Built in 1900, the Emerson Colonial Theatre is the oldest continuously operating theatre in Boston. The creation of this jewel sparked a theatre building boom, which included the construction of the Majestic in 1903, the Shubert Theatre in 1910, the Wilbur in 1914 and the Metropolitan (better know today as the Wang Theatre) in 1925. The Colonial, continues to host to both musical and dramatic productions.
The Colonial opened on December 20, 1900 with the heroic melodrama, Ben-Hur, featuring a cast of 350 and a chariot race using live horses! The theatre has hosted many world premieres and pre-Broadway productions including Porgy And Bess; Oklahoma!; Thornton Wilder’s The Merchant Of Yonkers (the inspiration for Hello, Dolly!); Born Yesterday; Carousel; La Cage Aux Folles; Grand Hotel; and Prince and Sondheim’s Follies and A Little Night Music.
Performers who have taken the stage here include: George M. Cohan, W. C. Fields, Fannie Brice, Irving Berlin, The Marx Brothers, Eddie Cantor, Fred Astaire, Cole Porter, Paul Robeson, Ethel Barrymore, Tallulah Bankhead, Gertrude Lawrence, Bella Lugosi, Ethel Merman, Celeste Holm, Lawrence Olivier, Henry Fonda, Helen Hayes, Orson Welles, James Earl Jones, Yul Brynner, Will Rogers, Carol Burnett, Bob Hope, Danny Kaye, Jessica Tandy, Barbra Streisand, Julie Harris, Katharine Hepburn, Bob Fosse and Tommy Tune.
Designed by Clarence Blackall, the most experienced and celebrated theatre architects of his era, the Colonial Theatre features a sedate and elegant exterior that conceals the surprise and scope of the elaborate decoration within. The enchanting interior decorated by H. B. Pennell begins with a striking 70-ft. long vestibule. The walls are lined with Italian marble and the floor is a striking 40,000-tile crescent-design mosaic. The inner lobby is painted with an “extensive sequence of murals which are of their type and period unique in Boston,” according to historian Douglas S. Tucci; and the walls and ceiling sparkle with gilt and mirrors.
As stated by famed Theatre critic Elliot Norton, “the Colonial is not only handsome, it is also intimate: its auditorium, designed in a wide fan shape, seems to bring actors closer to the audience.” With its superior sight lines, excellent acoustics (designed by Thomas Alva Edison), dazzling chandeliers, twinkling lights and glorious murals overhead, the Colonial Theatre is, avows Norton, “among the best in the US in all ways.”
Changes of ownership and years of wear and tear had taken their toll on the Colonial interior when a full-scale restoration was undertaken in 1960. In 1995 it again required extensive repair. During six weeks of down time, after Moon Over Buffalo closed and before Three Tall Women opened, the interior of the Colonial Theatre was overhauled.
Scaffolding was erected in the auditorium; carpeting was torn out and replaced; new seats were installed; the floor plan was re configured to ease handicap access; the ladies’ lounge was enlarged and refurbished. But the most miraculous work was done by a team of painters and leafers from Conrad Schmitt Studios, known worldwide for its restoration work (the Wang Theatre is another of its famous restoration projects). The eight artisans faced many challenges atop the 60’ scaffold. Large portions of the original murals and decorative plasterwork had deteriorated and some areas had been harmed by prior touch-ups. The goal was to “follow the style of the original and blend the old and new elements,” so that 100 years of tradition were enhanced rather than diminished. Indeed, entering the auditorium now, with its vividly restored murals and stenciling and 5,000 shimmering square feet of gold leaf, you can imagine the thrill of opening night in 1900.
Past Colonial President, Jon Platt supplied the icing for this glorious cake when he arranged for the return of the famous Ladies’ Lounge table. Most of the original furnishings have disappeared from the Colonial, but Platt kept track of the table and delighted Boston theatre-lovers with its surprise return. During the try-out of their first collaboration, Away We Go!, Rodgers and Hammerstein sat at this table and transformed their show into Oklahoma!, setting new standards for the American musical. In a different theatrical era, Bob Fosse leapt onto the tabletop to demonstrate a particular tap step during a notes session.
The Colonial has survived the World Wars, the introduction of the movies, the Depression and television. What was said of the Theatre in 1900 holds true today, “It is a palace dedicated to the play, a monument to the taste of New England, and a credit to the city of Boston.” In 2012, Citi Performing Arts Center assumes operations of the theatre - renaming it the Citi Performing Arts Center Emerson Colonial Theatre - and partners with Broadway Across America to ensure that the Boston tradition of presenting Broadway shows continues in this historic home.