Benjamin Franklin Keith was born in Hillsboro Bridge, New Hampshire in 1846, the textbook definition of a Yankee, and he would prove himself appropriately tight-fisted. At age 14, he mustered enough romance to run away and join the circus as a roustabout. From there, he found himself in the world of dime museums.
Young Keith spent two formative years working at Bunnell’s, learning the fundamentals of museum administration and management, then toured a bit with P.T. Barnum’s circus. He eventually settled in Boston, where he opened the Gaiety Museum in 1883. Here he displayed the likes of Baby Alice (a prematurely born infant), a stuffed mermaid, a tattooed man, a chicken with a human face, and comedians Weber & Fields, whom he’d met whilst working at Bunnell’s Museum.
Upstairs, as was common in dime museums, Keith set up a small theatre for variety: 123 folding chairs and a modest stage. He introduced the acts himself, more out of necessity than any inclination or talent to perform. Keith was a plodding sort of character, colorless, and surprisingly bereft of imagination for a circus man. Like Ringo, without “a little help from his friends” one suspects he would have been a footnote in these annals, instead of the most important player. Yet from one sordid Boston museum, the Keith empire would come to embrace a continent, employ thousands of showpeople, and even form the groundwork for the entertainment institutions we enjoy today. The fact that your hometown probably had, (and maybe still has), a Keith Theatre in it, is probably more owed to a man named Edward F. Albee (the grandfather—by adoption—of the playwright, whom for reasons that may become obvious, never stresses the connection).
The elder Albee was born in Machias, Maine on this day in 1857. At age 17, he dismayed his well-to-do family by running off and joining the circus. From roustabout he was promoted to spieler (“Step right up! Right inside this tent!”) and ticket man, where he was an expert in the peculiar circus art form of short-changing customers. Within 7 years he’d palmed his way up to circus executive.
At age 26, Albee showed up at Keith’s (whom he’d known from the circus) and made himself generally useful. He stayed for 47 years and ending up controlling the entire vaudeville industry.
Albee made Keith instantly successful by refining his whole operation. First he ditched the smelly animals that composed the museum’s menagerie. Then he proposed that they take advantage of the Gilbert and Sullivan craze that was still sweeping the U.S., by offering pirated productions of the plays at a fraction of what most opera company’s charged, embellished by vaudeville acts. Interestingly, Keith was responding to the operetta fad just as Tony Pastor had, but in the opposite way. Pastor had ennobled his enterprise by embracing operetta’s chic élan, and raising his ticket prices accordingly. Keith presented The Mikado, but made it available for a quarter. Both were successful for decades, but we shall see which methodology wins out in the end.
Keith’s cut-rate operettas gave the organization enough profit to lease the much larger (900 seat) Bijou Theatre in 1885. Gone were the freaks and specimens in glass jars now. Now they were presenting something called “vaudeville”.
During the next few years, they grew the one theatre into a chain. By the end of the 1920s, this particular chain had swallowed almost all of the competition for a virtual monopoly on the vaudeville business — hundreds of theatres from coast to coast. This would, in turn, become R.K.O.
And to get the entire, definitive story of vaudeville, including much much more on B.F. Keith and E.F. Albee, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,