Lederer Theater


In the early 1900's, Alton C. Emery and his brother Burton wanted to build the biggest and most lavish theater in Providence. They leased the block bounded by Washington, Empire, Fountain and Aborn Streets, demolished the existing frame structure and commissioned the architectural firm of William Walker and Son. Two years later, on April 9, 1917, the Majestic opened to the public.

The facade of the Majestic was an Italianate mass of white terra cotta with pale green accents, still visible to today's theater-going public. There were glass and ironwork canopies above the five entrances and huge windows which drew in enough sunlight to flood the four-story-high lobby area. Even more impressive was the interior lobby section of the theater. A large elliptical opening extended from street level to the mezzanine and was domed by leaded glass in a variety of brilliant translucent colors. Columns and arches of French influence embellished exterior and interior alike. Molded terra cotta tiles of a grapevine pattern decorated window casings and cornices.

Inside the Majestic auditorium, the decoration was of an overpowering art nouveau style with cantilevered balconies extending far into the orchestra section. The vast 40-foot wide by 36-foot high proscenium was decorated with plaster work and muraled panels. Adornments of vines, blossoms and grape clusters were much in evidence. The stage was 33 feet deep and 80 feet wide with one side extending several feet further back to conform to the property lines.

The Emery Majestic opened in 1917 as a vaudeville house. Nine months later it was renamed the Shubert Majestic. Show business was booming in downtown Providence. The Shubert Majestic and the Opera House were presenting legitimate road shows, Keith's had the Albee Stock Company, while three vaudeville houses and one burlesque palace were playing to capacity houses. Between 1912 and 1919, a total of eight new theaters opened their doors in downtown Providence.

In the years following World War I, musical productions abounded at the Shubert Majestic with casts of over 70 and starred such well known performers as Willie and Eugene Howard, Peggy Wood and Charlotte Greenwood. Topping them off was "Chu Chin Chow," elephants and all, the largest musical production ever to play Providence. A new form of entertainment known as the musical revue was also coming into prominence. It was a combination of vaudeville, musical theater and burlesque. Annually, in one of its major productions, the Shubert Majestic featured a "living curtain" made up of bare-breasted chorines arranged as ornaments. Though the performers were more completely nude than any of the "shimmy shakers" at the burlesque, local authorities classified them as "theatrical art" because they remained "immobile as statues."

From 1921 to 1923 there was a resident acting company at the Shubert Majestic with Miss Jessie Bonstelle as producer and director, Ann Harding as the ingenue and Ben Lyon the character man. But motion pictures were gradually becoming the popular form of public entertainment since they were cheaper and more accessible than legitimate theater offerings. The Emerys refused to renew the Shuberts' lease on the Majestic, the Bonstelle Company went off to Detroit, silent films moved in, and the next half century at the Majestic mirrored the history of movie-making in our country.

In 1926, Vitaphone, an early type of long-playing record synchronized with film and amplified by a giant speaker, was introduced, and the Majestic's new owner, Ed Fay, paid Warner Brothers $25,000.00 for the exclusive rights for Providence. But the real sound revolution struck the movie industry in the 1930's. In Providence, if you wanted to see and hear the "talkies" produced by Warner Brothers or 20th Century-Fox, you stood in lines at the Majestic.

The late 40's saw the increasing popularity of television and the gradual decline of Providence's downtown business area. The life of the Majestic as a great movie house was clearly coming to an end. By 1970, when the Trinity Square Repertory Company decided to make its move to the Majestic, motion picture audiences had all but abandoned the downtown theaters for the suburban malls where the moviegoer had a choice of as many as six first-run offerings.

The remodeling of the Majestic Theatre was a team effort of Trinity Rep's Artistic Director, Adrian Hall, Resident Designer Eugene Lee, and architects of The Providence Partnership. The auditorium was gutted and the lower balcony, false ceiling and proscenium arch were torn down, thus creating a huge, empty, brick-walled cube. Cement was poured from the level of the original lower balcony through to the original stage area. This horizontal division made possible the creation of two distinct and individual performing spaces, one directly above the other. The capacity of the downstairs theatre is 286, whereas the upper performing space can accommodate up to 800 and allows for continual readjustment of audience and performing areas. In 1972, the Majestic Theatre Building was entered onto the National Register of Historic Places of the National Park Service. Accompanying the announcement of this event was a "statement of significance" from which the following quotation is taken: "Although it is about to embark on a new life housing new, alive performers using innovative and lively forms of dramatic expression, The Majestic Theatre Building will remain a prominent physical reminder of the era of the extravagant and luxurious "movie palaces" constructed in America during the second-through-fourth decades of this century." In the six decades since its doors opened, the Majestic has come full circle. Those early years, when Walter Hampden played "Cyrano de Bergerac," when Pavlova danced, when John Barrymore performed "Peter Ibbetson," when Al Jolson sang in "Sinbad," are celebrated anew with the opening of every production by Trinity Repertory Company.