The Theaters of Providence

Pleasure the means, the end virtue. 1

By Russell J. DeSimone

Once upon a time, and in living memory, at least for some of us, there were a number of movie houses in the downtown Providence area; and most city neighborhoods had a movie theater as well. I was one of the lucky ones, not only did I have a neighborhood theater, the Uptown, but I lived close enough to downtown to be able to walk to the city’s theaters. It was a magical time for a kid. Now there are no movie houses in the city unless you consider the Providence Place Mall. At least some of these old downcity theaters still stand and are being put to good use. Today we have movieplexes situated in the suburbs or at malls, often there are many screens in which to catch a movie – some with 10, 12 or even 14 screens. At such entertainment emporiums you can spend $20 or more for soft drinks and a bucket of popcorn, you can order a pizza or buy a hot dog, get a beer or a glass of wine, and sit in seats that recline to watch a movie in surround-sound.  Even with all these new features, going to the movies today doesn’t seem to generate the same kind of excitement as it did years ago. Back then going to the movies was special, the highlight of the week, and people even dressed-up for an evening show. Now it seems like going to the movies is just another thing to do.

As a young boy growing up in Providence, I was occasionally allowed to go to the Uptown Theater on Broadway during lazy summer Saturday afternoons. Accompanied by my two cousins, we would get to see a double feature interspersed with a newsreel, cartoons and at least one serial, usually about cowboys. It was a wonderful time for any kid who had the price of admission – twenty-five cents. In looking back, for a small amount of money, my parents got some quiet time – it was cheaper than a babysitter. The shows were noisy affairs with a bunch of pre-pubescent kids running about creating disturbances. My cousins were often some of the first to be ejected for rowdy behavior. The rule of law was enforced by Jack the Usher, a retired Providence fireman. It was under such circumstances that I, like many other kids, got my first exposure to the theaters of Providence.

As I got older, I was allowed to go into downtown Providence to see a movie with my friends. I distinctly remember seeing the movie Apache starting Burt Lancaster – I thought it was the greatest movie ever made, the year was 1954. I was forever smitten with the movies and my theater going options were now open to all the downtown movie houses, the Majestic, Strand, R.K.O. Albee and Lowe’s State as well as the Capitol in Cathedral Sq.

Some Early Theaters

Providence wasn’t always home to a theater, in the late 18th century the Puritan ethic that held sway in New England  since its founding, took great exception to frivolous activities and attending a theatrical performance was at the top of the list of such frowned upon activities.  While occasional theatrical troupes had visited the city as early as 1761 it was not until 1794 however that a theater opened. There was much resistance and many ministers offered sermons from their pulpits decrying the theater as the path to licentiousness. Regardless, the Providence Theater opened temporarily at the back of a local coffeehouse in Market Square until a permanent theater could be built at the corner of Westminster and Mathewson streets. Paradoxically in 1832 the theater was sold for the purpose of building a church; Grace Church now occupies that plot of land. For several years thereafter there were no theaters in Providence but in 1838 a new theater began construction on Dorrance Street between Pine and Friendship streets. Even then there were those residents of the town who tried to get the city’s leaders to deny the new theater a license – obviously, the old Puritan ethic was still evident in 1838.  The theater, named Shakespeare Hall, did get a license. Soon there were other theaters in operation in Providence and the city would never again to be without one.

Figure 1 – An 1816 playbill for the Providence Theater. (Author’s collection)

Figure 2 An 1838 petition to prohibit construction of a new theater in Providence. (Author’s collection)

By mid-nineteenth century, Providence had a number of theaters; there were, however, several of particular significance. Of course, none of these theaters showed movies, rather they offered theatrical performances, plays, opera (grand and comic), musicals, and some offered vaudeville acts. The first of these significant theaters was the Academy of Music located in the Phenix building. The site and name of the building are appropriate as the Phenix building was built on the ashes of the burned-out Forbes Theater on Westminster Street. The Forbes was managed by William C. Forbes who maintained the theater from 1849 until it burned down on November 15, 1858. The Academy of Music was situated on the second floor of the building, with a gallery (balcony) on the third floor. Soon after the new building was completed the theater opened for its first performance. The Academy of Music would become one of the principal theaters of Providence for the next twenty years. Among its noted performers was the future presidential assassin, John Wilkes Booth, who appeared on October 16, 1863 in Shakespeare’s Richard III. Prophetically the Academy of Music’s ad in that day’s issue of the Providence Journal read in part “We must be brief when traitors brave the field.” The theater was often on shaky ground due to managerial and financial problems and for a while in 1873 it closed due to a fire in the building. It did reopen; but, in late 1878 if offered its final performances before closing for good.

