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Cutler Majestic Theatre

History


 

A Brief History

The Majestic Theatre opened on February 16, 1903 with a performance of the jolly musical comedy The Storks. Eben Dyer Jordan commissioned architect John Galen Howard to design the Majestic, who was one of only 400 American architects trained at L’Ecole des Beaux Arts in the late 1800s. Howard attended MIT before moving to Paris so his design of the Majestic combines plain old Yankee ingenuity with the classical perfection, Rococo decoration, functional quality, and pure visual fun taught at the Beaux Arts School. He used the newly invented electric light bulb to proclaim the theater's grandeur by accenting the tall columns, soaring arches, and stained glass of the facade. The pattern was repeated in the lobby and auditorium: 4,500 light bulbs in all. 

While originally designed for opera and theater, the Majestic served many purposes through the years. Operated by the Shubert Organization, it converted to vaudeville in the 1920s. By the mid-1950s, movies had taken over the stage, with alterations that transformed the lobby and covered much of the Beaux Arts splendor. By 1983, when Emerson College purchased the Majestic, then called the Saxon, from Sack Theaters, it had fallen into severe decline. With patient and painstaking effort, Emerson College was able to bring the Majestic back to life and into compliance with modern building codes; it included new heating, air conditioning, plumbing and electrical systems, new stage floor and scenery, new dressing rooms, and wheelchair accessibility. The College completed the final phase of restoration in 2003 with the entire building restored to its original splendor.

This work has been so important to the Boston community that it has garnered two Boston magazine "Best of Boston" awards and the 1992 Historic Neighborhoods Foundation Award for enhancing and preserving the design and social heritage of the city of Boston. The theater is a member of the national League of Historic Theatres and is a Boston Historic Landmark. Former mayor Raymond Flynn proclaimed April 26, 1989 to be Emerson Majestic Theatre Day.


The House of Gold

When Eben Dyer Jordan commissioned John Galen Howard to design the Majestic Theatre, Boston's existing theaters had a subdued, elegant style. The most ornate in town was the Rococo-styled Colonial Theatre of 1901. It had decorative plaster work gilded in a style copied from the Palace of Versailles in France. 

The L'Ecole des Beaux Arts (Beaux Arts School) in Paris led a resurgence of the highly decorative forms such as Rococo, blending them with Classical forms and accents referring to current popular styles. The Majestic, therefore, has a unique fusion of Classical form and art nouveau, with a touch of the Rococo influence. Since every piece of decorative plaster is gilded and the scheme has more decorative plaster than other forms (and hence an almost overwhelming amount of bright gold leaf ), the Majestic was called "The House of Gold."


Beaux Arts

Why do people stop and stare in amazement when they walk into the Majestic? What is it that so captivates the eye and stirs the heart?  What makes this theater unique?

You don’t have to be an architect to see how classical and decorative themes are intermingled throughout the theater. The outside of the theater has a sturdy classical look with its Roman ionic columns, but look at the columns inside. They are swirled with rich, red marble and crowned with gold-leafed masks, leaves, and cherubs. Where classicism calls for geometric patterns and organized lines, there are thick garlands of fruits and flowers. On walls where there should be one-dimensional murals, there are full-figured sculptures leaning over their guests. The golden latticing on the ceiling is garnished with grape clusters, and if you look carefully, you can see the sky peeking through the open spaces.  

These are the things that make the Majestic so unusual. Architect John Galen Howard came from the Beaux Arts School of Paris, which emphasized the importance of classical architecture as a foundation. Students of Howard’s time challenged the norm and re-interpreted classical style by adding their own personality to their projects. In the Majestic, the architect’s quirkiness can clearly be seen. He applied not only his personal expression but also his ingenuity and imagination to the Majestic’s design. In fact, Howard was so dedicated to the craftsmanship of the theater, he personally oversaw the vast detailing in the interior. 

The Majestic is one of the few remaining examples of the Beaux Arts style in the United States and is revered for its grandeur, impeccable craftsmanship, and attention to detail. The next time you visit, take a closer look at the artwork around you. The Majestic is more than a building. It is a wonder to behold, a fusion of art forms, and most of all an expression of personality.  


