Early Stages

A little piece of Boston theater history

theaterPhoto courtesy of Hank Zappala

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nce the preeminent tryout town for American live theater, Boston was the place where shows were tested, tweaked, and occasionally put out of their misery before they went to Broadway. The King and I, South Pacific, Camelot, Mame, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, and Richard Burton’s Hamlet all opened here. An unknown Marlon Brando starred in the 1947 pre-Broadway run of A Streetcar Named Desire. The Rogers and Hammerstein musical Away We Go opened in 1943 to terrible reviews; rewritten and renamed, it went on to Broadway success as Oklahoma! A display of mementos in the lobby of the Paramount Theatre remembers the era when Boston had more than 50 theaters, with photos, maps, and exhibits including the fire door from Vaudeville creator B.F. Keith’s safe, plus the wall of names memorializing the thousands of performers who played on the Paramount and Keith stages.

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The Paramount, now owned by Emerson College, is on the site of the first theater in the United States: a onetime inn that become a hotel with with as many as three theaters, where B. F. Keith created American Vaudeville. Keith’s empire stretched from coast to coast, becoming Radio Keith Orpheum (RKO), which moved into the motion-picture business. The Paramount was built in 1932 as a movie house by Paramount Pictures.

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