Figure 3 – An 1868 Academy of Music playbill for the British actress Fanny Kemble’s performance in the play Mary Stuart (Author’s collection)

Less than two years after the opening of the Academy of Music, the City Hall Theater, later renamed Harrington’s Opera House, was built on land leased from the city. The land was commonly referred to as the City Hall Lot and today it is the location of Providence’s City Hall. This theater’s inaugural performance occurred on January 4, 1865 with a concert by the American Brass Band. A newspaper ad announcing the program noted: “Previous to the Concert, Mayor Doyle will make a short address, dedicating the Hall to the public.”[1] The theater was used for a variety of programs, concerts, minstrel shows, dramatic performances and lectures. Most notably Charles Dickens, the popular English author, appeared on two consecutive nights, February 20 and 21, 1868, reading excerpts from his works including “The Trial of Pickwick,” “Christmas Carol” and other favorites to a packed house. Following its last performance on August 1, 1874 the theater was razed to make way for the building of the still-in-use Providence City Hall.       

Figure 4 – An 1869 City Hall Theater illustrated playbill for the Cool Burgess Minstrels. (Author’s collection)

The most significant theater to operate in the city during the 19th century was the Providence Opera House. Located on Dorrance Street between Pine and Eddy streets, it opened on December 4, 1871 with lots of fanfare including longwinded speeches by Mayor Doyle and other city dignitaries. 2 From its opening until its final curtain call in March 1931, the Opera House played host for sixty years to some of the city’s most significant theatrical performances.

Figure 5.  A lithograph poster advertising the February 1879 performance of “A Messenger from Jarvis Section” staring Barney Macauley at the Providence Opera House. (Author’s collection)

Low’s Opera House was the last of the four theaters discussed here to open. Initially built as a public hall at Westminster and Union streets in 1877; however, the following year it was remodeled into a theater, and opened on March 4, 1878 – the same year that the Academy of Music closed. It was developed as a theater by William H. Low Jr., a 28-year-old Brown University graduate, who had no experience in running a theater. Over time the theater’s name would change from Low’s to B. F. Keith’s Gaiety Opera House in 1889 when Low sold it to Benjamin Franklin Keith. The name would change again to Keith’s New Theater in 1912 and following World War I, the name again changed to Victory Theater in 1919. Finally, in 1935 it became the Empire. In 1949 the theater was razed and replaced with a W.T. Grant department store. In its heyday the theater saw notable performances by the leading actors and actresses of the age including the great tragedian Edwin Booth and French star Sarah Bernhardt in her first American tour. She appeared as Marguerite Gautier in Alexandre Dumas’ play Camille on the evening of April 6, 1881. This theater has the distinction of serving the city’s theater-going public for more than seventy years, more than any other theater up to this time

Figure 6. – An advertising card from 1882 for George H. Adams performance with his Humpty-Dumpty troupe at Low’s Opera House (Author’s collection)

Of course, other theaters also populated the city during the early years, including the Theatre Comique which burned to the ground in a dramatic (pun intended) fire in February 1888. Another theater, the Columbia, was a showboat built on a barge and tied up on the Providence river at the Crawford Street bridge. Competing with these theaters were other venues including Howard Hall, Infantry Hall and Music Hall to name but a few.

