Designed and constructed as America's first civic playhouse, the building today known as the Boston University Theatre was the first tax-exempt theatre established in the nation. Construction having begun in 1923, it was formally opened with Sheridan's The Rivals on November 10‚ 1925. The architect was J. Williams Beal and Sons.
Originally named the Repertory Theatre of Boston‚ the theatre was built to be a permanent home for the Henry Jewett Players‚ a Boston–based repertory theatre company. In choosing to locate the theatre across from Symphony Hall and near the Museum of Fine Arts and the old Boston Opera House‚ the theatre’s creators intended to signify its character as a major cultural institution of Boston and its difference from the commercial playhouses in the Boylston‚ Washington‚ Tremont streets area of the city.
Henry Jewett, a native of Australia, whose portrait as Macbeth hangs today in the main stairwell leading to the theatre's balcony, was a distinguished actor and director. Born in 1862, he moved to the United States around the turn of the century and became the leading man for Julia Marlowe. He settled in Boston shortly after 1900 and organized the Henry Jewett Players. The Jewett Company first offered Shakespeare productions at the Boston Opera House; in 1916 it moved to the Copley Theatre where it performed until the early 1920s. But Jewett's ambition was to have a permanent home for his company, and he and his wife Frances vigorously pressed for a facility built by the community. In 1923, the Jewett Repertory Fund was started; many prominent Bostonians, including Calvin Coolidge and A. Lawrence Lowell, president of Harvard University, were on the roster of sponsors.
Almost immediately from its opening‚ the Repertory Theatre was beset by difficulties. There was much theatrical competition‚ and soon an even more serious problem was posed by the advent of talking movies‚ which lured audiences from all types of live entertainment. In 1930‚ Mr. Jewett’s company disbanded. Jewett himself died in the same year.
As the theatre was being closed‚ Jewett’s widow remarked prophetically: "You can’t have a repertory theatre without subsidy — lots of subsidy." The prescience of this view was proven thirty years later in the 1960s as the American regional theatre movement became increasingly significant and revived the pattern of resident theatre companies.
During the 1930s and 1940s‚ the theatre was known as the Esquire Theatre and was mainly used as a movie house. The Esquire specialized in art films‚ and it was here that Boston audiences first saw Laurence Olivier’s Henry V. During these same years‚ the theatre occasionally reverted to its original purpose‚ as in 1941 when Louis Calhern and Dorothy Gish played in Life with Father.
In October 1953, Boston University purchased the facility, and the vision which had initially created the theatre again began to be realized. The School of Theatre Arts at the Boston University College of Fine Arts has now used the theatre as its primary facility for performance, design, and technical production for three decades. The Theatre Arts Program presented its first production, Nicholas Evreinoff's The Chief Thing‚ in December 1954. Its students and faculty annually present approximately seven productions in the theatre’s main auditorium and in the upstairs space‚ now called the Stewart Lane & Bonnie Comley Studio 210‚ which was originally the Repertory Theatre’s ballroom.