Architectural Significance

Built in 1903, the Majestic was the second performance facility built in Boston's historic Theatre District (the Colonial was completed in 1900). It is in the Piano Row Historic District. The theater is a Boston Historic Landmark, listed on both the State and the National Registers of Historic Buildings.

The Cutler is an outstanding example of Beaux Arts classicism notable for both its monumental terra cotta exterior and its richly ornamented interior. Constructed when this style was at its most popular, the Majestic is among Boston's finest remaining examples. It appears to be the only remaining East Coast building designed by John Galen Howard, architect of the Electric Light Tower at the 1901 Buffalo world's fair, and founder in 1903 of the California School of Architecture at U.C. Berkeley.  

Masterfully designed and commissioned to be a key component of the city's institutional infrastructure supporting opera, dance, and the spoken word, it opened in 1903 to accolades about its revolutionary institutional design, its architectural beauty, and its extraordinary acoustics. Howard designed the Majestic to be the first Boston theater with cantilevered balconies, meaning they’re supported on one side with no columns or pillars situated in the seating area. Therefore, the sight lines are unobstructed. Shaped like an inverted bowl or megaphone, the auditorium curves both out and up from the stage, carrying sound to all seats so that the acoustics are even throughout.  

Howard’s revolutionary use of electric light attracted enthusiasts and imitators from around the world. More than 4,500 light bulbs traced the arches and accented design elements. The Majestic was the first to integrate electric lighting into the architectural fabric; earlier buildings had simulated old forms, such as the candelabra, in their fixtures.

The interior of the Majestic demonstrates the high standards of turn-of-the-century craftsmanship. Commissioned to paint the lunettes in the lobby was nationally known New York artist William deLeftwich Dodge. Dodge's best known murals are those at the Library of Congress. Plaster work was done by the Boston firm of Sleep, Elliot and King, whose credits include the Keith's Boston and Providence, the Hollis Theatre (all since demolished) and the main foyer of the Colonial. Both Boston companies, L.M. Glover did the marble work and W.P. Marble and Company the brass work. The Artificial Marble Company of New York produced the lobby scagliola work, a process in which plaster was made to imitate stone. Interior decoration at the Majestic was by the firm of Pennell and Haberstroth, whose senior partner, H. B. Pennell, also worked on the Colonial and Wilbur theaters.


Historical Associations

The Majestic is of historical interest as the first of three theaters erected for the city by one of its leading citizens, merchant and music patron Eben Dyer Jordan (1857–1916.)  He succeeded his father in 1895 as president of Jordan, Marsh and Company.  He expanded that dry goods firm into the foremost unit of a major 20th century department store chain.

Instructed in singing as a young man, Jordan was reputed to be good enough to sing professionally. After his father's death, he took the elder Jordan's chair on the board of the New England Conservatory of Music, where he helped in the school's move from Franklin Square to its present location near Symphony Hall. He then made possible the construction of three houses designed for different presentations of opera.

Jordan built the Majestic for the broad range of European operas. He built Jordan Hall as a fine concert auditorium, and in 1909 he built the grand-scaled Boston Opera House on a nearby Huntington Avenue site to house Henry Russell's Boston Opera Company. The latter was razed in 1957, leaving only the Majestic and Jordan Hall as purpose-built opera facilities.

In its heyday, many of the world's most famous artists performed at the Majestic. These artists run from A to Z: from Bud Abbott and Fred Allen (after whom Allen's Alley, which runs beside the theater, is named) to the Mark Morris Dance Group and the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. 

Today, the Cutler Majestic Theatre is Boston's most popular opera house. It is home to Opera Boston and international opera producer Teatro Lirico d'Europa, as well as the New England Conservatory Opera Theater. Musicals, dramas, dance, and classical music also grace its stage.


What Is a Historic Landmark?