Outdoor Theaters

The year 1878 was remarkable for not only marking the closing of the Academy of Music and the opening of Low’s but for the fact that two rival outdoor summer concert venues opened within city limits, just a week apart; both developed by rival band conductors. The first to open was Park Garden on Broad Street. A fund-raising opening was held on June 24th and a general public grand opening occurred the following day. The event on the 24th was billed as the Feast of Lanterns and as one Providence newspaper noted it was attended by “crowds and crowds of people.” Park Garden was developed by David W. Reeves and John Shirley; Reeves being the conductor of the celebrated American Band it should not be too surprising that band concerts were offered nightly. 3 Patrons were greeted with beautiful flower gardens, shady walks, a two-acre “Fairy Lake,” an oak grove and walkways, a Robinson Crusoe hut and as a precursor to today’s Water Fire, a Venetian gondola. Adjacent to the lake was an amphitheater in which musical performances were held. Conceivably Park Garden’s most notable performance occurred in 1879 when it presented Gilbert and Sullivan’s lyric opera HMS Pinafore. 4 George Willard in his history of the Providence stage noted it was “the most realistic production ever given in this county of Gilbert and Sullivan’s celebrated opera…” The price of admission was twenty-five cents and horsecars marked “Park Garden” left from Market Sq. for the short ride to the gardens.  Park Garden was short lived, lasting only six seasons, it closed after its 1883 season when its lease expired.

Figure 7. – An 1880 advertising trade card for Park Garden’s performance of the opera The Ambassador’s Daughter. (Author’s collection)

San Souci Gardens was located on Broadway at Jackson Street; today that intersection has been lost due to the interstate highway that runs through this area. The grand opening was on July 1. Developed to feature the National Band conducted by William White, the garden also offered seating for 1,100 patrons for its performances of light operas and comedies.  Within its first week of opening, entertainment acts included the Associated Artist Minstrel Troupe featuring “the only original American amusement Negro Minstrelsy.” Admission appears to have been a good deal as it was less costly to go to San Souci Garden than Park Garden. Tickets cost only fifteen cents or two for twenty-five cents. Ten years after its opening Sans Souci Garden featured Providence resident, Sissieretta Jones, a young black opera singer who was beginning her international singing career. While the garden was located within a short walking distance from the center of the city, it could also be reached by horse-cars marked Broadway or Mount Pleasant. San Souci closed for good after its 1891 summer season.

Outdoor summer theater was gone in Providence, but the concept reappeared in the 20th century at Warwick Musical Theater (1955 – 1999) and continues on at Matunuck’s Theater-by-the-Sea, both venues hosting performances in enclosed settings. A true outdoor theater setting can still be experienced by Westerly’s Colonial Theater performances of Shakespeare-in-the-Park every summer at the Westerly Public Library’s delightful Wilcox Park.

Modern Theaters

The downtown Providence area might best be described as encompassing all streets from South Main to Empire streets and from Sabin to Pine streets. As a young boy exploring the delights of the city in the mid to late 1950s the four main movie theaters were the Majestic and the Strand both on Washington Street, the R.K.O. Albee on Westminster Street, and the Loew’s State on Weybosset Street. By this time vaudeville was dead and cinema was king. Of course, there were some other theaters that lasted into the 1950s; Fay’s Theater, formerly the Union Theater, lasted until the early 1950s, offering a live show followed by a movie and the Metropolitan at Broad and Chestnut streets that lasted until 1955. Ironically, some theaters were actually nothing more than converted churches; thus, making an amusing turn-around since churches were at-first decidedly against theaters.  The earliest example of this was the Pine Street Theater that was the former meeting house of the Second Baptist Society. Twentieth century examples of church-to-theater conversions include Bullock’s Theater which once had been the Richmond Street Baptist Church and the Scenic Temple (later named Rialto) on Mathewson Street which had been the Westminster Congregational Church.

My first entry into the world of downtown theaters started with the Majestic on the corner of Empire and Washington streets. I pleaded with my mother to allow me to go as it was just a short 10-minute walk from my home on Carpenter Street. She was very reluctant to approve of this, but as I was allowed to go to the public library on the opposite corner of the Majestic at Empire street, coupled with my unrelenting asking she finally agreed. From that time on I was a denizen of the city,  not only going to the movies but exploring the treasures of the downtown; favorites included City Hall Hardware Store, the Outlet Company, Shepard’s and the Boston Store; looking in the windows of the Joke Shop on Union Street, the haberdasher windows of Honorbuilt, Paramount and the Prep Shop on Mathewson Street and stopping into Liggetts for a Lime Rickey. It was a great time to be a kid.

