A Theatre by Many Names

Entertainment in the 1880s extended beyond opera and vaudeville to also include human spectacle in venues called “dime museums.” A phenomenon in the late 19th century, they were akin to circus sideshows in the respect that they used people as main attractions, capitalizing on those who didn’t fit a Western “norm,” including people with medical abnormalities and visible disabilities, as well as individuals from other regions of the world. These persons would be put on display for “educational purposes,” but they were often jeered at by spectators instead. In addition to these “displays,” live performers would also be on the bill, including acrobats, contortionists, singers, and comedians. Dime museums were fairly common, opening in many mid- and large-scale cities. Sometime in the early 1880s, the Providence Dime Museum opened on Westminster Street. Its exact opening date is unknown, but the first recorded newspaper advertisement dates to 1884. It was a short-lived enterprise in the city, lasting until 1887, but the billings were in keeping with dime museum trends; from an ad dated January 14, 1884: “The Living Human Doll”; “The Camel Child”; “Zulu princess and suite”; “Barnum’s famous Esau girl”; “a lady skeleton”; “a troupe of educated canaries”. Subsequent features were as problematic.

In 1887, the building was purchased, renovated, and renamed Keith’s Gaiety. The new owner, B.F. Keith, began his professional career working in the circus circuit before segueing to vaudeville and family-friendly entertainment, which he grew into a theatrical empire. While the Dime Museum relied on shock and spectacle, Keith’s Gaiety strove toward wonder and awe. The opening week at the Gaiety featured stuffed animals arranged in scenes from fairy tales, trained birds who sang in chorus, as well as a house from Japan – which would have been a curiosity for those who didn’t have means to travel the world in the 1880s.

In 1890, Keith sold the building, and over the course of the next 16 years, from 1890 to 1906, the establishment changed names several times: Lothrop’s Opera House (1890-1897); Olympic (1897-1902); Park Theatre (1902-1904); and Park Music Hall (1904-1906). These changes were more of a gimmick than anything else. With every name change, the venue would garner publicity – despite the fact that every iteration featured the same types of melodramatic and vaudevillian content.

The venue changed names once again in 1906, becoming the Nickel. The Nickel holds a special place in performing arts history in Providence: it was the first theatre to exclusively show movies, at that time the brand-new entertainment medium. The Nickel opened on April 18, 1906, playing four films, all of which were about 20 minutes in length. The premiere didn’t garner much attention in the newspaper though: April 18, 1906, was also the same day as a catastrophic earthquake in San Francisco, a headline which dominated newspaper headlines across the country for a week.

Within a few years, half a dozen other movie theatres were built and almost every other entertainment venue in Providence turned to featuring film. By the end of the 1910s, the Nickel was small, outdated, and didn’t live up to the other extravagant theatres in downtown. It was razed and the E.F. Albee Theatre, a state of the art movie house, opened in its place in 1919. A successful venue through the 1940s, the Albee faced decline until it was razed in 1970.

Images

Nickel Theatre on Westminster Street This postcard, dated to 1907, features the Nickel Theatre on a busy and bustling Westminster Street. The signage on the venue promotes "continuous performance" from 10 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Patrons could buy a ticket at any point during the day and enjoy a novelty: motion pictures shown on repeat. Movies would have been short features, lasting only about 20 minutes, so a handful of films would be shown back-to-back. Source: Providence Public Library: PC7681 Date: 1907
Providence Dime Theatre "Attractions" Attraction listings for the Providence Dime Theatre would include the upcoming week's performers and spectacles. In this snippet from January 14, 1884, we get a sense of what patrons were seeing at the venue: "a Zulu princess and suite, Barnum's Esau girl, a lady skeleton, a troupe of educated canaries, etc., in addition to a number of unique attractions, combining to form one of the best exhibitions since the opening resort." Source: Providence Journal Date: January 14, 1884
B.F. Keith Benjamin Franklin Keith, known professionally as B.F. Keith, grew a national theatrical empire that influenced entertainment standards into the 20th century. Source: Wikimedia
Lothrop's Opera House Program From 1890 through 1906, the venue was renamed several times, despite every iteration featuring the vaudeville and melodramas. These changes were more of a gimmick than anything else: the owners deliberately changed the name of the theatre simply to garner publicity in the news. Lothrop's Opera House existed from 1890 to 1897, and was followed by the Olympic (1897-1902), the Park Theatre (1902-1904) and the Park Music Hall (1904-1906). Source: Rhode Island Historical Society Date: August 1893
The Taming of the Shrew at the RKO Albee The original building that stood next to Grace Episcopal Church was razed and replaced with the E.F. Albee's Theatre, a state of the art movie house, in 1919. The venue eventually became RKO Albee, as seen in on the marquee in this image. Pictured in 1967, the illuminated sign highlights that night's feature: the film version of William Shakespeare's play The Taming of the Shrew. Source: Cinema Treasures: cinematreasure.org Date: 1967

Location

Approximately 316 Westminster Street, Providence, RI; adjacent to Grace Episcopal Church at 300 Westminster Street | This site no longer exists.

Metadata

Jennifer M. Wilson, “A Theatre by Many Names,” Rhode Tour, accessed December 2, 2022, https://rhodetour.org/items/show/386.