Edward M. Fay

Inducted: 1980
Born: 03/14/1875
Died: 02/12/1964

Edward M. Fay spent his life in the entertainment industry as a violinist, conductor, vaudeville impresario, poet, and motion picture theater owner. He owned at least six different theaters between 1928 and 1977 and was called by The Providence Journal the “dean of Rhode Island entertainment.” He was born in South Providence to James T. and Mary Jane (Stuart) on March 14, 1875. Fay got his start in the entertainment world as a child prodigy. He was educated to pursue a career as a violin soloist, studying with Jules Eichberg, founder of the Boston Conservatory of Music. He studied in the public schools of Providence and East Providence and was known as a boy wonder between the ages of eight and fifteen when he traveled about New England playing violin solos and obligatos for such great singers as Emma Calve. Fay played violin solos for the Providence Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Robert Bonner, a famous musician forty years ago in Providence. Fay’s father died when he was fifteen, and he helped support his family by traveling on the road with the Bostonian Opera Company. He played over the Keith Circuit as a violin soloist and studied dancing and dance music under the tutelage of Sam Spink, conductor of the famous Spink Dancing Academy. Fay took the leadership of the Keith Theatre in Providence and led the orchestra at Keith’s when vaudeville was first introduced to Providence. He created and established the custom of dancing at Rhodes-on-the-Pawtuxet, where he spent seventeen years, and afterward built and operated Hunt’s Mills Dancing Pavilion. These varied occupations did not prevent Fay from organizing an orchestra, which became famous as the Belmont Orchestra. At the death of D. W. Reeves, Fa took over the Reeves American Band, which he directed for several years. He organized the Electric Park Amusement Company in Newark, New Jersey, where he operated as general manager and treasurer for several years, during which he became known as “Fay, the dance king.” He directed orchestras and played for all the important social events in Providence, Newport, Boston, and other cities.

In 1900, Fay was the most sought-after band and orchestra conductor anywhere in the region. At that time, he built a dance pavilion at Rhodes-0n-the Pawtuxet. People lined up to get in. After marrying Kathleen A. Lafiff in 1913, he constructed another dance hall, Hunts Mills, in East Providence. He branched out into the ever-growing 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 and named it for himself. When the Theatre opened, it was touted as “The Most Magnificent and Largest Fireproof Theatre in Rhode Island.” The seating capacity was nearly 2,000, and the admission price was .10 cents in the balcony and .20 cents in the orchestra. Fay owned and operated the Carleton, Capital, Modern, Majestic, Rialto, and Fays theatres in Providence. He was the first to install motion picture and sound equipment in the Majestic Theatre to accommodate the new age of “talkies” on the screen.

Fay also provided free band concerts at Roger Williams Park, sponsored by Joseph Samuels, owner of the Outlet Company. A good example of his alliance with Samuels was the appearance of the magician Houdini in February 1906. The Outlet Company constructed a special box for the event. Houdini was bound and tied with a strong rope as he was lifted into the box. It took him 11 minutes to escape. Fay hired Gertrude Ederle, the first woman to swim the English Channel, to come to Providence for a performance. He set up a 4,000-gallon tank on stage and had Ederle swim circles. Her fee from Fay was $6,000, 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; Sarah Bernhardt, renowned French actress; Jack Dempsey, boxing champion from 1919-1926; Ethel Barrymore, “First Lady of American Theater, and Tallulah Bankhead, star of stage and film. Frank Sinatra, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and even four-legged star Rin Tin performed in Fay’s Theatre. 

Fay was also a friend and associate of George M. Cohan, the great composer born in Providence. The friendship became fractured when a Providence Journal reporter, Frederick Taylor, gave Cohan’s play, “Little Johnny Jones,” a bad review. Cohan vowed never to bring one of his productions to Rhode Island again, and he never did.

Flood waters seriously damaged Fay’s Theatre in the 1938 Hurricane that devastated Rhode Island. Nine Hundred orchestra seats, wiring, lighting, and other equipment were completed for its opening precisely one month later. The final curtain came down in December 1950 when the theatre closed “temporarily,” as people turned to television. Fay had the foresight to install a big-screen television in his theatre and show professional football games in the early days of the National Football League. The “temporary” closing became permanent in 1951 when the Theatre was sold, razed, and turned into the Washington Street Parking Garage. Fay moved his offices to his Majestic Theatre, which is now the home of the acclaimed Trinity Repertory Theatre.

Fay’s legacy extends beyond his entertainment ventures. He is remembered as a warm-hearted, benevolent individual who always found time for philanthropic causes. Whether it was his efforts in selling war bonds during WW II or his contributions to the Jimmy Fund, established in 1948 to support the Dana Farber Cancer Center in Boston, Fay’s commitment to his community was unwavering. 

Edward M. Fay died on February 12, 1964. He was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 1980. 

For additional reading:

  • Photographs of Edward M. Fay, Fays Theatres in Rhode Island, exhibitor of Providence, R.I., Rhode Island State Exhibitor Co-Chairman. Negatives of Ed Fay. Pages of a biography of Edward M. Fay. See also: Brown, Colvin; McCarthy, F.J.A.; Quigley, Martin.
  • Carroll, Charles. Rhode Island: Three Centuries of Democracy, vol 3 of 4. New York: Lewis historical Pub. Co., 1932.
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