Cutler Majestic Theatre
Emerson College's vision, perseverance, and commitment of $14.8 million over 20 years to restore the Majestic has resurrected an American Beaux-Arts masterpiece, ensured the future of the College's performing arts programs, contributed to the economic rebirth and social vitality of the Theatre District, and strengthened the Greater Boston arts community of which the College is a part.
A Tour of the Restoration
Upon arriving at the Majestic, you will notice a three-bay classical facade with semi-circular arched entrance portals capped by a Greek wave band and simple cornice molding. At the second level are three recessed bays separated by massive three-story half-round fluted Roman ionic columns. Capping each bay is a large terra cotta theater mask, expressing one of three emotions: happiness, sadness, and anger. In each bay is a round stained glass window, originally used to ventilate the second balcony. Below are three large vertical stained glass windows. Below these windows is a balustrade and three doors providing access from the rear of the main balcony. The finish is terra cotta, with large areas of grand and intricate relief. The facade was painstakingly restored in 1993. Damaged terra cotta was recast, and all aspects were properly cleaned, weatherproofed, and bird proofed. The original facade lighting, 500 bare bulbs mounted in rosettes that create a beacon of warmth in the heart of the Theatre District, was replicated with modern materials during the summer of 1995. A new marquee, designed to acknowledge the original 1903 signage and subsequent 1920 reinterpretations, was approved by the Boston Landmarks Commission and installed during 1999.
As you enter, an antique full-length mirror centered in a marble wall framed by ornamental plaster meets you. Warmly colored marble columns support the gold-leafed dome centered within the three lobby chambers. Gold-leafed cherubs and masks smile down from the cornices. A central passageway takes you into the orchestra seating level of the main auditorium. It is distinguished from the remainder of the lobby by orange-toned scagliola and flanked by two marble staircases leading to the mezzanine and balcony seating levels. The steps and floor are a contrasting red marble. Brass railings and lighting fixtures bring additional warmth to the color scheme. Gold-toned ornamental iron work accents the stairs and contrasts with the window lights in the three sets of double doors that open onto Tremont Street.
Originally, intricate and highly colored stained glass panes closed off the lobby from the horses and carriages passing on Tremont Street, and an arch of stained glass accented the gold dome and murals above. During the day, the lobby was bathed in light colored by this glass. At night, the electric lighting from inside threw colors onto the sidewalk and street, welcoming patrons into the magic. Although safety and security concerns long ago forced the replacement of the stained glass doors with clear glass, the harmonious color scheme and range of textures makes the lobby a magical, marvelous place, the perfect preparation for an event at the Majestic.
Six semi-circular murals painted by New York artist William de Leftwich Dodge, one of the best known muralists of his day, grace the Cutler Majestic Theatre lobby. Dodge's work is also installed at the Library of Congress and Boston Public Library. The two large paintings at the ends of the central chamber represent music and dance in two classic aspects. One is a Grecian dancing maiden, full of life and action, in a garden of riotous red flowers. The other is a swarthy Egyptian, slow, languorous, and exotic. The four small panels—"Lunettes"—depict classical scenes of joy, action, and repose.
Figures are scantily clad, as was appropriate to the Victorian-era classical tradition. Long-time Boston residents tell stories of attending Majestic performances as elementary school students. One friend tells of the sisters who were his teachers instructing the students to avert their eyes and not look up at the "sinful" cherubs and paintings. He doesn't remember what performance he saw, but well remembers the lobby! Even today, these brilliantly restored murals draw most eyes upward as people enter the Cutler Majestic Theatre. The Majestic murals were restored in 1993.
The Cutler Majestic Theatre lobby and rear wall of the main seating section are constructed of manufactured marble. This material is "marezzo" or "American scagliola.”
Scagliola is manufactured by mixing marble chips into a plaster base. The Marezzo technique replaces marble chips with marble dust. Invented by Jesuits in 16th-century Italy, these techniques allowed artisans to create marble at the construction site rather than transporting it long distances. The marble could be colored more perfectly and textured more artistically than quarried material. Artists could specify how to mold and shape it. Therefore, it is a unique building material, durable and beautiful like marble yet malleable and stable like plaster.
In Europe, these materials were used mainly in churches and palaces. In the United States, they were commonly used in public buildings, railway stations, seats of government, and theaters. In Boston, you will find Marezzo construction in the State Capitol Building and Boston Public Library, as well as in the Colonial and Wang Theatres. (The B.F. Keith Memorial Theatre, now known as the Sarah Caldwell Opera House, was built with solid marble decoration to compete with the manufactured materials in the Metropolitan/Wang Theatre.)
There were nearly 5,000 light bulbs burning when this theater opened its doors on February 15, 1903. John Galen Howard, who also designed the Electric Tower at the 1901 Buffalo Pan-American Exhibition, designed the Majestic Theatre. He was among the first architects to explore the full flexibility of the newly invented electric lighting. He designed and installed fixtures that were designed to take advantage of electric light bulbs only, rather than fixtures intended to replicate earlier light forms, for example, candelabras or chandeliers with flame-shaped globes. Outside, he used lighting to make the theater warm and welcoming, a place of safety and grandeur. On the inside, he used light bulbs to accent the many arches that define his architecture and to highlight the beaux arts details. The lighted arch theme starts on the facade and continues through the lobbies and auditorium.
