Columbia Theatre

978-986 Washington Street,
Boston, MA 02445

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rsalters (Ron Salters)
rsalters (Ron Salters) on June 2, 2015 at 2:37 pm

Yes, a hundred and more years ago, there was a lot less affluence and fewer entertainment choices. When audiences went to vaude shows they expected to get their money’s worth and if a performer didn’t deliver, he/she would receive a loud round of boos and hisses. Especially in the, shall we say, less-refined theaters. Some managers even reputedly employed a “hook”, which was a long pole with a big metal hook at the end. He would reach out from the wings and hook the errant no-talent around his waist and pull him off the stage. It’s likely that some movies got booed too, but maybe not until the end.

MarkB on June 1, 2015 at 1:08 pm

In the book about vaudeville: “No applause, just throw money,” the Columbia is mentioned as a ‘tryout’ theatre for vaudeville. People trying to break in to the business would go there to break in their acts. Apparently, such theatres were very rough on performers – the audience was ready to boo them off the stage, and the managers would run them off before they finished their acts.

rsalters (Ron Salters)
rsalters (Ron Salters) on May 19, 2015 at 1:18 pm

I recently looked at a photo which was taken for the Boston Elevated Railway Co. showing construction of the connecting link from the existing el structure down into the new Washington Street tunnel (today’s Orange Line). The link and the tunnel opened in November 1908, so the photo dates from earlier in 1908 or in 1907. Clearly seen in the background is the Columbia Theatre. The odd thing is that the fire escape doors from the gallery on the upper portion of the north wall (left side of theater) have no fire escapes under them! It’s possible that the photo was taken just after the old fire escapes were removed and while awaiting the installation of new ones. Otherwise, it was a very unsafe situation.

rsalters (Ron Salters)
rsalters (Ron Salters) on September 15, 2012 at 12:56 pm

The Boston Globe report of the fire in 1917 states that it was believed that the walls would have to be demolished. But that did not happen. The facade was saved, and possibly parts of the side and rear walls. The auditorium that Thomas Lamb designed right after this fire did not look anything like the original auditorium. I wish I had known more about the history of this building back circa-1953 when it was still standing. I would have gone over there and looked all around the place.

EdwardFindlay on July 1, 2011 at 8:39 pm

An article from one of the Boston Globe about the 1917 fire from the Boston Fire Historical Society:

Ron Newman
Ron Newman on May 29, 2011 at 6:07 pm

This theatre is mapped on the wrong Washington Street (Brookline, instead of Boston’s South End), miles from where it belongs.

rsalters (Ron Salters)
rsalters (Ron Salters) on May 10, 2011 at 2:01 pm

The 1906 edition of the Julius Cahn Official Theatrical Guide lists this theater as the “Columbia Music Hall” and says it was “Devoted to Burlesque” (as a schoolboy in the 1950s, I too was “devoted to burlesque”!) Tickets cost 10 cents to 75 cents. The proscenium opening was 38 feet wide X 39 feet high, and the stage was 43 feet deep. It says there were 1,923 seats, but the breakdown does not add up to that: Orchestra 491, 1st balcony 320, 2nd balcony 362, gallery 600; total: 1,773 plus box seats. I believe there were only 2 balconies, so “1st balcony” and “2nd balcony” were probably the same structure divided by a cross-aisle.

rsalters (Ron Salters)
rsalters (Ron Salters) on February 14, 2011 at 1:33 pm

As “Loew’s New Columbia Theatre”, this house is listed in a 1918 Boston street directory at 978 Washington Street (east side), South End, at Motte Street and railroad right-of-way.

