A Love Letter to the B. F. Keith Memorial Theatre in Boston

B. F. Keith's, where rats and sopranos fought for stage time(Photo: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service)
B. F. Keith's, where rats and sopranos fought for stage time(Photo: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service)

In 2005 Tom Keane wrote an article in the Boston Herald calling for a recap of Boston’s once glamorous theater district. I wrote him this letter.

Dear Mr. Keane:

I read with pleasure your recent column in the Herald about Boston’s Theater District.  I was especially pleased by your mention of B.F. Keith Memorial Theatre, the magnificent theater Sarah Caldwell bought and renamed The Opera House in the late 1970s.

I was a college kid working for Sarah’s Opera Company of Boston in those days.  Singing in the chorus, walking her ancient and arthritic dog, Cranberry, and doing what needed to be done.

The paychecks bounced their way down the Charles river.  Never mind.  Youth is great and I was in an environment I enjoyed.  My parents paid the bills (“At least he’s not on drugs”).

Sarah bought the Keith on a Tuesday. (NOTE: B.F. Keith’s was built in the 1920s by a conglomerate controlled by Joe Kennedy, then in his bootlegging, market fleecing and Hollywood years. There’s a wonderful new book out called Joseph P. Kennedy Presents, by Cari Beauchamp.) Sarah waddled in with the mortgage. The problem was that Puccini’s Tosca, starring the Italian soprano Magda Olivero, was to open the following Friday. We were changing theaters four days before opening night.

Sarah often changed tenors a day or two before, but switching theaters, re-hanging sets, re-seating the orchestra, and finding light bulbs was going to be a challenge.  We spent three days in the dirt and dark with flashlights writing numbers on the seats with magic markers. I was sent out to Woolworth’s on Washington Street to get more markers and was turned away. That was another bill Sarah, God bless her, hadn’t paid.

The Keith had a bowling alley, a gym, a swimming pool and toilets that flushed(!). Most of the building hadn’t been cleaned in decades, and in recent years the theater showed Kung-fu movies. Your feet stuck to the floor and you learned not to ask.

Then there was Magda Olivero. A great diva in the old tradition, beloved by composers and audiences throughout Europe, she arrived in Boston and went to work.

Tosca is meant to be a glamorous young woman, the prima donna of Napoleon-era Rome. Madam Olivero, seventy if she was a day, remained above the squalor around her. It was my job on opening night to escort her to the wings. She needed an escort and so did I, since most of the flooring backstage was rotten.

We stood together. She solemnly crossed herself awaiting her entrance.  Two rats ran over our feet. I shuddered, all 200 pounds of me. She kissed me. “It’s-a okay! Topolini! Just like-a Milano!” Her cue came and she sang out from the wings: “Mario! Mario! Mario!”

The music, the theater, the lights all chased the years away.  She was greeted by a roar of applause and cries of “Brava!” as the audience caught sight of her. Even the rats scurried off.

I was stained with magic marker ink, and developed a rash. Who cared? I’ve heard  Tosca in the greatest theaters in the world. But that was a great night in Boston, and a great time. I bless the Keith forever. Thank you for bringing it all back. – Christopher Purdy

Post Script

Sarah Caldwell died in 2006, long after she lost the mortgage to Keith’s/The Opera House. The building was eventually rehabbed by Clear Channel. The Opera Company of Boston folded in 1990. Magda Olivero turned 99 this year and celebrated by giving a concert in Milan!

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