Thursday, March 21, 2002

Entertainment monopolies are in the news --- the record oligopoly, which shut down that hotbed of piracy, Napster, and saw its sales drop; the movie oligopoly, which is demanding total control of consumer electronics, and the subject of a few of my blog entries, Clear Channel, which has a stranglehold on commercial radio. Although it gets less publicity, Clear Channel also has a remarkable hold on live performance presentation, and has been plausibly accused of exploiting their position to beat down the artists.

But entertainment monopolies are an older story in this country. It doesn't have much relevance to current events, but it's a good story, and a Boston story, so I'll tell it.

It starts on Washington Street in Boston, where a promoter named Benjamin Franklin Keith decided to run a new kind of variety show in his Bijou Theater. Most variety shows of the day were rough, coarse, and pretty disreputable. Keith's idea, borrowed in part from a New York impressario named Tony Pastor, was to go upmarket; he was still presenting a variety of different acts, but they were to be clean, refined, suitable for the ladies. And for an extra touch of class, he gave his shows a tony French-sounding name (no one's quite sure where he got it) --- Vaudeville.

It was such a success that he had to take the show on the road. Which he did, teaming up with Edward Albee. This Albee was related to the playwright by adoption, but was himself a promoter who had already gotten rich on bootleg productions of Gilbert and Sullivan. (Which was probably legal, as the United States may well not have recognized their copyrights at the time --- this was an era where complainants about copyright law, like Mark Twain, who became notorious for it, had a legitimate beef).

Keith and Albee went from strength, to utter crushing dominance. At their peak, they controlled bookings in just about all significant theaters east of the Mississippi, which gave them immense power over the tone and content of the shows. Performers were warned that any even vaguely off-color material would leave them permanently blacklisted (the standards were inspired and to some extent enforced by Keith's notoriously bluenose wife); theaters were on notice that if they booked acts not supplied by the Keith/Albee organization, that organization would never book at the theater again. When performers tried to organize, Albee broke the union, and substituted his own, which was entirely an organ of management.

What felled this mighty empire? Partly the emergence of alternatives to live theater, like movies, phonographs, and in later years, radio, and partly Albee's response to it. By the 1920s, Keith had died, but Albee retained control of the organization; his response to the competition was to cut rates to the performers, and splurge instead on a series of new, extraordinarily lavish theaters. The public, seeing a cheapened product in a gilded package, did not respond (well, not the way Albee would have liked), leaving Albee's organization in an extraordinarily weak condition. Albee was forced to seek new investment; what he got instead was one of the first hostile corporate takeovers in the history of finance, as none other than Joseph Kennedy bought his theater chain as a venue for the movies produced by a studio which was an earlier purchase (though, by some accounts, Kennedy was actually less interested in the movies per se than in Gloria Swanson). The once mighty name "Keith" withered to the "K" in "RKO", from whence it eventually vanished altogether.

All that remains of the Bijou theater, where this all started, is the facade and the first floor; the theater proper was on the second floor, and after the notorious Cocoanut Grove fire, the city's new fire codes made it illegal to stage a production there, for lack of fire escapes. Most of the first floor is occupied by a video game arcade, but if you wander in and bear left, you can see the remains of the ornamental plaster in what was once the lobby (some particularly lavish work is visible only through a ventilation grate). If there is a plaque to memorialize the site, I must have missed it.

Two doors west stands the Paramount Theater, another derelict, from the time when movie studios owned theater chains, before the Supreme Court, in U.S. v. Paramount, forced them to divest. As part of a general sprucing up of the area for the new Ritz hotel, the facade has been cleaned up and the lights are working again, but the theater itself is closed.

And on the other side, right next door to the remains of the Bijou, stands what was once the crown jewel of Albee's empire, the masterpiece of one of America's great theatrical architects, Thomas Lamb, the biggest money pit in Albee's building splurge of the '20s, the B.F. Keith memorial theater. It was in the executive offices of this very building that Albee signed the papers giving Kennedy control of his organization; it was here that Kennedy told Albee, "Didn't you know, Ed? You're washed up; through". The theater operated for a time as the RKO Keith, mostly a movie theater; after the studios had to sell off the theaters, it fell into the hands of Ben Sack, who ran a chain of movie theaters, and operated the former Keith as the Sack Savoy. Sack eventually sold his theater chain to Sony, but the Savoy (nee Keith) wasn't part of the deal; its was last used by Sarah Caldwell's chronically insolvent Boston Opera Company. The last show there was an appearance by Yanni in the 1980s.

The theater is now vacant, but mostly intact; the ornamental plaster ceiling is crumbling in places due to damage from leaks in the roof, which has seen no major repairs since it the building was put up. Plans are afoot to refurbish and reopen it, though, once certain legal hangups are resolved; in order to fit current broadway productions, they need to expand the stage, which would encroach on the road in back, grandly known as Mason Street (though elsewhere in town, boulevards of yet greater grandeur bear such proud names as "Public Alley 425"), and the inhabitants of the condo in back are extraodinarily jealous of being able to drive their cars both ways out of the garage.

When this deal was first put together, the new owners were to be a small group of theatrical promoters out of Houston. But as the legal fight dragged on, there was buyout after buyout, until the theater ended up in the possession of a much bigger fish --- one, in fact, that controls theater bookings all across the country, and has been accused of using that power against the interest of the performers. When the B.F. Keith memorial theater actually does reopen (possibly once again under that name), the new owner will be Clear Channel Entertainment.

These guys are, like Albee, in a weaker financial position than they look, unprofitable and $9 billion in debt. But if they succumb, like Albee, it will probably be to a buyout from someone just as nasty. So, in one form or another, they're likely to be a blight on the landscape for some time to come. Literally, as it happens --- Clear Channel also does billboards.


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