The main auditorium dome is lighted by "Strings of Pearls" fixtures, which are twined into the plaster grape arbors that decorate the arches. Each contains four bulbs inside its semicircular holophane globe, which directs the light on an angle toward the seats far below. When Emerson College purchased the theater, all the bulbs were burned out and the globes were thick with soot from years of cigarette smoke.
Under the side wall boxes, in the mezzanine, and in the rear of the main seating level, ceiling globes were employed. These had circular holophane globes. The holophane globes were in common use until the mid 1920s, when modern light bulbs were introduced. Modern light bulbs employ a coiled, concentrated filament to make very bright lights at high wattages. The light bulbs used in 1903 had thin, line filaments that were inefficient and dim. A regular "household" bulb used about 60 watts, but made about as much light as a modern 75 watt bulb, so fixture designers used holophane lamp shades to concentrate and direct the light, in effect making it brighter. Modern fixture designers use lamp shades to diffuse the light, spreading it around, making it less glaring.
Rosette fixtures were used to accent the arches in the lobby, the arches above the side wall boxes in the main auditorium, to accent columns, and to accent strong horizontal lines including the edges of the balconies. These fixtures are bare light bulbs surrounded by an ornament with petals emanating from the bulb: a "little rose." Interior rosettes were cast plaster. Outside, they were cast iron. Emerson College restored the exterior fixtures using fiberglass rosettes and plastic conduits so that the lighting will be durable and meet modern electric codes, and the interior fixtures with plaster as in the original construction.
In 1903, electric lights were flexible, but not yet trustworthy. City officials required that fixtures plumbed for both gas and electricity mark exit doors. The electric lights were turned off during performances, leaving only the gas light. The white gas chimney is broken, but we know from photographs that it was shaped like a candle.
Built in 1903, the Majestic Theatre was designed by John Galen Howard and originally had nearly 1,700 seats, although only 1,186 are installed today. Its Beaux Art style follows through from the exterior of the building into the lobby and the main auditorium.
When you enter the auditorium, you will notice the domed ceiling with the "string of pearls" lights. Originally, all electricity for the building was generated in the basement by its own DC power plant, which supplied the power for the nearly 5,000 light bulbs.
As you look up, notice that the pattern in which the strings of pearls are embedded is a duplication of the arches on the building's exterior. Many people describe the effect as being inside a giant megaphone, or a glowing sea shell. You share the performance with the ornate plaster angels and spirits.
Both the orchestra (main floor) and mezzanine (first balcony) levels have no pillars, posts or visible means of support for the upper balconies. Six foot steel beams run the width of the theater under the ornate plaster work.
The mezzanine was almost fully restored to its original 1903 state during the summer of 1996. A projection booth, installed during the 1920s Shubert modernization, was removed. All of the ornamental plaster, as well as flat and curved walls and ceilings, were restored. Original paint colors were replicated. Walls and ceilings were stenciled to patterns found behind the soundproofing inside the projection booth. New seats were installed that replicate the originals although considerably more comfortable than those from 1903.
In 1903, the second balcony had a separate entrance and seating for about 500. Patrons would enter through the alley, purchasing inexpensive tickets at a second ticket office, and climbing three flights of stairs to enter the theater. There was no connection between the second balcony and the remainder of the theater. The Peanut Gallery even had a separate third floor lobby, its own fire exits, and its own toilets. The seating was very steep, and patrons saw a top view of the artists. But admission was inexpensive, sight lines and sound were great, and it was the warmest place to be during the winter!
When the Sack movie chain purchased the Majestic Theatre from the Shubert Organization in 1956, it closed off this level to reduce the seating capacity and cut film rental costs. Emerson College restored and reopened the balcony in May 2003, with its own air conditioning, hand rails, and safety improvements. Many people consider these the best seats in the house!
Throughout the Cutler Majestic Theatre, you will find extraordinary examples of turn-of-the-century ornamental plaster cast in place. The main dome is full relief horsehair plaster designed as grape arbors held up by trees entwined with vines, and accented by glowing "string of pearls" lights. Columns are decorated with formal classical cornices and capped by angels. Arches are topped by masks and garlands. Light bulbs are centered in rosettes. Ornate "carved" frames surround mirrors, flat walls, and scagliola. Cherubs and crests join classical "dental" molding to anchor the lobby's central gold leaf dome. Most of these plaster relief surfaces were finished in gold leaf with a variety of washes bringing a range of color tints to vary the palate.
On opening night in 1903, walls in the orchestra section were finished in burgundy silk brocade, and carpets were of crimson. The side wall boxes were draped in crimson with blue and gold trim, which contrasted beautifully with the green-tinted seats. The mezzanine paint scheme tended toward peach, with gold stenciling on flat expanses, drawing the orchestra patron's eyes upward, in turn accenting the extreme height and openness of the main dome. There wasn't a chandelier to destroy sight lines or ruin the broad sweep of the auditorium. The effect must have been stunning in its opulence and simplicity.
Over the stage, there was a double set of hemp lines for flying scenery. One set is still available for use, and a new 35-line counterweight system has been installed stage right. Star dressing rooms were situated on the inner proscenium wall, and chorus members dressed under the stage.