Back in the heyday of vaudeville, Benjamin Franklin Keith promised the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Boston that he would only stage “clean” entertainment.
For an otherwise plodding businessman, it was a very smart move.
Keith and his partners – including his devoutly Catholic wife – built a vaudeville empire with the early financial backing of the Roman Catholic Church. At a time when vaudeville dominated popular culture, the Keith enterprise dominated vaudeville.
Anyone who trod the boards in one of Keith’s many theatres had to abide by a code of conduct. Performers who later used risqué material – such as Mae West, W. C. Fields, the Marx Brothers and Fanny Brice – would be blacklisted if they broke Keith’s rules. A sign posted backstage in his theatres made that clear:
Don’t say ‘slob’ or ‘son of a gun’ or ‘hully gee’ on the stage unless you want to be canceled peremptorily. Do not address anyone in the audience in any manner. If you do not have the ability to entertain Mr. Keith’s audience without risk of offending them, do the best you can… if you are guilty of uttering anything sacrilegious or even suggestive you will be immediately closed and will never again be allowed in a theatre where Mr. Keith is in authority.
Another word that could end a career: ‘Pants.’ ‘Trousers’ was the preferred term.
Benjamin Franklin Keith
Benjamin Franklin Keith was born in Hillsboro Bridge, N.H., on Jan 26, 1846, the youngest of eight children. He left home to join the circus, exactly when is unclear. After he rose to fame and fortune, his biographies obscured his early years in circus sideshows and dime museums.
Sometime in the 1860s he got a job with Bunnell’s Museum in New York City, worked for a while with P.T. Barnum and then joined the Forepaugh Circus.
He moved to Providence and married Mary Catherine Branley in 1873. He made a living selling brooms. In the winter he took small traveling shows on the road and came home dead broke.
In 1883 came the turning point in Benjamin Franklin Keith’s life. Vaudeville historian Frank Cullen writes
B.F. Keith was a huckster who mostly worked circus sideshows and dime museums until, at age 37, he decided to settle in Boston and open a dime museum of his own.
He opened “The Gayety Museum” on Washington Street. For a dime you could see ‘Baby Alice,’ a 3-month-old infant said to weigh 1.5 lbs. Baby Alice grew healthier and fatter, so Keith had to replace her with new freak shows: Bornean ‘savages’, Siamese twins, pygmies, sword swallowers, a stuffed mermaid, a tattooed man, a chicken with a human face.
He also hired Edward Franklin Albee, who became general manager in 1886. Albee, born in Machias, Maine, had also run away to the circus, to the dismay of his well-to-do family.
In May 1885 Keith and Albee put a piano and some chairs on the second floor of his ‘Gayety Museum.’ He introduced acts like Jerry and Helen Cohan (parents of George M. Cohan) and comedians Weber & Fields (you can see their act here). Mrs. Tom Thumb performed, and animal trainer Fred Kyle brought his dog, cat, baby and bird shows.
On July 6, 1885, he introduced continuous vaudeville performances. The curtain rose at 10:00 am and fell at 11 p.m. Audiences could come and go as they pleased, making vaudeville a cheap and attractive way to kill time. It exhausted the performers, though, and the stage acts were tired and dispirited.
By 1886, Albee, grandfather of the playwright (by adoption), convinced Keith to dress up his shabby dime museum and move to better theatres. They leased the magnificent Bijou Theatre right next door to the dime museum and staged stripped-down, pirated versions of Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas.
The shows were a success, and Mary Keith’s connections to Boston’s archdiocese proved fruitful. In exchange for his pledge to keep his shows clean, the Catholic Church arranged for the financing of Benjamin Franklin Keith’s early expansion.
Don’t Be Blue
Keith’s theater managers sometimes sent blue envelopes to performers, telling them to leave out suggestive song lyrics and jokes. Performers who disobeyed were blacklisted, never again allowed to work on the Keith circuit. Those blue envelopes inspired the expression ‘blue’ to describe off-color jokes.
Keith’s ‘pants’-free shows were mocked as ‘the Sunday school circuit,’ but the formula worked. Keith expanded to Providence, then to Philadelphia and New York. The business became known as Keith-Albee and opened theatres in the South — Savannah, Birmingham and New Orleans. They moved into Canada, to Toronto and Ottawa, and to the Midwest, to Grand Rapids and Indianapolis and every major city east and south of them. They owned some 30 theatres, but controlled many more through their booking agency, United Booking Office.
By the time Benjamin Franklin Keith retired in 1909, United Booking Office had become the clearing house for all the top vaudeville acts. He and Albee were both multimillionaires.
Mary Keith died in 1910. Three years later at the age of 67 he married Ethel Chase, 26. On December 1 of that year, vaudeville theatres across the country began a week of celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Baby Alice act.
Benjamin Franklin Keith died in 1914. His only son, Andrew Paul Keith, died four years later in the influenza epidemic.
In 1928, the Keith-Albee business merged with a western rival, the Orpheum Circuit, and became KAO. Joseph P. Kennedy took over KAO in a hostile takeover. He merged KAO with his own small movie studio and RCA to become RKO.
That same year, Kennedy opened the lavish B.F. Keith Memorial Theatre to show motion pictures. After falling into disrepair, it is now the Boston Opera House.
This story was updated in 2022.