By Kevin Becerra
While this neighborhood has had many names and identities in the almost 400 years of the city’s existence, none of them have had the staying power of The Theatre District. After two World Wars, multiple economic downturns and a “Combat Zone,” theatre artists and audiences keep flocking to these historic venues. At the start of the twentieth century, Boston was already a hub for traveling productions of operas and plays, as well as a major stop on the vaudeville and burlesque circuits. Where the Paramount Theatre now stands was once B.F. Keith’s Theatre—a huge vaudeville house that stretched from Tremont to Washington Street. Among the many contributing factors to the staying power of Boston’s now historic Theatre District are the relentless and resilient performers. Despite Puritan laws and movie house conversions, artists continued to arrive with trunks of costumes and an insistence that Boston is a great American theatre city.
In the heyday of vaudeville, women singers were the highest paid performers in spite of the blatant inequalities they faced outside the theatre. Mae West, Sophie Tucker and Ethel Waters
are just a few of the powerhouse women whose early work on stages across the country laid the foundation for their legendary accomplishments. Creating and maintaining a successful vaudeville career was a lifelong commitment. Sophie Tucker once put it this way: “Forty-five weeks of two shows a day, seven days a week in states that permitted Sunday shows. And if you made good you stayed on the wheel, show after show, until you were too old and shaky to play any part at all.” And yet, these artists pushed through and delivered consistent work that earned them headliner status from Scollay Square to Los Angeles.
Fast forward to 2015 and the vaudeville circuit looks a little different than it once did. However, the spirit of the era still feels very much alive as we at ArtsEmerson bring in some of the most exciting and innovative artists from all over the globe. If the fabulous women of vaudeville were to be placed on a family tree, I have no doubt that you would find Meow Meow sitting on a branch holding two cigarettes and humming a torch song. During a visit to a wall in the Paramount Center that lists the names of greats who performed in the Theatre District, Meow Meow said, “There’s a breed of women that I love who just go on and have that connection with that audience. That’s their lifeblood. That’s their life force.” Despite countless barriers, this “breed” of female performers continues to take the stage and lift audiences with their brilliance.