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CHINATOWN

THE GAIETY THEATRE

by Noriko Kitano

 

- Historic theater awaits wrecking crane in neighborhood ambivalent about its loss

- Rich history on the stage

- The Gaiety today

 

Unless otherwise stated, photos appear courtesy of Friends of the Gaiety

Historic theater awaits wrecking crane in neighborhood ambivalent about its loss

The Gaiety Theatre in 1941

Ten cents in the gallery and one dollar for the box seats.
Matinee and evening performances at 2:15 p.m. and 8 p.m.

On opening night, Nov. 23, 1908, all 1,700 seats were taken, and hundreds of people stood to catch the performance at the Gaiety Theater.

"The audience was delighted with each and every part of the show and expressed its approval in repeated applause," reported The Boston Globe the next morning.

Lower Washington Street in 1925.

At the time, the Chinatown/Midtown cultural district was a mecca for the African-American working-class culture in Boston. On lower Washington Street, then known as 'theatre row,' patrons bustled to shows. With 15 theaters, culture flourished. Burlesque, an inexpensive popular entertainment, was ubiquitous.

After decades of glory, these theaters have been demolished one by one over the years and replaced with modern towers. The Gaiety Theatre at 659-665 Washington St. faces the same fate. It might be demolished as early as this summer because on April 22, the Boston Landmark Commission decided that the theater is not a historical landmark worth saving.

Although the commissioners commended the supporters for their efforts to bring historical information to light and for spreading awareness of the Gaiety, they denied the theater landmark status. They didn't even call for a vote on the rehabilitation of the theater, something participants at the meeting expected.

The Paramount at 549 Washington Street is a 450-to-700-seat theater under renovation with Millennium Partner's financial support.

Kensington Investment Co. plans to build a 30-story luxury apartment complex, Kensington Place, on the Gaiety site, a plan applauded by some Chinatown leaders who see it as an opportunity for more housing and opposed by others who fear the neighborhoods continued gentrification.

The Boston Landmark Commission's verdict advanced Kensington a step closer to the start of construction. The Boston Redevelopment Authority has been reviewing its proposal since last summer.

Chinatown's residents have been torn between efforts to preserve the 95-year-old Gaiety and the 'affordable units' Kensington is promising.

"I believe that, in a long term, it will have negative impacts on the existing community," Sherry Hao, executive director of the Campaign Protect Chinatown, said of the Kensington plan.
"It is going to change the constituency of Chinatown's demographics.

"Chinatown is shrinking and will be for high-income yuppies," she added.

What the Gaiety looks like now and, behind it, the Millenium towers.

Hao's concerns about gentrification are coupled with concerns about an increase in traffic and air pollution. She also contends that the Kensington Tower is a violation of the Chinatown Master Plan 2000.

Activist Shirley Kressel pointed out that Kensington Place would also violate the Boston Zoning Code that limits height to 155 feet in the Midtown/Cultural District and the Urban Renewal Area.

To build a 290-foot tower, Kensington must have one acre of land, she said. It owns a half-acre at present. Kensington Investment Co. is seeking an exemption from that requirement.

Other Chinatown business leaders, however, believe that Kensington Place is a fabulous plan.

Kensington Place also attracts some Chinatown residents who are desperate to increase the stock of affordable housing. But according to the Chinatown Master Plan 2000, the median annual income of Chinatown residents is below $10,000.

Even though 50 of the 336 Kensington units are slated as "affordable," they would remain out of reach for those living at such poverty levels. Ten of these units will be available for low-income earners with an annual salary of about $26,000. Prices for these units will be expected to start at about $750 for a one bedroom.

The remaining 40 units are reserved for people whose salary ranges from $41,552 to $62,328 annually.

Rents for those "affordable" 40 units are expected to start at $1,187 to $1,781, a month for a one bedroom, very pricey for a community in which many residents survive below the poverty level.

"Some might be able to afford the price but many might not," said Lydia Lowe, director of the Chinese Progressive Association.

These rent prices are for 2002 and may fluctuate with the market, according to Heidi Burbridge of the Boston Redevelopment Authority.

Kensington Place proposal . Courtesy of The Architectural Team

The rest of the units would be market rate and these are attractive to more affluent former Chinatown residents interested in returning to the neighborhood.

"Personally, I want to live in Kensington Place," said Fan Chou, a former long-term Chinatown resident who grew up there and is now an executive director of a construction company. "I moved to a suburb of Boston, but want to go back to Chinatown [to enjoy an urban life]. I also want to be a consumer, a spender for Chinatown."

In any case, said Bill Moy, a member of the Chinatown Neighborhood Council, the fight to save the Gaiety makes no sense because the theater already is largely gutted.

"There is nothing there," he said, speaking of the theater, "It is empty. It's already demolished so there is nothing to be saved. (Therefore) It is not to be restored but to be rebuilt from zero. [Advocates of the Gaiety] are having a fantasy. Their idea is bogus."

