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Etched Bronze Plaque Memorializes a Lost Jazz-Age Landmark

February 24, 2014 Plaques

You won’t find Boston’s Gaiety Theatre on Washington Street anymore. Despite a valiant effort to keep it around as a historic landmark, the once bustling theatre was razed in 2005, just shy of its 100th birthday.

To help commemorate this historic venue, we worked with Linda Ziemba of Trace Designs to create an etched bronze plaque that gives visitors a brief overview of what they missed. It also shows the exterior of the building, which gave Washington Street a glimpse of the past until the building was torn down.

So why was the theatre such a big deal, and why were people so upset when it was torn down despite protests? Let’s take a look.

gaiety plaque

African-American Legacy

The Gaiety Theatre was originally built in 1908. In the late 1940s it was redubbed the Gayety Theatre but largely remained the same.

Its biggest decade was undoubtedly the 1920s, when scores of African-American artists crossed its stages to perform to mixed race audiences. Being this was the 1920s, you can understand why this was a big deal. Black artists were mainly relegated to performing in black-owned clubs in the South and the Southwest, but the Gaiety Theatre was one of the few exceptions.

In fact, the theatre was also one of the only places Bostonians could hear the funky new music form called jazz back in those days. The Gaiety was also how the Harlem Renaissance, the movement that put black artists in the public eye, made its way to Massachusetts.

While the Great Depression largely killed this aspect of the theatre, its legacy was firmly entrenched in Boston history. During a time of great racial tension, the Gaiety had opened its doors to anyway and everyone, including such names as Josephine Baker and Sammy Davis Jr.

Vaudeville

The Gaiety had precedence for this racial integration, however. In fact, its history goes back before it was even built.

gaiety close up

Vaudeville, a theatrical mish-mash of music, burlesque, magicians, jugglers, and several other forms of artistry, was born down the street from the Gaiety in 1840, on the site of the China Trade Center. Vaudeville was popular with the poor and working classes, meaning people of every race, creed, and background gathered together to have a good time.

Naturally this precedent led to the Gaiety’s popularity and groundbreaking openness later on. Also, many of the same types of acts came to the Gaiety after it opened, as the theater was fairly well known as a burlesque club.

History Remembered

While the actually theatre is gone, we’re proud to be a small part of the Gaiety’s history. It’s important that important pieces of American history aren’t lost forever, and our plaque will give visitors and residents of Boston alike a small sense of everything that happened so many years ago on that very spot.

We were proud to be chosen to make the bronze plaque commemorating this remarkable bit of history. Take a look at our gallery of pictures of our plaque and try imagine what it would be like to have visited this venue that was a “Model of Comfort…Well Lighted, Well Ventilated, and Up to Date in All Respects.”

A big thanks to Linda Ziemba and Trace Designs for allowing us to be a part of this project.


Written by Shabbir Moosabhoy