Filed Under Pond Street

1902: The Imperial Theatre

Providence's Entertainment Industry Grew as the City Did...and Declined With It Too

In 1800, Providence had about 7,000 people. By 1900, the city was bursting with over 175,000 and still growing. The downtown commercial district, once centered on a stretch of North Main Street by the Market House, now extended across the Providence River and dominated Westminster and Weybosset Streets. The old wood-frame and Federal-style homes were replaced by brick and stone business blocks. Cathedral Square, which had been lined with handsome residences, had become commercial, too, as the trolley lines opened new fashionable neighborhoods to the west and south.

Entertainment as a form of commerce had grown along with industry and a larger laboring and middle class. After the Civil War, there were resorts like the Sans Souci Gardens near the intersection of Broadway and Jackson Streets where you could see comedic operettas like Little Lord Fauntleroy. The Academy of Music and Howard Hall served as assembly spaces and entertainment venues--featuring the singers of the Pond Street Baptist Church, the African-American singing sensation the Hyers Sisters, and political speakers like Frederick Douglass. Soon "museums" and nickel theaters sprang up around the intersection of Westminster and Mathewson Streets.

Entertainment impresario Colonel Felix Wendelschaefer had been the manager of the Providence Opera House, but he also saw opportunity in the city's westward growth. In partnership with Charles Allen, who had run the Star Theatre in the old High Street Congregational Church for a season, the Colonel opened the Imperial Theatre in 1902 with a gala performance by the Four Cohans to a sold-out house. The luxurious theatre interior was described as Italian Renaissance. The upper floors of the building were dedicated to bachelor apartments, also reported to be the most well-appointed in the city.

However, it turned out to not be easy to draw crowds up the hill to the Imperial. Within a few years, the theatre converted to vaudeville. One neighbor of the theatre was the Women's Political Equality League, who in 1915, protested the vulgar burlesque being offered in the theatre, now dubbed the Colonial. Public boxing exhibitions, too, were banned at the theatre by the police commissioner, another sign of the friction around morals and entertainment in the city.

By the 1930s, Providence had entered a slow and painful decline. The theater became seedier, a true "scratch house," a place where you scratched yourself from the fleas jumping off the seats. The apartments became the Del Mar and police reports reflected the change in clientele. After World War II, as the city's decline accelerated, the theatre ended up as an abandoned ruin sitting next to the Grace and Hope Mission. No clearer example of the changes in the city's fortune can be found.

The building was taken down in the late 1960s as part of I.M. Pei's plan for the redevelopment of the Weybosset Hill area, including Cathedral Square, thus adding another layer in the life of the city.

Images

The Imperial Theatre, Cathedral Square This postcard view of the newly-opened Imperial Theatre shows the elaborate stonework front with angled bay windows for the bachelor apartments above, all hidden by fire escapes. The theatre at the western edge of downtown found it difficult to find its audience and converted from high-end theatrical shows to burlesque and vaudeville before many years had passed. Date: c. 1910
The Colonial Theatre, Formerly the Imperial This wider view of the theater's faƧade shows the name change from Imperial to Colonial, one of many names that the theater would operate under as it struggled to find its audience, eventually becoming known as a "scratch house," a theatre where the fleas jumped off the seats. Date: c. 1920
The Imperial Theatre, Cathedral Square One of the last iterations of the Imperial in Cathedral Square was the Capitol. In this photo (c. 1960), the roof of the building is gone, exposing the original bachelor apartments to the elements. Next door, the Arnold-Palmer House still stands, at this time the Grace and Hope Mission, serving the city's most vulnerable in a time of economic and demographic decline. Date: c. 1960
Opening Night of the Imperial Theatre, September 22, 1902 This photograph of the audience on opening night of the Imperial Theatre was taken from the stage. The theater was packed and the headliners were the Four Cohans in "an entertaining hodge podge of music, farce and scenic display." Date: 1902
The Four Cohans Open the Imperial Theatre The family vaudeville act the Four Cohans opened the Imperial Theatre in September 1902 to a sold-out house. George M. Cohan--on the right--went on to become a famous and prolific actor, playwright, and songwriter. He is one of Providence's most well-known citizens. Date: 1902

Location

57-81 Jackson Wlkwy, Providence, RI 02903

Metadata

Taylor M. Polites, “1902: The Imperial Theatre,” Rhode Tour, accessed September 23, 2023, https://rhodetour.org/items/show/379.