THE CHARLES PLAYHOUSE has had a long and varied history in Boston's Theatre District since its beginnings. The building was originally designed and built in 1839 as the Fifth Universalist Church, by the father of Colonial American architecture, Asher Benjamin. In 1864 it became the first synagogue in Boston, home of congregation Ohabei Shalom, until 1889 when it was purchased by a Scottish Presbyterian Church. After some years of disuse, the quiet building on Warrenton Street was once again sold and became the perfect spot for a Prohibition-era speakeasy called "The Lido Venice." The speakeasy eventually went legitimate in 1933 with the repeal of prohibition and became simply known as “The Lido”. In 1937 the club was converted into a fashionable jazz club called “Southland”, while downstairs was transformed with hot jazz by artists such as Fats Waller and Earl Fatha Hines. In 1938 a devastating overnight fire gutted much of the building and forced Southland to close. When the club reopened 6 months later, Southland quickly escalated to become one of the premier jazz clubs in the county for big-name swing bands. Performers included Louis Armstrong, Charlie Barnet, Countie Basie and His Orchestra, Cab Caolloway, Fats Waller, and Duke Ellington, to name just a few. The NBC Radio Network, through local affiliate WBZ, would broadcast these shows coast-to-coast in a weekly program called “Live from Southland”.
In 1941 the building was again sold and renamed “Rio Casino”. The Rio featured large cloth backdrops of scenery of Rio De Janeiro and fake palm trees that reached up to the ceiling. The club was operated by James Welansky, until he sold it in 1942 after being charged for manslaughter as the manager of the Coconut Grove Lounge on the night of its infamous fire. The building was sold to vaudevillians Jack and Ben Ford, who continued to operate it successfully for many more years. But by 1948 postwar Bostonians had less of an appetite for the nightclubbing lifestyle and the Ford brothers decided to simply rent the room out as a function hall. They eventually tried to revive the upstairs nightclub as “The Boston Ballroom”, but it was a short-lived and unsuccessful venture. The glamorous and lively nightclub era at 74 Warrenton Street was over.
After the failure of the Boston Ballroom the future of the building was uncertain, until 1957 when The Actors Company of Boston, under the ownership of Frank Sugrue, purchased the building and transformed the abandoned nightclub into a theatre. The Actors Company of Boston was founded one year before by a group of Boston University Theatre students, including Olympia Dukakis. They named their new home “The Charles Playhouse”, in honor of their first home located at The Charles Street Playhouse at 54 Charles Street. During its tenure as a producing repertory theatre, The Charles Playhouse quickly moved to the forefront of America’s regional theatre movement, premiering works by Brecht, O’Neill, Pirandello, and Tennessee Williams. In residence were many stars-to-be, including All Pacino, Jill Clayburgh, and Jane Alexander.
While The Actors Company continued to garner critical acclaim in their new theatre upstairs, the old, intimate jazz club in the basement was transformed into a cabaret theatre in the 1960’s and also went on to see great success over the following decades. A wildly successful banjo show called “Your Father’s Moustache” ran for 10 years, followed by many other cabaret-type shows. But most notable was a new whodunit murder mystery called “Shear Madness” that opened in the cabaret theatre in 1980 and has been running since. Shear Madness has performed over 13,000 shows and has become the longest running non-musical play in American history.
In the 1980’s, the street level space was remodeled into The Comedy Connection and premiered relatively unknown comics at the time, including Sam Kinison, Roseanne Barr, Steven Wright, and Dennis Leary, to name a few.
By the late 1980’s the regional theatre movement had lost momentum and it was becoming increasingly difficult to book the mainstage. The future of the building was once again uncertain until 1995 when Broadway In Boston purchased the Charles Playhouse and opened a new and somewhat unknown Off-Broadway show called Blue Man Group for a limited engagement. In the 18 years since, Blue Man Group has entertained over 3,000,000 people at the Charles Playhouse.
The Charles Playhouse has survived the Civil War, two World Wars, the Great Depression, the introduction of the electric light, the advent of the automobile, television, and motion pictures, a devastating fire, the urban renewal of the 1960’s, numerous owners, and countless redevelopments. 175 years after the cornerstone was laid, Asher Benjamin’s beautiful Greek-revival structure continues to stand proudly in its watchful spot on Warrenton Street, growing and adapting with the ever changing city that surrounds it. As the great Boston theatre critic Elliot Norton wrote in 1958, the venue's rich history gives it "the proper sinned-in atmosphere to become a great theater." As the owner and operator of the Charles Playhouse, Broadway In Boston is proud to be a part of this building’s great legacy and remains committed to maintaining its unique role in Boston’s rich cultural heritage.