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Ruth and the Theatre


  1. Theatre History of the 1920s
  2. Operettas and Musical Comedies
  3. Boston Theatres of Yesterday and Today
A cover for one of the many theatre programs found in Ruth's scrapbook.

Based on the number of programs and ticket stubs found in Ruth's scrapbook, it’s fair to say that theatre and the performing arts were an important part of her social life during her time at Simmons. Theatre in the 1920s throughout the world was changing rapidly, and Ruth was able to get some small tastes of the beginnings of Broadway and the American musical tradition while living in Boston. Unlike today, in Ruth's day the whole country was aware of the productions being presented on Broadway. Those who were seen as sophisticated (or wished to be) were knowledgeable of theatre. The importance of the performing arts is shown in the beginning pages of the scrapbook, where there are specific pages that are similar to pages one might find in the planner of a Simmons student today. These pages were included to keep track of classes, sporting events, and the performing arts. On the page titled, "Entertainments, Lectures, and Plays" Ruth pasted ticket stubs and wrote short notes and reviews about the performances. In the 1920s, much like the present day, Boston had a plethora of theatres to attend (a few of which are still around in some capacity) and Ruth took full advantage.

Theatre History of the 1920s

At the turn of the twentieth century and into the 1930s, theatre, especially musical theatre, was changing and growing rapidly from burlesque, which was a type of variety show started in the early 1900s featuring low rank performers and young women wearing slightly revealing outfits, into the types of musicals that today's audience is more familiar with seeing on the Broadway stage.1 During the 1920s, twenty-six new theatres went up on Broadway in New York City (or, as it was known then, The Street), creating a demand for a huge variety of different types of plays.2 Ruth saw two of the longest running Broadway shows at the time, Lightnin' and The Bat. Lightnin', which ran for three years on Broadway, was even seen by President Harding's Secretary of Labor, who brought with him a letter of congratulations from the president to the production.3 Ruth saw Lightnin' at the Hollis Street Theatre, staged by the writer of the show, Winchell Smith. The Bat , which Ruth saw at the Shubert-Wilbur Theatre, was a mystery, which was a popular genre of the time. It ran for 867 performances on Broadway, and by the spring of 1922 there were a total of six touring companies performing it across the country.4 In her scrapbook, Ruth described The Bat as "the most exciting thing I had ever seen".

From The Bat.

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Operettas and Musical Comedies

Two popular forms of musical theatre at the time were operettas and musical comedies. To quote Ethan Mordden in his theatre history book Anything Goes , "You know you're at an operetta when the setting is Europe and the era is historical."5 Blossom Time , which Ruth saw at the Boston Opera House, used the life and music of Franz Schubert as its subject. Operettas in the twenties were often billed as "musical plays" as opposed to "musical comedies", meaning that the comedic aspects of the show were compartmentalized to one or two characters. However, comedy wasn't the main attraction for audiences of operettas. It was the spectacle of the elaborate sets, opera-trained voices, and large choruses.6 The difference between operettas and operas were that in operettas performers were required to act dialogue (both spoken and sung) in addition to possessing professional singing voices. In addition, operettas were usually produced in commercial houses, as compared with the state and court theatres that usually hosted operas.7 While the names of many operettas of the twenties are not familiar to today's theatre-going audiences, one show which bridged the gap between operettas and musicals was Showboat. Showboat, a show that lay somewhere in the genre of musical melodrama, was incredibly influential in its use of character songs which developed relationships while moving the plot along. Although it did not open until 1927, Ruth was able to see the earlier works (both musical comedies) of one of the co-writers of that famed show, Jerome Kern, at the Colonial Theatre. In addition to Showboat, Kern wrote most or all of the music for some thirty Broadway shows and over a thousand songs, some of which Ruth heard when seeing both Sally (staged by Florenz Ziegfeld) and Good Morning Dearie .8

Around this time, musical comedies were changing. Whereas previously, the show's authors would only write the core numbers of a show, in the 1920s authors began to write the whole score themselves. Later, writers like Harry B. Smith and Oscar Hammerstein became influential by writing both the book and lyrics for musicals, making for more consistent storytelling by weaving the plot with the music.9 This push for more consistency between the music and book culminated with Showboat, but the beginnings of this type of work can be seen throughout the early twenties in both operettas and musical comedies. The main difference between the two was that operettas let the music tell the story with the script enhancing the show, while musical comedies let the script tell the plot with the music enhancing the show.

