Greater Greater Washington

History


Lost Washington: The Gayety Theater

Ninth Street NW, the blocks just north of Pennsylvania Avenue: Today they're lined with rows of the same nondescript office buildings you see everywhere else downtown. And then there's that hulking FBI building on the west side. But it wasn't always like this.


The Gayety Theatre, from a postcard in the author's collection.

A hundred years ago this was where the action was. "Ninth Street was the Broadway of Washington," a former fight promoter named Goldie Ahearn recalled years later in The Washington Post: "Everything that ever happened in this city happened there. When you came to town you had to strut up and down Ninth Street or you hadn't lived."

In the heart of this mini-Times Square was the fabulous Gayety Theater, where the girls were always kicking their legs up and the comedians gunning for endless, easy laughs.

The Gayety, located at 513 9th Street, NW, was designed by noted theater architect William H. McElfatrick (1854-1922) and completed in 1907 at a cost of about $130,000. Although the building's frontage on 9th Street was only the size of a typical storefront, it masked a sprawling complex that extended back to 8th Street, where a large auditorium was located. The stage was 65 feet wide and 34 feet deep.

It was a completely over-the-top extravaganza of decorative flourishes, both inside and out. The façade, made of brick and galvanized iron, embodied a lively and eccentric mix of styles. Beaux-Arts rusticated piers surmounted by pairs of Corinthian columns held up a massive hooded arch topped by a crowded assemblage of gaudy classical figures. A deeply-recessed entry drew customers into the building, leading them back to the ornate three-story auditorium, said to be capable of seating 1,500.

The original decor was ivory and gold, with "rich Empire red" sidewalls, according to The Washington Times, and featured commodious seats and all-unobstructed views. In arches above the boxes on either side of the stage were beautiful plaster composition figures of the Muses, created by English-born architectural sculptor Ernest C. Bairstow (1876-1962), who also decorated many other important Washington DC buildings, including the Lincoln Memorial.

Newspaper accounts made much of the fact that the building was designed using state-of-the-art fireproof techniques. The stage, for example, could be rapidly isolated from the rest of the auditorium with massive sheet-iron doors and an asbestos curtain. All in all, this was a very impressive theater in 1907.


Interior of the Gayety Theater. Image from the Library of Congress.

The theater was a member of the Columbia Circuit (Eastern "wheel") of Burlesque theater owners. There was also a Western wheel. The wheels were affiliations of theater venues that provided a full season's bookings for traveling shows. According to Robert C. Allen, by 1912 approximately 70 touring burlesque companies played at one hundred theaters across the country and employed some 5,000 performers.

The early years of the Gayety's existencethe 1910s and 1920swere undoubtedly its heyday, a time when burlesque was still a going theatrical concern. By the end of the 19th century, the theater-going experience in America had become rigidly stratified.

Legitimate theater, as was performed at the National Theater on Pennsylvania Avenue, for example, was for the upper classes, kept safely out of reach of those with insufficient means or taste. Vaudevilleoften called "polite" or "high-class" vaudevillewas marketed squarely to the middle classes and kept carefully clean and wholesome. The major DC vaudeville house in those days was Chase's Polite Vaudeville, located first on Pennsylvania Avenue near the White House and later in the Riggs Building on 15th Street, NW, a safe and respectable neighborhood.

Burlesque filled out the bottom rung of theater's social ladder and found its home in the city's tenderloin district, the hurly-burly world of the 9th Street strip. It was everything vaudeville wasn't: irreverent, iconoclastic, raucous, and licentious. Burlesque catered largely to young urban males of the working class with its deliberate skewering of social moresalthough, then as now, they weren't the only ones who found such unbridled entertainment alluring.


Advertisement from the August 15, 1915 edition of The Washington Times. Image from the Library of Congress.

When the Gayety opened in 1907, there weren't any stripteases, although voluptuous women were always spotlighted. The shows generally consisted of often lavishly-decorated skits involving a troupe of "soubrettes"saucy, sexy, young coquettesinteracting with a few male comics and straight men in raunchy satires of upper-class lifestyles.

Mollie Williams was an example of a popular soubrette known for her racy, wisecracking manner. She was reportedly the only woman with her own traveling burlesque company in the Columbia Circuit in the late 1910s and early 1920s. She produced "The Unknown Law" at the Gayety in September 1920.


Mollie Williams, from a postcard in the author's collection.

