Edward M. Fay was a well known local and national theatrical impresario, musician and band leader. He was a friend of George M. Cohan (born in Providence in 1878 and composer of the famous songs Over There, Give My Regards to Broadway and You’re a Grand Old Flag). Fay was also closely associated with Eddie Dowling (born Joseph Nelson Goucher in Woonsocket in 1880), an early local vaudevillian in Providence and Broadway actor who performed in the original production of The Glass Menagerie in 1945.
Fay was born in Providence to James T. and Mary Jane (nee Stuart) Fay on March 14, 1875 and was raised in South Providence. Fay got his start in the entertainment world which would become his lifelong avocation as a child prodigy playing the violin. By the age of 15 he was performing solos with the Providence Symphony Orchestra. In 1900 at the age of 25, Fay was the most sought after band and orchestra conductor anywhere in the region. At that same time, Edward and his brothers James and Bernard built their first dance pavillion at Rhodes-on-the-Pawtuxet. People lined up to get in. After Fay married Kathleen A. Lahiff in 1913, he and his brothers constructed a more popular dance hall, Hunts Mills in East Providence. Again, people lined up to get in.
Around 1910, Fay capitalized on the popularity of his music and dance empires which gave him the moniker of “The Dance King.” He branched out into the then-growing entertainment segments of vaudeville and early motion pictures combining the two in his newly acquired Downtown Providence theatre. In 1916, he leased the former Union Theatre (corner of Union and Washington Streets) and named it for himself. Known as Fay’s or Fays Theatre (print publicity dropped the apostrophe), for an evening performance admission price of $.10 in the balcony or $.20 in the orchestra, a patron could attend a vaudeville/motion picture show. When the theatre opened under its new management, it was touted in an advertisement appearing in the Providence Evening Tribune (daily newspaper published by the Providence Telegram Publishing Company from 1906-1929) as “The Most Magnificant and Largest Fireproof Theatre in Rhode Island.” The seating capacity was nearly 2,000 at its peak. Between 1926 and 1971, Fay owned and operated the Carleton (formerly Emery), Capital, Modern, Majestic, Rialto and Fays theatres in Providence. He was the first to install motion picture sound equipment in the Majestic Theatre to accommodate the new age of “talkies” on the screen.
In an article in the Providence Journal which appeared on April 22, 1947, Fay was called the “dean of Rhode Island entertainment.” He was host to the biggest and brightest stars of the show business world and some others outside of it. In 1925 he lured Gertrude Ederle, American Olympic swimming champion and the first woman to swim the English Channel in August of that year, to come to Providence for a performance. Fay set up a 4,000- gallon swimming tank on stage and had Ederle swim circles in it for the audience. Her fee from Fay for doing so was $6,000, a fortune in 1925 and was referred to as “The Most Expensive Vaudeville Act Ever Played in Providence.” The show was a sell out.
Other entertainers and celebrities to grace Fay’s stages included Gentleman Jim Corbett (World Heavyweight Boxing Champion and the only fighter to defeat the legendary John L. Sullivan), Harry Houdini (master escape artist and illusionist), Sarah Berhardt (world renowned French actress), Ed Wynn (actor and comedian), Jack Dempsey (“The Manassa Mauler” and World Heavyweight Boxing Champion from 1919-1926), Ethel Barrymore (the “First Lady of the American Theatre”) and Tallulah Bankhead (famous American actress of stage and screen). Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Jerry Colona, The Bowery Boys (a.k.a. The Dead End Kids), Frank Sinatra and even four-legged star Rin Tin Tin performed in Providence for Fay’s. In 1934 you got a first run movie and five acts of vaudeville at the Fays. Vaudeville was still there in the early 1940s although the movies offered then were old releases.
The Fays Theatre was seriously damaged by flood waters in Hurricane of September 1938 which devastated Rhode Island and New England. Nine hundred orchestra seats, stage wiring, lighting and other equipment needed replacing and all repairs were completed for its reopening exactly one month later.
The final curtain came down in December of 1950 when the Fays closed “temporarily.” The reason given was the traditional one of slow business while people prepared for the holidays and a new one – television. Fay had the foresight to install a big screen television in his theatre and showed pro football games in the early days of the new National Football League to fight the electronic intruder. The “temporary” closing became permanent in 1951 when the Fays was sold, razed and turned into the Washington Street Parking Garage. Fay moved his offices up the street to his Majestic Theatre which, today, is the home of The Trinity Repertorie Theatre.
People who remember Fay report he was a friendly, generous man who always made time for causes whether it was selling war bonds during World War II or raising money for the Jimmy Fund (established in 1948 to benefit the Dana Farber Cancer Center in Boston).
Edward M. Fay died on February 12, 1964 and for his notoriety and contribution to all things in Rhode Island entertainment, was inducted into the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 1980.
Fay Theatre Records of 1928-1971 (Catalogue No. MSS 409) are held and preserved by the Rhode Island Historical Society’s Manuscript Division;
Numerous photographs, facts and website commentary on the Fays; theatres can be found at http://cinematreasures.org/theatres .