The Majestic, at 201 Washington Street, was built in 1917 (William R. Waller and Son, architects) and offered vaudeville acts as well as movies.  On occasion a “highbrow” showing would take center stage as it did on Monday evening March 7, 1921 when Anna Pavlowa’s Ballet Russe was shown. George M. Cohan appeared here several times before the stage was reconfigured in 1923 to accommodate movies. The building’s magnificent multi-color pastel terracotta front and the beautiful stained-glass oval dome make this building a treasure.  First named Emery’s Majestic it was later renamed Shubert’s Majestic before it became simply the Majestic. Now it is home to Trinity Repertory Company and has been redesigned to hold two theaters – the Dowling and the Chace theaters. The theater has also been renamed the Lederer, in recognition of the substantial donation made by the Lederer Foundation to purchase the building. My first movie at the Majestic was the 1954 horror classic the Creature from the Black Lagoon and while I have been going there (the Lederer) for many years as a Trinity Rep season ticket holder, it will always be the Majestic to me. Descending the long flight of stairs to get to the men’s rest room, well below street level, I have come to realize some things haven’t changed at all, even if it has been sixty-six years since I first used those stairs.

The Strand, at 84 Washington Street, is two years older than the Majestic; (Thomas J. Hill Pierce, architect) but of the big four downcity theaters of my youth, it was my least favorite. Less ornate than the Majestic or for that matter the Albee or Lowe’s, it was just uninspiring. The one thing that stands out in my mind was the great enjoyment I got in seeing Bell, Book and Candle there in 1958. Just a teenager at the time I was impressed with the beautiful Kim Novack – what boy wouldn’t be? I also enjoyed the other actors too, especially Jack Lemmon. A year later the Stand offered Some Like It Hot, a classic with Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon. The Stand still lives on today as a venue for live music performances that attracts a young audience. For a time, it was Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel.

The R.K.O. Albee was located at 320 Westminster Street, a street that has been home to some of the most significant theaters in the city, including the Bijou, Keith’s, Nickel, Empire and Imperial as well as pre-movie theaters like the Academy of Music, the Providence Theater and Music Hall.

The Albee, as it was commonly referred to, was built in 1919 for Edward F. Albee’s stock company (A.E. Westover, architect) and the theater’s first name was the E.F. Albee. Interestingly this theater’s entrance and lobby sits on the same lot of land that housed the Nickel theater. The theater itself was off to the right of the hall of mirrors lobby. The building was elaborately decorated in marble and had two balconies. Not only did it provide a suitable home for the Albee stock company, but it was used for cultural performance such as the Boston Symphony Orchestra. By my time, the stock company was no more, and it was primarily a movie house. In fact, my first memory of going to a movie was at the Albee, I distinctly remember walking out of the theater after seeing a Disney movie with my parents holding my hands. It would have been either the late 1940s or very early 1950s.

Sometime in the 1960s the theater was acquired by entrepreneur B.A. Dario, a car dealer and racetrack owner. For a while, the theater was used for musical events, but it never was a profitable concern. Dario’s ownership was just a stay of execution, the theater finally fell to the wrecking ball in 1970. Today the theater’s location is just another parking lot in Providence.

The Loew’s State, located at 220 Weybosset Street, was built in 1930 (Rapp and Rapp architects) as a picture palace and anyone who visits there today for a Providence Performing Arts Center (PPAC) show will readily agree it is a palace. Ornately decorated and meticulously restored it still has the feel and grandeur as it had when it first opened. While I have been to numerous PPAC shows I still remember the first time I went to a movie there in 1954, the movie was Apache staring Burt Lancaster. I thought it was the best movie ever made, of course my taste in movies has I hope improved somewhat since then. My most memorable experience at this theater was not so much a movie but the candy dispensing machine on the mezzanine – for whatever reason when I put a coin in the slot and pulled the lever for a box of Mason Dots (my favorite at the time), instead of one box I got two.

Providence had many other modern theaters that could not be covered here but each added to the options the theater-going public had, among these were the Emery, later renamed the Carlton, on Matheson Street,  Fay’s on Union Street, the Metropolitan on Chestnut Street and the Modern on Westminster Street. A late comer to the downtown theater scene was the Paris Cinerama on Weybosset Street that opened in 1969 and closed in the 1980s.

