The Troy Street Observer

May 17, 1947: Big Bands Out at the RKO Boston Theatre

On May 17, 1947, the RKO Boston Theatre announced it would discontinue stage shows for the summer, virtually ending the big band era in Boston.

The economics of the entertainment business were changing fast in postwar America, and the most visible sign of that change in Boston was at the RKO Boston Theatre at 614 Washington Street.

The RKO chain owned of a pair of theaters on Washington Street, a block apart. The Keith (now the Opera House) showed mainly movies after the Boston, a big theater seating about 3,200, opened in 1925. The formula at the Boston was “stage-and-screen.” The A movies ran at the Keith, while B movies played at the Boston, along with the live entertainment. Sometimes that was vaudeville, sometimes a big-cast stage show like Cab Calloway’s Cotton Club Revue, and when swing became the thing, shows headlined by big bands. These became the norm a bit later than you might expect, finally dominating the schedule in late 1941, and they continued to dominate until early 1947.

Ad for Benny Goodman at RKO Boston
Benny Goodman at the RKO Boston in 1943

Then came the announcement that the Boston would switch to an all-film policy for eight weeks. This was the first time since 1942 that the theater had not continued through the summer with its stage and screen policy. But in 1942, the theater was already announcing its fall schedule as it went on its summer hiatus. That didn’t happen this time.

Manager Red King blamed three factors. There was the overall postwar downturn in the entertainment business. Second was the high cost of talent. During the war years, the stage shows made money despite their high costs. By early 1947, only the biggest names were drawing, and theater grosses were sliding back toward pre-war levels. But everyone, be it an opening-act comedian or a headlining star, still asked for paydays to match their wartime peaks.

Finally, King claimed that there weren’t enough big audience draws on tour to fill a schedule, pointing in particular to the number of big bands that folded in 1946, a list that included the popular bands of Goodman, Herman, and Tommy Dorsey.

Shows resumed in the fall with only a handful of top-tier bands. From September 1947 to May 1948, Kenton, Hampton, Prima, and Basie were scheduled. These were the last jazz big bands to play the RKO Boston. There were more sweet bands than swing, and there were more vaudeville and nightclub-type shows than bands of any kind. The RKO had its own pit band, after all, so there was a cost advantage to hiring a Helen Forrest or Connee Boswell as a headliner rather than a big band

With the ballrooms on Huntington Ave already gone, the exit of the RKO Boston from the band business marked the end of the big band era in Boston.

Here’s Benny Goodman’s “Good-Bye” to see us out…

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