The Theatre Comique was as different from the Providence Opera House as could be, despite being just blocks away. The Opera House was built as a handsome, stately performing arts venue. Theatre Comique was originally built as a billiard parlor and eventually retrofitted to serve as dual theatre and saloon. On the opening night at the Opera House, the city’s elite filled the house wearing their finest attire, where Mayor Thomas Doyle welcomed the crowd. Theatre Comique’s exact opening is lost to history; the first advertisement for performances didn’t appear in newspapers until August 1876, after it had been open for some time. The Opera House hosted well-known actors in pivotal roles during its existence. Theatre Comique’s shows could be considered unfit for “polite society.”
Theatre Comique was one of the first venues in New England to host “variety” shows, a revue that could include a wide array of performances: “dialect acts” and blackface routines, both of which used ethnic and racial stereotypes as fodder; ribald comedy sketches; acrobatics; magic shows; chorus lines; parodies of serious theatrical works; arias from popular operas. A combination of any of these types of acts could be seen either once or twice a day, six days a week. Admission at the Theatre Comique was affordable in the early 1880s, ranging from 20 to 50 cents per ticket. That left enough for patrons to also visit the bar. The building was a converted billiard parlor and meant that the house could only seat 350 to 400 people, fairly small compared to other venues designed as theatres. Proof of how highly lucrative variety shows were: proprietors Hopkins and Morrow shared $22,000 in profits one year, made from a small theatre with low admission. This was when $1,000 a year was considered a handsome income for a family man!
This theatre had a short life in Providence, lasting not even 20 years. On Friday, February 17, 1888, the building caught on fire. No one died in the blaze, but it deeply affected those connected with the theatre. The dancers of the Lilly Clay’s Colossal Gaiety Company who were performing at the Comique that week heard news of the fire and realized that their costuming would all be lost. They ran from their hotel to the theatre and convinced the firefighters to run in and grab their trunks. What was salvaged was ruined, although their manager apparently had spares that were kept separately from their racks. Comique’s orchestra leader, Professor Rinehart, lost his violin, a family heirloom, as it was locked up in the prop room. The most devastating loss was experienced by the house manager; he had recently bought out one of the owners – but hadn’t yet secured insurance on his investment. This was after he had lost property in another fire earlier that same week.
The next morning, an assessment was done on the Theatre Comique. Being a wooden building, it suffered significant damage with holes burned through a rear wall and roof. The structure, as well as an adjacent building, were both torn down shortly after the blaze.