Edward Franklin Albee (1857-1930)
dward Franklin Albee was born at Machias, Maine, the son of a shipwright, Nathan S. Albee, and his wife Amanda. When Edward was four his parents moved to Boston, where he grew up. His formal education ended at the age of twelve, and after a variety of odd jobs he succumbed to the lure of a traveling circus when he was nineteen. He learned his showmanship during seven consecutive seasons with Barnum’s “Greatest Show On Earth” before joining his friend Benjamin Franklin Keith in the autumn of 1885. The course of that famous partnership, which endured until Keith’s death in 1914, has been briefly outlined above.
ne of Albee’s greatest contributions to American vaudeville was certainly his interest in the planning and construction of suitable theatres, of which there had been a widespread lack. The B.F. Keith’s New Theatre of 1894 in Boston was only the first in a series of beautiful and commodious playhouses erected in the leading cities of the East and Middle West. As Keith’s chief of staff, Albee was also concerned with the working conditions of the actors under his management. The growing prosperity of the vaudeville circuits made a marked increase in actors’ pay possible, and Albee, in planning new theatres, provided for better dressing rooms and other facilities.
ndrew Paul Keith survived his father by only a few years, dying in 1918 of the terrible Spanish influenza epidemic of that year. Upon his death, Albee fell heir to most of his assets, but some Keith holdings, including the Boston Theatre on the actual site of the present Boston Opera House, were bequeathed elsewhere. The William H. O’Connell whose name appears as trustee in the chain of title was none other than His Eminence, William Cardinal O’Connell, trustee for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston. The next owner, the Harvard Corporation (President and Fellows), was then headed by President A. Lawrence Lowell. Thus, two of the most influential men in the nation in their respective fields of religion and education held the property in trust for their institutions. In 1919 the United Booking Office, which then had assets of nearly $50 million, was reorganized as the B. F. Keith Vaudeville Exchange controlling between 350 and 400 theatres. The circuit later became the Keith-Albee-Orpheum, or K.A.O. Theatres. In 1926 Albee bought the Pathe and F.B.O. film companies, and by 1927 his personal fortune was reported at $25 million.
ith the advent of sound films in 1927, the death knell of vaudeville sounded, although the actual demise was still a few years in the future. In 1928 Albee was 70 years old, and Joseph P. Kennedy, father of the future President, bought up his stock. K.A.O. became submerged in Radio-Keith-Orpheum, or R.K.O., an amalgam of the Radio Corporation of America, the Keith-Albee-Orpheum Theatre Circuit, the F.B.O. and Pathe picture companies, the R.C.A Photophone sound system, Victor Records, and the National Broadcasting Company. Albee “stepped down” from the presidency to become a member of the R.K.O. board of directors. That same year saw the opening on October 29, 1928 of the B.F. Keith Memorial Theatre, which had been erected under the close supervision of Albee as a final tribute to his late partner. On March 11, 1930, Albee died at Palm Beach, leaving his wife, the former Laura S. Smith, whom he had married on May 13, 1881 and two children, Ethel and Reed.
This information was excerpted in part from The Library of Congress, Historic American Building Survey – H.A.B.S. No. MA-1078, B.F. Keith Memorial Theatre, Boston, Massachusetts. A link to these Library of Congress American Memory web resources is http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query
For those interested in further information on the history of the Boston Opera House and of theatre in Boston, we recommend you visit www.historictheatres.org and search for the link to Back Issues of their fine publication “Marquee - The Journal of The Theatre Historical Society of America”. The Special Issue featuring the Historic American Buildings Survey of the Keith Memorial Theatre/Boston Opera House and featuring beautiful illustrative photographs is Volume 15, Number 2 published in the second quarter of 1983. A history of The Three Boston Theatres was featured in Volume 32, Number 1 published in the first quarter of 2000. Reprints are available and can be ordered through their website.