The Once and Future Theater

Around the Hub

While progress on plans for the new Government Center around Scollay Square brings demolition of the present structures closer every week, Boston historical societies are redoubling their efforts to save buildings of historical importance from the wrecking crews. Perhaps newest among these societies is The Howard National Theater and Museum Committee, whose members are determined to preserve a former hot-spot of Boston burlesque, the Howard Athenacum, known more affectionately to those whose heart was lost there, as the Old Howard.

For many decades before 1953, the Howard was well known to Harvard men; then the city closed it for unpaid back taxes. While it was open, Harvard men could be found any night of the week, standing in close-packed lines up either side of the two great staircases, patiently or impatiently waiting for seats as individual members of the audience wandered out. They came partly to see the great burlesque stars, such as Gypsy Rose Lee. But they also came (at least according to the more bashful of the Howard's regulars) to admire its fine sculptured iron balcony rails, and the huge gas-light chandelier.

Bumps and grinds are a relatively new phase in the Howard's history. During the first 25 years of its existence, the theater produced only legitimate plays. Then, around 1870, the advent of the new Boston Theater cost the Howard its status as the city's major playhouse. From that time on, the quality and type of its productions varied considerably. Variety shows and occasional repertory filled most of the bills during the late 19th century with a rather motley assortment of actors, among them "Buffalo Bill" Cody and the three Booths including John Wilkes. The 20th century brought vaudeville and, finally, World War I opened the present era of girly shows.

The history of the theater actually begins with an evangelical minister, William Miller, who saw the light while still a deputy sheriff in Putney, Vermont--God came to him one day as he was flogging a prisoner. Taking off immediately for Boston, Miller gathered a congregation about him and declared that,

"The end of the world will surely be

In Eighteen Hundred and Forty-three."

Converts thronged to Father Miller by the hundreds and, requiring a meeting place, arranged with a builder, Tom Ford, to construct a tabernacle for them on condition that it revert to Ford after the end of the world, scheduled for April 25. The appointed day passed and, after a week or two during which they starved, surrounded by grotesque pictures of monsters from the Book of Revelation, the frenzied worshippers staggered out. Miller, somewhat abashed by the failure of his prediction, reviewed his calculations and discovered that he had erred by several thousand years. Meanwhile, Ford had laid claim to the Howard Street building and converted it into a theater.

The Tabernacle as theater lasted only five months before fire consumed it in February, 1846. Not ready to admit even this as the end of the world, Ford called in Isaiah Rogers to design the present New England warehouse Gothic building. Despite its exterior, which some claim is quite handsome, the theater soon came to be known as one of the most beautiful in the country. This may be partly because the Howard was the first in the country to use cushioned theater seats. But it was also, no doubt, because of the excellent stage, first-rate acoustics, and an unobstructed view from all parts of the house.

Dean Gitter, chairman of the Howard Committee, hopes that both history and utility will convince Boston that the theater is worth saving. According to Mr. Gitter, who is studying theater management at the Business School, this is the only stage in Boston adequate to the needs of large scale productions such as ballet and opera.

Presently, such productions rarely come to Boston. Both Sol Hurok and Aaron Richmond have publicly stated, says Gitter, that major productions cannot be played here. Those companies that have tried them in the Boston Garden have refused to return.

Among the possibilities for rehabilitation, Gitter envisions making the first floor of the building (once used for a factory) into a museum showing the history of the Old Howard; and the vaulted cellar into a restaurant to be leased out to help meet costs. The theater itself would be run without profit. As to the cost of rehabilitation. Gitter is convinced that he can get the necessary $1.5 million through private contributions.

One reason remains for saving the Howard. Rumor has it that Father Miller's ghost, which comes back every April 25 to haunt the Athenaeum and to repeat its favorite little couplet, may take its prophesying elsewhere if the building is demolished--perhaps even to the offices of the City Planning Board.