Figure8 – The Emery theater, later renamed the Carlton, was located on Matheson Street. Today its location is a parking lot. (Author’s collection)

Theater Companies

Performances in the early years of the Providence stage were usually traveling shows, in one week and gone the next; however, the concept of resident stock companies to augment the needs of the traveling cast first appeared in the mid-19th century and continued well into the new century. The work must have been demanding for the stock players, George Willard in his book History of the Providence Stage noted when discussing the Providence Opera House stock company’s third season “They were frequently obliged to study a new play for every night in the week, as they supported all the dramatic stars who came that season ….” Some of the theater stock companies had resident professionals but occasionally there were visiting stock companies. In addition, summer stock companies developed to keep the audience’s attention when the touring season was over. One of the more notable stock companies was the E. F. Albee Stock Company.

Early in the 20th century, Johnson Briscoe a noted authority of the stage at that time wrote “The remarkable record of the Albee Stock Company, has carried wide-spread interest, not alone through Rhode Island and its environs, but the country at large, for no other city of its size can boast of an organization of the caliber of the Albee Company.” He went on to say, “Having made a close study of the modern stock company system, I think I can safely say that the Albee company stands among the three foremost organizations in the country to-day….” Briscoe wrote these high words of praise for the Preface to a short account of the Albee Stock Company on the celebration of its eleventh year. The stock company, founded in 1901, would continue on until it was disbanded after its 1929 season. 5 A long list of actors and actresses made up the company’s alumni but conceivably its most famous member was Spencer Tracy who would go on to a career in Hollywood movies winning two Academy Awards.

Figure 9. – A postcard view of the Albee theater from around the time it first opened in 1919 and a souvenir card showing Albee Stock Company member Spencer Tracy from a deck of twenty cards issued by the Outlet Company in 1929. (Author’s collection)

Amateur theater companies also existed. In 1887 one group of amateur actors formed the Amateur Dramatic Club and gave performances at the aptly named Amateur Dramatic Hall located on the corner of South Main and Power streets. This hall was a converted Methodist church; in time the hall’s name was changed to the Talma Theater the home of the thespian group named the Talma Club.  It was at this location in December 1909 that the first performance of another amateur group called The Players occurred in a performance of The Liars by Henry Arthur Jones. In time The Players would move to Infantry Hall, one of several locations before finally settling into a permanent home in 1932. Today, after one hundred and eleven years The Players are still going strong performing at the Barker Playhouse on Benefit Street.

Over time other theatrical companies have come and most have gone. One group with significant longevity is the Sock and Buskin of Brown University’s Dramatic Society.  This collegiate theatrical group gave its first performance in 1901 and it continues to perform to this day.

Stock or repertory companies are evident even today as demonstrated by Providence’s renowned Trinity Repertory Company now into its 57th season. It too had its beginnings in a church building, located at the Trinity Square Playhouse adjacent to Trinity United Methodist Church. This small playhouse provided the audience with a sense of intimacy with the actors, a feeling that was to be somewhat replicated in the downstairs theater at the Lederer. Like the Albee Stock Company, Trinity Rep has produced many actors and actresses that have gone on to national recognition. Unlike the Albee Stock Company, Trinity Rep has entered into a collaborative initiative with Brown University offering upcoming actors, playwrights and directors an opportunity to work with a professional regional theater while earning an M.F.A. degree.

Neighborhood Theaters

With the advent of the silent movies in the early 1920s a number of neighborhood movie houses began to appear. Nearly every neighborhood had one, although some were grander than others. Over time these theaters served as second-run theaters where patrons could see a movie for less money than the first run theaters of downtown. Listed here are some in alphabetical order with accompanying information on each.

Art – This theater began life as the Liberty Theater and opened in March of 1921; it was renamed the Art in 1958 and was known for its artistic movies. Located at 1017 Broad Street it served the Elmwood and Washington Park areas of Providence although many of its movie selections attracted audiences from all over. The theater had long been closed but recently it was renovated to be used as an entertainment center and has been renamed the Bomes Theater.

Auburn – This theater lasted only four years. Built in 1914 it burned down in 1918. Located in Cranston on Park Avenue near the corner of Elmwood Avenue it was close enough to the Providence city line to serve residents of the Elmwood area. This building is still standing.

Avon – This theater, located at 260 Thayer Street on Providence’s East Side, has the distinction of being one of the few remaining neighborhood theaters still in operation. It opened in 1938 and today it is a vibrant member of the Thayer Street business district, not only attracting students from the nearby colleges but patrons throughout the state interested in the artistic movies shown there.

