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.