In 1894 B. F. Keith spent $725,000 on a Boston palace for the glory that was to be vaudeville. In three years he was completely repaid, and the new artistic form had begun its golden days. When vaudeville finally died, its inheritors, the slapstick movie comedians, took over the palace, and now it is known as a Laffmovie. The new life does not quite fit the magnificent theater; and the gilded boxes, the high dome, and the murals of cherubs and angels in the hall seem somehow superfluous and foreign now that the balcony is usually roped off, and popcorn is sold in the hall.
The popcorn, which is served up by the same people who cater to the Yankee Stadium, pervades the place and sets the tone of slightly frayed levity. Most of the stuff is eaten by children, who make up the fifty percent of the clientele to whom Buster Keaton is something new. The Laffmovie probably attracts a higher percentage of children than any other Boston theater, and since that means a higher percentage of truants, it presents certain problems. The manager must know when the school holidays fall, or he will be getting into trouble with the police; but on Saturday afternoons no holds are barred, and Harvard undergraduates rub elbows with students of Somerville High and with the families who have formed the Laffmovie habit. At these times the house is packed, and old-timers are reminded of the grand old vaudeville days.
The Laffmovie is one of a chain of three, the other two being in Baltimore and New York. Since the founding in 1943 the policy has remained pretty constant, "the more custard pies per reel the better." There have been deviations into more sophisticated comedy of the "Topper" type, "but," says the Boston advertising manager, "the kids didn't get the hang of the double entendre," And so, since the giants of the deadpan and the thrown pie are no more, the theater sticks to the oldies. "There are very few good new ones," the Laffmovie's spokesman says sorrowfully, and the Marx and Ritz Bros., Harold Lloyd, and Charlie Chaplin are therefore shown devotedly. While the children have no trouble understanding these artists, the adult part of the Laffmovie's family audience enjoys recalling the great entertainers of its youth. Movies such as "Tillie's Punctured Romance," which appeared in 1914 starring Marie Dressler and Charlie Chase, and which has the distinction of being the first feature-length picture, is rerun about twice a year to please nostalgic moviegoers.
Right now the Laffmovie is showing among other delicacies, a cartoon about a sneezing weasel and a Buster Keaton classic, vintage 1934. The former does, however, contain some modern verse. There are two lines:
"When the Mother's away
The Weasel will play."
So the Laffmovie usually sticks to the old ones.