TLSLOEWS on June 13, 2010 at 4:03 pm

Interesting History.

rsalters (Ron Salters)
rsalters (Ron Salters) on December 11, 2006 at 11:07 am

The MGM Theatre Photograph and Report form for the Columbia Theatre has an exterior photo dated May 1941. The entrance featured a large centered boxoffice with a double door on each side. There were poster cases on either side of the entrance and the marquee above. An upright for the overhead el structure sits just to the north of the marquee. The Report states that the Columbia is on Washington St., that it has been showing MGM product for over 10 years; that it was built in 1890 (close); is in Poor condition, and has 1000 seats on the main floor, and 700 in the balcony, total: 1,700 seats.

rsalters (Ron Salters)
rsalters (Ron Salters) on November 26, 2006 at 9:35 am

The Columbia Theatre is listed in the 1897-98 edition of Julius Cahn’s Official Theatrical Guide. The seating capacity is given as 1,800. Ticket prices were 15 cents to $1. The house had both electric and gas illumination. The auditorium was on the ground floor. The proscenium opening was 36 feet wide x 38 feet high. The stage was 40 feet deep. The house orchestra had 10 members.

rsalters (Ron Salters)
rsalters (Ron Salters) on February 22, 2006 at 10:22 am

The maps are great! The reason that the railroad right-of-way was narrower in 1895 was because the South Station was not opened until 1899, at which time the Boston & Providence RR station in Park Square was closed. The B&P tracks were extended into the new South Station, running alongside the Boston & Albany RR tracks, thus making the rail right-of-way (which was in a cut) wider as it passed the north side of the Columbia Theater.

Ron Newman
Ron Newman on February 22, 2006 at 5:24 am

Here’s an 1895 map of a section of Boston’s South End. The Columbia Theatre is visible at the corner of Washington and Motte streets.

The railroad right-of-way appears narrower on this map than on the 1928 map, and therefore probably less of a psychological barrier.

rsalters (Ron Salters)
rsalters (Ron Salters) on January 26, 2006 at 10:16 am

The 1899 photo which Ron Newman posted on Jan. 8th was taken from the new elevated structure— you can see the crossbeam at the bottom of the photo on which the photographer is standing. I have seen another photo taken just a little later, after the el structure had been extended another few dozen yards northward. That photo was taken from ground level and showed that the fencing (or “hoarding”) was still in place around the building just to the Columbia’s south. I understand that a new lobby entrance was being constructed in that building. In the 1928 map posted above, that building is labeled as being owned by the “New Columbia Company”. And although it’s true that the Columbia was on the other (wrong?) side of the tracks, the South End was a huge residential area, able to sustain a number of theatres , in addition to the Columbia, such as the Grand Opera House, Hub, National, Puritan, Cobb, Apollo, Castle Square, etc.

Ron Newman
Ron Newman on January 21, 2006 at 12:05 pm

This 1928 map shows LOEW’S NEW COLUMBIA THEATRE, at the corner of Washington and Motte streets.

The map also shows pretty clearly the problems its location caused. The Boston Elevated Railway Washington Street El ran alongside its front façade, while another branch (the Atlantic Avenue el) snaked along the north side of Motte Street. Also, the Columbia was quite literally on ‘the other side of the tracks’ from Boston’s theatre district.

rsalters (Ron Salters)
rsalters (Ron Salters) on November 7, 2005 at 9:42 am

The Columbia was still open in the early 1950s, and I regret that I never went into it. I have heard demolition years of both 1956 and 1957, so I think it’s safe to assume it was razed sometime between 1955 and 1957. It was on the east side of Washington Street just south of the cut which contains the railroad tracks (and today, the Mass. Turnpike extension as well). I have seating capacities of 2079 originally, and 1750 after the Thomas Lamb rebuild. J. Paul Chavanne and Donald King had a disagreement about the origins of the theatre – Paul claimed that it was a reconstruction of an old church, while Don believed that it was built new in 1891. Around 1901, just as the elevated railway was being erected, the lobby was enlarged by going into the building to the south. After the Thomas Lamb rebuild, it reopened on Sept. 24, 1917.

Ron Newman
Ron Newman on June 25, 2005 at 8:38 am

The Boston Athenaeum web site has a short piece on the Columbia. It says the theatre was razed in 1955. I don’t know which date is correct.