The Columbia Circuit tried to walk the fine line between risqué and rude, but ultimately it was a losing game. By the end of the 1920s, the more prosperous and better-financed vaudeville theaters had already taken away viewers wanting cleaner entertainment, and the burgeoning movie business was now taking customers from both vaudeville and burlesque.

The burlesque theaters began to give up on theatrical performances and focus just on the girls. The Columbia Circuit of traveling burlesque companies, after consolidating with other "wheels," folded completely in 1931. Instead of its expensive bookings, theaters like the Gayety used "stock" burlesque shows that were much cheaper to produce and mostly consisted of striptease artists.

In January 1929, when it was still primarily a theatrical venue, the Gayety achieved unusual notoriety when it produced a midnight benefit show for the families of four imprisoned gamblers. The four had been thrown in the clink for participating in an illegal blackjack game, and they had all refused to implicate any of their cronies.

A local boxing promoter conceived of the idea of a lavish show to benefit the families of the four "who did not squeal," and so it came to pass. A long bill of many acts, mostly performing gratis, played on until nearly dawn to a hall that was packed, despite the fact that all advanced notice had been strictly by word of mouth.

The newspapers caught wind of the spectacle, and soon the House Committee on the District of Columbia was holding a hearing on the event, seen as proof of how organized the gambling and bootlegging rackets were in Washington.

However, much to everyone's frustration, it was clear that no laws had been broken. Besides, a number of off-duty policemen were apparently in attendance. It seems the uproar finally blew over when officials lost their appetite for exploring the extent of corruption in the Metropolitan Police Department.

The Gayety always drew its share of Washington's officialdom, including many members of Congress, government officials, and even a president or two. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes (1841-1935) was a Sunday afternoon regular, according to the Post. The Washington Times-Herald reported that Holmes "used to sit and read while the comics were on, and then put away his book when the girls began to peel." "Thank God, I'm a man of low tastes," he was quoted as saying.

Although it was the largest theater on 9th Street and the only one dedicated to burlesque, the Gayety was surrounded by other theaters, restaurants and arcades. Immediately to the left of the Gayety was a Gothic-Revival former church building originally constructed in 1835 and enlarged in 1879. Despite the enlargement, its Methodist congregation had found it too small and moved out in 1888. In the 1910s and 1920s it housed the Port Arthur Chinese Restaurant; later it was a bar and café directly connected to the Gayety.

Two doors down on the right was the Leader Theater, built in 1910 with decorative excesses to rival the Gayety's. It was primarily a venue for motion pictures, as was Harry Crandall's Joy Theater and Tom Moore's Garden Theater, both in the 400 block of 9th Street immediately to the south.

Crandall's Theater, at the southeast corner of 9th and E, lasted only into the 1920s, while Moore's Garden Theater, rechristened the Central Theater, continued much longer. Another 9th Street playhouse, in the block above F Street, was the Virginia, later called the Little Theater, which featured foreign films in the 1940s.


A crowd of newsboys lined up for a Saturday matinée at the Leader Theater, two doors down from the Gayety. The Port Arthur restaurant is visible on the far left. Image from the
Library of Congress.


The same location today. Photo by the author.


Interior of the Port Arthur restaurant, located next to the Gayety Theater in an old church building. From a postcard in the author's collection.

As the neighborhood began to decline in the 1940s, the pretense of respectability was abandoned altogether. Peep shows and pornography became the coin of the realm. The 1,500-seat Gayety, designed for full-scale theatrical productions, found it was losing money in this new world and held its last burlesque show in February 1950. However, the timing turned out to be fortuitous, and the theater got an unexpected reprieve.


The Gayety Theater at night, 1942. Photo by John Ferrell from the Library of Congress.

Washington at that moment was woefully short on stage facilities. The National Theater, previously the only legitimate theater in the city, had converted to movies in 1948 in response to a boycott by the actors' guild because of its policy banning admittance of African Americans.

In February 1950, an agent for a Broadway show called "The Barretts of Wimpole Street" learned that the Gayety had closed and decided to see if he could book it for his production. Thus in March 1950, after a modest bit of renovation, the Gayety proudly re-opened as a legitimate theater with admittance to all races. "The Barretts of Wimpole Street" had a short but successful run, followed by several other productions. It seemed for a time as if the grand old building had successfully entered a second life.

Soon the building was purchased by the Shubert theater chain, which undertook more extensive renovations in 1952, including completely redoing the gaudy façade and replacing it with a more standard theater entrance with a broad, lighted canopy. The new playhouse reopened as the Sam S. Shubert Theater.