The Cutler Majestic Theatre was built for opera, one of three facilities Eben Dyer Jordan commissioned to house his favorite art form. (The others are Jordan Hall at New England Conservatory, designed for concert opera, and the 1909 Boston Opera House on Huntington Avenue, designed for grand opera and demolished in 1957.) The sound is exceptional, and the view is unobstructed from all seats because it is the first Boston theater engineered without pillars and such obstructions to visibility and sound. Its "love" of opera singers remains evident today to both fans and performers alike. It was engineered to support sophisticated stage effects and was the first theater in Boston designed for electric light. We loved restoring its original appearance, but now we also take pains to constantly upgrade technical systems to 21st century standards.  

Its architectural importance earned the Majestic a place in both the Massachusetts and National Registers of Historic Places, and status as a Boston Historic Landmark. It is located in the historic Boston Theatre District and Piano Row, both of which are Landmark districts.  

According to the Boston Landmarks Commission’s enabling statute, a Landmark is "a physical feature or improvement which in whole or part has historical, social, cultural, architectural, or aesthetic significance to the city and the commonwealth, the New England Region or the nation." To achieve such standing requires a grueling process. A petition must be filed, a study completed, and public hearings held. Then 2/3 of the Commission must agree that the designation is appropriate, and the Mayor and the City Council must approve the designation.  


Adaptive Reuse

"Adaptive Reuse" is a term preservationists use to describe the practice of saving historic sites, whose original use is no longer viewed as viable, by converting them for new functions. In the 100 years since its grand opening, the Majestic has been adapted to serve a larger number of functions than any other purpose-built theater in Boston.  

The Majestic was one of three facilities built by merchant, philanthropist, and opera lover Eben Dyer Jordan for the purpose of housing opera. The Majestic opened in 1903, designed much like the finest European opera houses with acoustic and visual perfection, ideal for baroque, classical, and early romantic operas. He also built New England Conservatory's Jordan Hall in 1903 to house concert opera and chamber and small orchestral music, and another hall for the late romantic "grand" opera form that was emerging in Beyreuth, Germany. That hall, the Boston Opera House on Huntington Avenue, west of Jordan Hall, was built in 1909 and razed in 1957.  

The Majestic became a pre-Broadway tryout hall soon after its opening. Allied with the Shubert Organization, its first Boston venue in its war against the Syndicate, the Majestic played host to the finest Shubert artists until the 1916 construction of The Shubert Theatre. Then it became the second-string house for Lee and J.J. Shubert, hosting such fare as boxing matches despite the stern warnings against such programming issued by its local manager, A. L. Wilbur. The Shuberts, however, won out and went so far as to convert the theater to a film and vaudeville house following World War I.  

Those adaptations changed both appearance and function. The interior was spray painted a solid color, covering the gold and silk brocade finishes. Most of the light fixtures were plastered over in an effort to modernize and reduce the electric bills. A projection booth was installed in prime mezzanine seating, radically affecting the acoustics and sight lines. The lobby layout was changed to accommodate continuous shows. The stained glass exterior doors were replaced with clear glass and most of the interior mirrors were eliminated. An entrance to a tunnel leading to the subway was crudely carved into the marbled walls. 

The Shuberts didn't keep vaudeville at the Majestic for very long. Within a year, they abandoned the mixture of varied live acts and short movies. Almost certainly they found it difficult to compete with Keith-Albee at the 3,000-seat Boston Theatre and the Syndicate at the 2,800-seat Orpheum, since the Majestic held only 1,700. Within a year they replaced continuous vaudeville with second-run films ("Proven Pictures") interrupted by the occasional pre-Broadway tryout. They pushed the margins to maintain profitability with this policy, and the building paid its share. In 1934, a bomb went off, destroying the lower lobby. The manager claimed competitors, jealous at his success with popular admission prices, placed it. Industry insiders speculated about the Shuberts' relationship to the projectionists' union. 

