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
, 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
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,
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
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.