Stars such as John Gielgud, Tallulah Bankhead, Celeste Holm, and Maurice Chevalier played there, and President Truman was a frequent attendee. Still, this new-found success was fleeting. By the mid 1950s, few theatrical productions were coming to Washington, and the Shubert was dark more often than not.

Then, around 1:00 am on January 29, 1959, not long after a showing of Edward Chodorov's "Listen to the Mocking Bird" had ended, fire broke out backstage at the Shubert and quickly grew out of control, consuming scenery, backdrops, and soon the back of the theater itself, bursting through the roof. Firemen battled the blaze for nearly an hour before it was finally extinguished.

While the back of the theater was burned out, the old fireproof asbestos stage curtain had done its job and kept the flames from spreading into the auditorium. Nevertheless, there was extensive smoke and water damage there as well. It was a devastating blow for the old theater, and the owners decided to sell the property rather than undertake repairs.

When word came out in June that the theater would likely be razed and replaced with a parking lot, there were a number of calls to save it. Possibly it could become the new home for the Washington Opera Society, some hoped.

A citizens group was formed to buy the theater for use as a civic cultural center, at least until the planned National Cultural Center (which would become the Kennedy Center) could be completed. An anonymous benefactor even offered to pay the $150,000 asking price and turn the theater over to the city for that purpose.

Unfortunately, by that time the property had already been sold to an agent for Lansburgh's Department Store, which had its heart set on a new parking lot. Nothing could be done to stop them, and the theater was torn down in November 1959.

Soon, little was left of the old entertainment district. Leroy F. Aarons, writing in the Post, proclaimed in 1964 that "Ninth Street, that once-glorious Dream Street, that Coney Island, Bowery and Times Square rolled into one, has nothing left to remember itself by." His occasion for writing was the announcement that much-loved impresario Jimmy Lake (1880-1967), the unofficial "mayor of 9th Street" who had taken over the Gayety Theater in 1914 and had presided over its glory days, was finally leaving the area.

Lake had also run the adjoining café (the former Methodist church), and sued in early 1960 to keep it from being razed too, but he lost. After being evicted from the café and theater, Lake moved his business a block south to the old Central Theater building, which he nostalgically re-christened the Gayety. But Lake soon came to realize that the burlesque business was dying, and thus he was moving out in 1964. His new place became a strip joint before it was shut down for lack of business and demolished in 1973.

In 1976, the Gayety name was moved yet another time, to the former Roosevelt movie theater at 508 9th Street NW, which had been built in 1933. This 500-seat theater, which was across the street from the site of the original Gayety theater, continued with a mix of live girls and X-rated films into the 1980s. In 1987 this building and the others alongside it were torn down for a large office building.

Meanwhile, the parking lot on the other side of the street remained for more than four decades. Finally in 2007, Boston Properties, Inc. built an office building, designed by the DC firm of Hartman-Cox Architects, on the site.

Initial plans were for the Washington Stage Guild to occupy performing arts space on the 8th Street side of the building, where the original Gayety Theater's stage used to be, but funding for that project didn't materialize. Perhaps another group will one day perform in that space.

Sources for this article included Robert C. Allen, Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture (1991); Harvey W. Crew et al., Centennial History of the City of Washington, D.C. (1892); James M. Goode, Capital Losses (2003); Robert K. Headley, Motion Picture Exhibition in Washington, D.C.: An Illustrated History of Parlors, Palaces and Multiplexes in the Metropolitan Area, 1894-1997 (1999); and numerous newspaper articles. The Washingtoniana Division of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Public Library provided invaluable assistance.

Cross-posted at Streets Of Washington.

John DeFerrari is a native Washingtonian with a lifelong passion for local history and writes about it for his blog, Streets Of Washington. His first book about DC history, Lost Washington, DC, was recently published by History Press. John is also a trustee of the DC Preservation League. The views expressed here are his own. 

Comments

I am the granddaughter of Ernest Bairstow, the decorative sculptor who did the carving on the Gayety Theater. I enjoyed reading your article. I am also a native Washingtonian!

by Dorothy Wilson on Jan 24, 2012 5:00 pm • linkreport

Bring back Burlesque to Washington, DC. I was born in the city and want classice entertainment downtown. Thanks for this informative and historical piece. TNW

by Teresa N. Wood on Mar 1, 2012 5:57 pm • linkreport

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