you going to do that, you moron- the theater is INSIDE the office building!!!) Another problem is the current lack of “product” -commercial touring shows. The stage is an old-fashioned “hemp” stage with rope lines and sandbags instead of the counterweight lines that young theater people are used to working with. But even with these problems, one would think that there was some imagination and responsibility at the college. Turning the Colonial into a student dining hall, with a black-box theater on stage, is like a pig in a poke. Northeastern Univ did tear down the wonderful old Boston Opera House on Huntington Avenue (halfway between Symphony Hall and the MFA, but not for a parking lot. Some sort of building went on the site. At the time, it was said that the opera house had developed structural problems and needed to go, but I think that was a “crock”.

Ron Newman
Ron Newman on October 12, 2015 at 9:37 pm

I think Northeastern built a dorm on the site of the former Opera House.

rsalters (Ron Salters)
rsalters (Ron Salters) on November 14, 2015 at 10:57 am

Today’s Quincy Patriot Ledger has a lengthy opinion piece by JoAnn Fitzpatrick which discusses the current plight of the Colonial and of the Boston University Theatre. She says that there was push-back by faculty, students and others against Emerson College’s plan for the Colonial and that there is a protest petition circulating which has garnered many hundreds of names including show composer Stephen Sondheim and the Rodgers & Hammerstein organization. She reports that the college trustees have now appointed a committee to study the situation. What’s to study? – the plan is a dumb idea.

DavidZornig on November 27, 2015 at 12:06 pm

1966 photo added courtesy of the Dirty Old Boston Facebook page.

rsalters (Ron Salters)
rsalters (Ron Salters) on February 20, 2016 at 10:38 am

Just a short walk down Boylston St. to the west of the Colonial Theatre is a long-closed small concert hall called Steinert Hall. It was in use from the 1890s to about 1942 when it was closed by the owner, the M. Steinert piano company. Seats removed, it is intact and even the lights still work. But it’s 2 floors underground at its front end. I think it has issues with regard to the number of emergency exits. The old building was recently sold to one of M. Steinert’s customers who is a developer. He plans to rehab and update the building, with the piano company remaining as a tenant. And if he can get approval from a public safety point of view, he plans to restore and reopen Steinert Hall. (This auditorium would have made a great art-house cinema, with a name like Underground Cinema or The Lower Depths Cinema.)

Rtprovencher on March 4, 2016 at 11:42 am

Great news! In today’s (03/04/16) Boston Globe (p. B1) there is a feature story, entitled: “Emerson sees new life for Colonial Theatre”. Emerson College has decided to keep the Colonial intact as a performance space. It has also pledged to update the building’s support systems, such as: air conditioning. So, the Colonial’s future seems secure. I believe that all of the community pressure brought to bear (both internally and externally) made the difference to Emerson’s administration. One educator referred to, “…our collective responsibility as stewards of theatrical history.” It is unfortunate that more people do not share that view.

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