In the late 19th century, vaudeville theaters were a central part of every community across the country. These family-friendly variety shows rivaled church services and public schools as the country’s premiere gathering spots and were more vibrant than even the most successful entertainment venues today, hosting 3 shows daily, 7 days a week; in metropolises like Manhattan and Chicago they ran 24-hours a day.
Traveling troupes of actors, dancers, musicians and comedians criss-crossed the landscape. There were blackface routines, ragtime bands, boxing exhibitions, burlesque performances, one-act plays and mind-bending magic acts. National celebrities like Charlie Chaplin, Al Jolson, W.C. Fields and Will Rogers graced the stages. In a time when commuting was by horse and communication by morse--these public venues offered access to cultures beyond their own--be it the Amazon or a city 2 states south.
The lobbies were lavish--exotic marbles, burnished brass, 20-foot mirrors and stained glass. Leather seats, life-sized frescoes and ornate plaster-work adorned the interiors. There were 12-piece orchestras in the pit and Wurlitzer organs in the balconies. By the 1920s, with the introduction of cinema, vaudeville began its slow decline. At that time, 10 cents would get you a combined show--a Vaudeville act, a newsreal and silent film. In 1926, talking pictures erupted onto the scene. Vaudeville stars began filming their acts, which became a cheaper more popular form of entertainment.
During this time in Rhode Island, posh theaters could be found throughout the state--especially in the more populated urban centers of Providence and Newport. But they were also in our other larger cities and town like Woonsocket, Pawtucket, Cranston and East Greenwich. But, like the rest of the country, in the 1930s, Rhode Island’s historic theaters began their slow decline as maintenance and modernization became too costly and audience attendance began to slow. Contemporary multi-screen cinemas took the stage, leaving many of these theaters scrambling to stay afloat and often sinking to the level of x-rated film houses.
Most of our historic theaters were destroyed by fire or demolished. Those that weren’t survived due to the love and care of local arts and community organizers, who raised money and earned grants to update and restore the properties to once again be entertainment centerpieces for music, movies, plays, speeches and more. Below is a brief history and current status of a few of the more notable theaters that are (and will be) key assets to their communities.
This theater, located at 28 Monument Square, was built in 1926. The doors finally closed in 1985, and by the early 1990s it was slated for the wrecking ball. But it was saved by a group of concerned citizens and re-opened its doors 2001, hosting 37 shows that year. Today the theater boasts over 160 shows a year and has become the largest performing arts center in Northern Rhode Island and a pillar for the town of Woonsocket. Upcoming shows include the music of Pink Floyd by The Machine, comedian Paula Poundstone and Shrek--The Musical. www.stadiumtheatre.com
Also built in1926, this theater, located at 270 Broadway on the trendy West Side of Providence, had a vibrant post-vaudeville life as one of Providence’s premier cinemas. But with the advent of TV, the theater began to limp. But due the dedication of the Berberian family, who purchased the property in1962, it has been open almost continuously since then, though sometimes having to screen salacious films just to keep the cash register ringing. Due to fire code issues post the Station Fire tragedy, the theater shut its doors in 2009. But again, through the hard work and dedication of Jon Berberian, the fully restored and updated theater re-opened November 17, 2012. Today it’s the home to film festivals and an outlet for indy music groups. www.columbustheatre.com
The Park Theater, located at the convergence of Park and Pontiac avenues in the Auburn section of Cranston, was built in 1924. This theater weathered change well over the years, constantly evolving with the ways its community sought entertainment. But after eight decades, and in serious disrepair, the theater closed its doors in 2002. The theater was later purchased by a local developer, who invested over $10m into the property and opened its doors again in 2009. The theater now is a community oriented state-of-the-art multi-purpose performing arts center, plus restaurant and lounge. Upcoming billings include The Glenn Miller Orchestra, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and The Russian National Ballet. www.parktheatreri.com
The Odeum--East Greenwich
Opened in 1926 as the Greenwich Theater, The Odeum followed the same trajectory as most historic theaters. Vaudville, silent films, talkies, art flicks and indy music and then the slippery slope down to its closing in 1990. Located downtown on Main Street, the theater had a few false starts in its re-emergence as a community entertainment venue, but the doors opened once again in late 2012. The most recent show was a night of jazz with local saxophonist Greg Abate. Upcoming, on March 16th, is the screening of Waterfire: Arts & Soul of a City, which is sponsored by William Raveis and the East Greenwich realtor community. www.theodeum.org
Opera House Theater--Newport
Located at 19 Touro Street, the venue originally opened in 1867 and offered upscale performances and presentations attended by wealthy Guilded Age residents. Harriet Beecher Stowe (1872), Henry Ward Beecher (1873) and Frederick Douglass (1873) all stood on its stage. In later years, George M. Cohan appeared in his Broadway hit “The Honeymooners” and Duke Ellington sat on his bench tickling the ivories. In 1929, the building saw a major renovation and conversion from a live venue to a grand movie house. By the early 1980s, the building housed 3 screens but was starting to show its age. And in 2010, structural issues caused the final curtain call. At this point, the The Newport Performing Arts Center owns the Opera House Theater. They are trying to raise enough funds to not only restore and resurrect this piece of history, but to create once again a center for culture, arts and education for Aquidneck Island. www.operahousenewport.org