The Glass Slipper and Centerfolds on LaGrange Street

Moy said he supports Kensington Place partly because it will remove two adult-oriented business, the Glass Slipper and an adult bookstore, that are among the last remnants of the old Combat Zone.

Chinatown got rid of many adult entertainment shops when the Combat Zone was disbanded a decade ago, but some still remain. Two other shops, a Vietnamese gift shop and a cigarette shop located on the ground level of the Gaiety's building, will also be relocated.

Renovate or demolish?

Kensington Investment Co. has argued that the renovation or rebuilding of the theater would be too costly at $25 million.

"We cannot build over it. We cannot build around it. We cannot build under it, " said Ralph Cole, president of Kensington.

Cole emphasizes the benefits that Kensington Place might bring. He said it would make LaGrange Street more pedestrian-friendly and provide more meeting space for community-based organization and retail shops.

Nevertheless, to historians, journalists, activists, acoustic music fans and members of the Friends of the Gaiety, it is clear that the theater should be restored.

Lee Eiseman, of Friends of the Gaiety, said Kensington's figure was based on an expansion of the theater, not restoration. His organization has said the actual cost would be $9 million,

"We want to restore it as where it was, what it used to be," said Eiseman.

Kensington Place, a 30-story residential tower. Courtesy of Sky Boston.

To Chou, the former Chinatown resident eager to return to the area, one word settles the argument: housing.

"I do not know the best solution but housing brings a lot of tangible advantages," he said. "Like the Back Bay, wealthy successful people will contribute to Chinatown and improve the quality of life. There will be good restaurants and coffee shops."

Kensington has said it plans to contribute $650,000 to Liberty Tree Park, which would serve as the main entrance to the condominiums. It also says it will provide $50,000 in funding for the reuse of the Paramount Theater and $50,000 for other Chinatown/Midtown cultural district uses.

Purposes and uses

Gaiety supporters, however, say the best cultural district use would be of the Gaiety itself. Some believe that the theater would be perfect for chamber music. Because Boston lacks a mid-sized theater, they claim that the Gaiety has a potential use.

As Ryan Fleur, executive director of the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra explained, "All performers in Greater Boston need a place. Boston lacks a concert hall. It depends on how it will be renovated to use, but the Gaiety will be good for recitals, for cello soloists like Yo-Yo-Ma, and it can bring radio broadcasts."

Fleur said some musicians do not perform at the Wang or the Shubert Theaters because both are used mostly for stage productions. The Gaiety, however, is different because of its acoustic features, he said.

Bob Fleming, assistant director for access services and archives at Emerson College, speculates that there would be enough space for performances at the Gaiety, but said that he would be concerned about whether or not it would be able to survive with so many other theaters in the area.

"Many theatrical organizations are suffering financially during the current economic downturn," he said, "I'm not certain what the need for another restored theater is on Washington Street, especially when you weigh that need against the Kensington Group proposal."

"I hope that it will provide a psychological bridge between the neighborhood and the people moving into the new tower."
Ben Dawson, grand nephew of the architect Clarence Howard Blackall

If the Gaiety is not saved, Kensington Investment said it would build a memento inside Kensington Place, but the idea of an exhibition does not appeal to any supporters of the Gaiety.

"Who is going to look at it? If it is built inside of the building, only its residents would see it," said journalist Steve Landrigan.

Though the Landmark Commission's decision seems to favor Kensington's project, the Friends of the Gaiety vowed not to give up.

"This theater should be here for future generations to enjoy," Robert Goshgarian of the Friends of the Gaiety said to a Chinatown newspaper, the Sampan.

Ben Dawson, the grand nephew of the architect Blackall, hopes that the theater and the tower can coexist.

"I hope that it will provide a psychological bridge between the neighborhood and the people moving into the new tower."

Dawson believes that the developer would see an advantage in having a mixture of old and new in the modern building.

Steve Jerome, vice-president of the Friends of the Gaiety, said the history and its representation of Boston's African-American, working-class culture of the 1900s is as important as that of 'white elites.'

"All elements of society are worthy of preservation," Jerome said.

NORIKO KITANO

GO...

SEE IT

- Lower Washington Street in 1925

-Lower Washington Street in the 1990's

- LaGrange Street in 1907

-The Gaiety Theatre in 1941

- The Gaiety now

- Back view of the Gaiety today

-Inside view of the Gaiety today

- The only one remaining plaster bust of the Gaiety Girl

- Kesington Place

- The Kesington Place proposal

- The architect Clarence Howard Blackall

- Performers at the Gaiety

- Butterbeans and Susie: a legendary couple in life and on stage

LINK IT

- Boston Landmark Commission

- reviewing its proposal

- Campaign Protect
Chinatown

- The Chinese Progressive Association

- Boston Zoning Code

- Chinese Progressive Association

- Liberty Tree Park

- The Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra

- The Sampan: a Chinatown newspaper in Boston

- PictureStory: a webpage about Chinatown

- The Majestic Theater

- The Colonial Theatre

- The Wilbur Theatre

- The Wang Theatre

- Temple Israel

 

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