This mixed live/movie policy continued until 1956, when the Shuberts sold the Majestic to Benjamin Sack's Sack Theaters. Sack planned to program mid-sized first-run movies at the Majestic, so he remodeled. He adapted the stage for movies only, eliminating the possibility of live performances. He adapted the lobby to look like a modern 1950s movie theater complete with dropped acoustical tile ceiling, bright pinks and greens, a candy counter at one end and ticket booth at the other, and plastic flower plantings lining the entryways. He repainted inside. He closed the upper balcony, to make the seating capacity unique from his other downtown holdings, which included the 2,800-seat RKO Keith Memorial. He added a new facade and marquee, and renamed it The Saxon. 

Sack's remodeling was so successful that the Saxon won the first-run showing of Disney's first stereo color film, Fantasia. It was a proud first-run house with reserved seats, printed program books, and scheduled showings. It was initially very successful at this, but declined as all single-screen movie houses declined. By the late 1970s, it was showing continuous B-grade movies bordering on pornography and exploitation.  

Emerson College bought the Saxon in 1983. It was fully depreciated with a large deferred maintenance budget. The light bulbs in the auditorium were all burned out. The facade and marquee were crumbling. Soon after the purchase, a city sewer blockage filled the main seating level with water. Rain dripped onto the movie screen and sound system. 

But Emerson College had a dream of returning the Majestic to its roots as a first-class theater suited to opera, dance, and the spoken word. Over years of focused effort and investment, Emerson College has replaced the infrastructure, revealed the original architectural detail, restored the facade, lobby, and much of the ornamental plaster, and made the Cutler Majestic Theatre a 21st-century theater inside a 19th-century historic landmark.

Emerson College began restoration and renewal in August 1988 and continued until the theater reopened nine months later with the College's production of George M! on April 26, 1989. Restoration proceeded in phases and was completed in May 2003, just in time for the Majestic's 100th anniversary season. Today, a range of New England resident performing groups call the Cutler Majestic "home”. Nearly 100,000 people will visit the theater this year.  


Restoring the Majestic

With their gracious lead gift in 1999, Ted and Joan Benard-Cutler spurred the restoration of this century-old performing arts venue. Emerson College closed the theater in the spring of 2002 for the final stage of restoration. It re-opened with Emerson College's EVVYs show, a televised award show honoring students and comparable to annual cable award shows such as the Oscar's, Tony's, and Grammy's. 

The Cutler Majestic Theatre plays a unique role in the Boston community, as does Emerson College. It is a Boston landmark and the second oldest theater in Boston's downtown Theatre District. It houses several of Boston's finest not-for-profit arts organizations, plays host to special productions from leading Boston-area arts groups, and serves both as a laboratory for Emerson College students to gain experience in the arts and crafts of live communication and as a key production facility for the Department of Performing Arts' Emerson Stage. The resulting range of exciting, innovative, and fun events has kept the Cutler Majestic Theatre "lighted" more consistently than any other Theatre District facility, with the broadest and most diverse menu of artistic events.

Emerson College has restored John Galen Howard's vision, including:  

  • Ornate gold leaf with intricately colored washes  
  • Plaster grape arbors, pomegranates, and leafy vines  
  • Classical pilasters, capitals, and cartouches  
  • More than 5,000 replica lighting fixtures  
  • Marble, scagliola, marezzo, tile, and brass  
  • Seating and carpeting replicating 1903 originals  
  • Stained glass windows in the Tiffany and Company style
  • Murals by William deLeftwich Dodge  
  • Terra cotta classical façade  
  • Marquee and canopy reflecting 1903 originals
     

Elkus/Manfredi Architects set out to restore the Majestic’s visual splendor. But this Boston firm also employed Yankee ingenuity and upgraded the Majestic to modern standards of comfort, safety, and functionality. Those improvements include:

  • Wider, more comfortable seats  
  • Wider aisles  
  • More legroom  
  • Safety rails  
  • Expanded washrooms in more locations  
  • More lobby areas with food and drink amenities  
  • Improved heating and air conditioning  
  • Tickets on sale any time by phone or Internet
  • Expanded accessibility for audience and artists
  • New, more comfortable dressing rooms  
  • 21st-century stage systems