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Boston Theatres of Yesterday and Today

Ruth's scrapbook is filled with various programs and playbills from around both Boston and New Haven. She went to see the Boston Symphony Orchestra during its 42nd season and the Boston Pops during its 38th season. While the orchestra had performed previously at the old Boston Music Hall, Ruth attended at the then-fairly new Symphony Hall, which opened on October 15, 1900, and still remains at the same location on Huntington Avenue. Pierre Monteaux, the conductor from 1919-1924, along with his predecessor Henri Rabaud, were both French and started the the tradition of having many French musicians in the orchestra, a tradition that lived on even past their tenures as conductors.10

Other theatres that Ruth visited during her time at Simmons and the years afterward can still be found in some capacity in the area are:

The interior of the Colonial Theatre11

Colonial Theatre: Opened in 1900, this theatre was where Ruth saw Sally, Good Morning Dearie, and George White's Scandals , which contained music written by George Gershwin and was co-written by W. C. Fields. The theatre, which can be found on Boylston Street in Boston's Theatre District, is currently owned by Emerson College. It was closed in 2015, but in 2017 it was announced that the theatre would be re-opened in January 2018 with substantial capital improvements and operated by the Ambassador Theatre Group.12

The Repertory Theatre of Boston13

The Repertory – Copley Theatre: This theatre at 264 Huntington Ave was originally known as the Repertory Theatre of Boston and was built to be the permanent home of the Henry Jewett Players. It was later known as the Copley Theatre. Ruth saw the Henry Jewett Repertory Company’s production of Disraeli here. Today this theatre is currently known as the Boston University Theatre, as it is owned by Boston University. In addition to the main theatre, there is also a small studio theatre which originally held the ballroom for the Repertory Theatre.14 In 2016, the university sold the building, but the theatre will remain home to the Huntington Theatre Company’s productions.15

The Boston Opera House16

Boston Opera House: The original Boston Opera House where Ruth would have attended Blossom Time was also on Huntington Avenue near Symphony Hall and the Repertory Theatre. All these buildings were on the same block about one mile away from Simmons and would have been convenient for Ruth to access. The original building was built in 1901, but unfortunately fell into disrepair between the Great Depression and World War II and was demolished in 1958. Today, the building known as the Boston Opera House was originally known as the B.F. Keith Memorial Theatre; it is located on Washington St. and was built in 1925.17 The current incarnation of the Boston Opera House hosts touring productions from the company Broadway Across America as well as the Boston Ballet.18

In addition to these theatres, there are others that are found in the scrapbook that no longer exist but still played a part in Boston and Ruth’s theatre history. These include:

Tremont Theatre: Throughout Boston's history there have been several Tremont Theatres, but the one that Ruth most likely visited opened in 1889 and was located at 176 Tremont St.19

Hollis Street Theatre: Located on Hollis Street, a former church was reconstructed and opened as a theatre in 1885. Unfortunately, in 1935, during the demolition of the building, the roof collapsed, killing several workers.20

Saint James Theatre: The Saint James Theatre opened in late summer of 1912 in a building formerly known as Chickering Hall on Huntington Avenue. The building was gutted and enlarged to create the theatre and included a large tea room in the balcony area. In 1929, it was renamed as the Uptown Theatre. In the 1960s the building was purchased and demolished.21

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1 Ethan Mordden, Anything Goes: A History of American Musical Theatre (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 19.

2 Ethan Mordden, All That Glittered: The Golden Age of Drama on Broadway 1919-1959 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2007),17.

3 Ibid., 14-15.

4 Ibid., 36.

5 Mordden, Anything Goes, 120.

6 Ibid., 120-121.

7 Larry Stempel, Showtime: A History of the Broadway Musical Theater (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2010), 98-99.

8 Ibid., 162-164.

9 Mordden, Anything Goes, 112-115.

10 "The History of the BSO," bso.org, last modified 2017, https://www.bso.org/brands/bso/about-us/historyarchives/the-history-of-the-bso.aspx

11 Colonial Theatre. Digital image. broadway.com. Accessed March 23, 2017, http://www.broadway.com/buzz/181955/bostons-colonial-theatre-to-shut-down-this-year-looking-back-on-five-shows-that-started-at-the-historic-space/

12 Malcolm Gay, "Emerson College strikes deal to reopen Colonial Theatre," bostonglobe.com, last modified January 9, 2017, https://www.bostonglobe.com/arts/theater/dance/2017/01/08/colonial-theatre-reopen-new-deal-with-international-producer/fKXySjLPCGUp5mhXP48gKO/story.html

13The Repertory Theatre of Boston. Digital image. Huntington Theatre Company. Accessed March 23, 2017, http://www.huntingtontheatre.org/blog/Dates/2015/10/ghosts-of-the-hauntington/

14 "Avenue of the Arts/BU Theatre," huntingtontheatre.org, last modified 2017, http://www.huntingtontheatre.org/about/venue/bu-theatre/

15 Andrea Shea, "Boston University Sells Longtime Home Of The Huntington Theatre For $25 Million," wbur.org, last modified March 21, 2016, http://www.wbur.org/artery/2016/03/21/boston-university-sells-longtime-home-of-the-huntington-theatre-for-25-million

16 Detroit Publishing Co. Boston Opera House, Boston, Mass. 1900-1910. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

17 "History," web.archive.org, last modified August 7, 2008, https://web.archive.org/web/20080807115529/http://www.bostonoperahouse.com/history.html

18 "History," bostonoperahouse.com, last modified 2017, http://www.bostonoperahouse.com/history/

19 Donald King, The Theatres of Boston: A Stage and Screen History (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2005), 241.

20 Ibid.

21 Ibid., 163.