"Places Please!": Performing Arts History, Downtown Providence from 1870-2020

Providence has a long relationship with the performing arts. Billed as the “Creative Capital” in 2009, the city has actually been home to theatre venues since the 18th century. It wasn't until the late 1860s though, after the end of the American Civil War, when more and more vaudeville venues, opera houses, and music halls began to dot the downtown Providence landscape.

Providence was in the middle of a “golden century” — from 1830 to 1930 — when it grew exponentially. During this period, the city was home to five world-renowned manufacturers: Brown & Sharpe (precision tool factory), Nicholson File (file company), Corliss (steam-engine factory), Gorham Manufacturing (silverware and bronze factory), and American Screw (screw factory), as well as Fruit of the Loom, the country’s largest textile manufacturer. Increase in industry meant a need for workers. In 1830, just under 17,000 lived in the city; by 1925, the year that Providence saw its largest population, that number grew to 267,595 people, 15 times that of just 95 years earlier. The demands of manufacturing and population required that transportation expand, both to and within the city.

Why are these factors important in talking about theatre history? During this “golden century,” Providence became an urban center, a prominent city on the East Coast. The people who lived there looked for entertainment and escape in their off hours, just like we do today. With the city being so well-connected by rail to other metropolises, it became a stop for touring theatre companies and dance troupes, with nationally known and respected performers appearing on Providence stages.

In the span of this “golden century,” the definition of “performing arts” was vast and ever-evolving: serious operas and plays; variety or “leg” shows, which were generally geared toward men for their often ribald and sometimes erotic content; dime museums, spaces that intended to be “educational,” but usually relied on people as spectacle; vaudeville: a collection of various light, entertaining acts including comedy, magic, acrobatics, and song and dance; and, starting in the early 20th century, movies. Performing arts in Providence catered to the wants of audiences, ranging from the expensive and “high brow" through the cheap and bawdy. Until the advent and eventual affordability of television, performing arts were a primary means of entertainment for the masses, third spaces between work and home that were intended strictly for enjoyment.

From 1870 through today, more than two dozen theatrical venues were located within the downtown Providence area. Over the course of that time, venue names changed repeatedly, sometimes within the span of just a few months. This Rhode Tour, which consists of just five venue locations, is by no means a comprehensive list of what was available to the public. Instead, they represent, in some universal ways, how audiences were being entertained in the city over the course of 150 years.

Providence Opera House

On the evening of December 4, 1871, carriage after carriage pulled up in front of a rather inconspicuous red brick building in downtown Providence. Well-dressed theatre-goers entered the lobby of the Providence Opera House, the city’s newest…

Theatre Comique

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…

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…

Trinity Repertory Company

During the 1910s, entertainment venues were in a state of flux. They were originally created as spaces for live performances. With the advent of early film, many venue owners tried to switch entirely from live shows to movies – but found that they…

Providence Performing Arts Center

Imagine this: it’s late September 1928, and Providence is abuzz with activity. There are huge factories, some of the largest in their fields, employing thousands of people; trolley lines crisscross the whole city; boats are docked at piers in the…
Written in 2020 as part of "Spotlight on RI," the Rhode Island Historical Society's programmatic theme for the year