Cable Car – Although recently closed, the Cable Car can be considered a downtown theater as it was located on South Main Street. A late comer to the theater scene, it opened in 1976, and like the nearby Avon Theater it showed mainly artistic movies. The Cable Car had an unusual seating arrangement as most of the seats were old sofas. Today the theater is used as a café and microcinema.

Capitol – The Capitol was located on Westminster Street in Cathedral Sq. While listed here as a neighborhood theater it could just as easily be considered a downtown theater since it was only a few minutes walk from the center of the city. It is also older than most of the neighborhood theaters as it opened in 1902 and featured vaudeville acts before becoming a movie house. It also had the distinction of hosting the most impressive inaugural act of any neighborhood theater – opening night on September 22, 1902 featured the Four Cohans in “The Governor’s Son” with Providence-born George M. Cohan as the youngest Cohan. The theater had undergone a number of name changes; it began as the Imperial, before becoming the Shubert, then the Colonial and finally the Capitol. When I went there in the 1950s it was a run-down reminder of its glory days; we called it a “scratch house.” The theater was torn down in the mid-1960s as part of redevelopment in the area.

Castle – The Castle theater, located at 1025 Chalkstone Avenue, opened in the 1920s to serve the Mount Pleasant neighborhood of Providence. It lasted as a movie house until early into the 21st century. Today the theater serves as a pizzeria.

Cinerama – This theater was located on Hope Street and was initially and aptly named Hope Theater. Built prior to 1928 it lasted as a theater until the 1980s. During the 1960s it was one of the few neighborhood theaters where patrons could see a movie in CinamaScope. The theater was eventually demolished and is now the site of a national drugstore chain.

Columbia – This theater was located at 589 Charles Street and initially was named the Continental. Its name change one last time from the Columbia to the Rivoli.  before the building was razed. It served the city’s North End community comprised largely of Italo-Americans.

Elmwood – The Elmwood is a more recent theater than the other neighborhood theaters, it was built in the 1940s and closed sometime in the 1980s. The building for a while was re-purposed as a church serving the local Hispanic community.

Olympia – This theater was located on Westminster Street in the Olneyville section of the city. It opened to the public in September 1926. Developed by Jacob Conn it was often referred to as Conn’s Olympia. The theater was ultimately razed and replaced by a high-rise low-income apartment building

Palace – The Palace, like the Auburn Theater, was located in Cranston; but near enough to the city line to serve residents of Providence’s Washington Park community. Located at 1526 Broad Street this theater finally closed its doors in the 1970s and the building has since been repurposed as a church.

Rainbo – This theater was located on Pocasset Avenue in the Silver Lake neighborhood near the Cranston-Providence line; it is now gone, and a bus turn-a-round is in its place. Initially named the V.C. but the name changed to the Rainbo in the early 1940s. The theater closed in the early 1950s. Why there was no ‘w’ in its name is anybody’s guess.

Royal – The Royal was located at the junction of Plainfield Street and Manton Avenue in Olneyville. The theater opened on October 27, 1914 as a movie house, it closed in 1934, possibly due to competition from the Olympia at the opposite end of the square. After years of being boarded up it was razed sometime around the late 1950s or early 1960s to make way for a gas station.

Star – There were two Star theaters. One was located in South Providence on Willard Avenue and the other was in Cranston on the line between Providence and Cranston. The latter was a neighborhood theater for residents of both Providence’s Silver Lake area as well as Cranston patrons.

Uptown – Located on Broadway this theater was initially named the Columbus, it was renamed the Uptown in 1929; however, in 1962 it reverted to its original name. Without doubt it is the most elaborate of all the neighborhood theaters in Providence. Opened in 1926, its impressive design by architect Oresto DiSala and murals by George DiFelice make this theater a standout. Today the theater survives by offering live musical, theatrical and screen programs.

While not within the memory of the modern-day reader, Providence had other neighborhood theaters in the early decades of the 20th century that are unfortunately long gone; movie theaters like the Pastime in Olneville and the Palace Casino in Randall Square. Other early theaters catered to the city’s immigrant communities among these were the Verdi and Teatro La Sirena, both located on Atwells Avenue in the heart of the Italian enclave. Bazar Hall, later renamed the Star Theater, located on Willard Avenue in South Providence, catered to a large Jewish community and played movies on Friday nights – cost of admission was ten cents. 6

In addition to the array of neighborhood theaters, several drive-in theaters appeared, most notably was the Shipyard Drive-In that first opened in 1957 and ran for nearly twenty years at Field’s Point off Allen’s Avenue. This drive-in got its name from the Walsh-Kaiser shipyard that built Liberty ships and patrol frigates at this location during World War II.


