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.