For the last 225 years, except for several years in the 1830s, there have been theaters in Providence providing enlightenment, entertainment, and enjoyment to the residents of the city. Certainly, the performances offered during this span of time have evolved to meet the taste of their audiences. So too have the theaters evolved from mainly live performance to mainly film.  While most theaters from the past are now long gone there are still a few that remain.  Anyone attending the Lederer or PPAC today can still get a sense of what the theater goers of the past experienced. The grandeur and excitement was palpable. No modern-day multiplex or home theater system can offer that feeling. I am glad I got to experience that sense of excitement. I hope the reader got to feel it too.

Selected Reading

Over the years there have been many articles and a few books written about the theaters of Providence; however, several stand out. The first book was An Historical Account of the Providence Stage written by Charles Blake and published in 1868 in an edition of only 200 copies by Providence bookseller George H. Whitney. Blake’s account, albeit in a much shorter version, had been first presented in a paper read at the Rhode Island Historical Society eight years earlier. The next book to appear on the subject occurred twenty-three years later when George O. Willard published History of the Providence Stage, 1762 – 1891. Willard’s book incorporated all of Blake’s book and essentially carried the history from where Blake left off in 1860 and carried it forward to 1891.

The next publication of note was an article that appeared in the Providence Magazine in October 1916. “Popular Amusements – The Drama in Providence” was a fifteen-page account of the theaters of the capitol city. What differentiates this article from both the Blake and Willard books is it focused less on the performances and the actors and more on the theaters themselves with numerous pictures of the theaters. Also much had changed since the printing of Willard’s book in 1891 and the appearance of the 1916 article; drama now shared the stage with vaudeville and some theaters like the Modern on Westminster Street were built more for movies than live performances.

In 1976 Roger Brett wrote Temples of Illusion – The Golden Age of Theaters in an American City. This account brings the story of the theaters of Providence up to the late 1940s and is most useful, it is well illustrated but unfortunately does not have an index. Brett ended his account with what he called “the TV saturated days of the 1950s.” however, the theater in Providence is still very much active and vibrant. Two of the old theaters are still in use today, the Lowe’s State is now the Providence Performing Arts Center and the Majestic, now the Lederer, is home to Trinity Repertory Company. The show goes on.

Also of invaluable use in telling the story of Providence’s theaters is the on-line resource Cinema Treasures – Much of what is provided on this site was provided by Gerald DeLuca, Rhode Island’s foremost living scholar on the history of the theater in Rhode Island.

  1. Manufacturers and Farmers Journal, January 2, 1865. ↩︎
  2. The Providence newspaper The Morning Star reported the day following the opening that the theater was “crowed from pit to dome.” The article went on to say “The audience was not only a large one, but especially brilliant, composed of the most fashionable and select of Providence society.” ↩︎
  3. Reeves was not only the bandleader but a composer and cornetist. He is best known for his composition Second Regiment Connecticut National Grand March. John Phillip Souza said of Reeves that he was “The Father of Band Music in American.” ↩︎
  4. It was said that Sir Arthur Sullivan, the composer of H.M.S. Pinafore, sent Reeves a letter of commendation when he heard about the performance at Park Garden. ↩︎
  5. On April 4, 1930 newspapers announced that the Albee Players would be discontinued. One article in the Pawtucket Times noted “Foster Lardner, manager of the Albee Theatre, in a prepared statement, declared that the decision of the officials was reached after a conference in New York, where it was determined that continuance of the Albee stock company this summer would be impractical because of the lack of good plays  on the market. Most of the plays available are of a sexy nature, it was declared, and were deemed unsuitable for presentation by the Albee Players. Another factor which influenced the RKO officials in their decision was that many of the plays which might be obtained have already been done in the talks.”  Days later Edward M. Fay, theater owner and impresario, was quoted as saying he had signed most of the Albee players under the name Providence Stock Company and that they would perform at the Carlton Theater. ↩︎
  6. See George Goodwin and Ellen Smith, The Jews of Rhode Island. (Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2004).  p. 46. ↩︎
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