BROCKTON'S CITY THEATER  

Vantage point is from the center of the stage in the theater, looking towards its southwest corner.

 Although three fine theaters graced downtown Brockton in 1883, a sizeable number of citizens tended to avoid them. Many patrons were concerned about the fire and asphyxiation danger or the uncomfortable heat that such stage lighting generated, especially  during warm weather. Others shunned them because of their frequent overuse of arc lighting, a rather harsh form of illumination that was first introduced  in operas in Paris and London in the 1830s.... Enter Brockton's City Theater: The world's first dramatic theater  designed to be completely illuminated by incandescent bulbs:  

When the Brockton City Theater officially opened on October 24th, 1884, the elegant four-level Moorish structure was not only hailed as the first wholly electric dramatic theater in the world, but the first to feature incandescent lighting that was generated and distributed from a central power station, It was also the first to integrate standardized incandescent stage and foot lighting. Not surprisingly, the public flocked to see it.  

Promptly termed as the "jewel" of Brockton's theater district, its spacious  interior featured a classical oriental theme. Accented throughout with intricate gold leaf artistry, it sported plush red carpeting, scores of dramatic gilt-framed paintings and ornate carvings. Equally dramatic, its ambient illumination emanated from a charming array of over 700 of Thomas Edison's latest electric lamps.

Specifically, its gallery and the curved fronts of its two ornate balconies boasted 48 pair of Edison's latest tungsten bulbs that were cleverly configured in the shape of gaslights. Meanwhile, elaborate sconces were affixed at strategic points so as to illuminate the ceilings, walls and floor areas beneath them. And the seating in the balcony areas was illuminated by hundreds of single pendant shaped lamps

Suspended from the zenith point of the auditorium's frescoed sky-blue dome, was an immense  rotating "electrolier"  which was identical to the one made in 1882 by the John B. Verity Corporation of England for the famed Crystal Palace Exposition. This seven foot diameter chandelier was most distinguished by the fact that it was one of the first to be equipped with a grooved brass runner and insulated brass ball electrical contacts that "enabled it remain aglow as it slowly rotated upon its axis." It is said that "For many years - whenever its 50 matching lamps were suddenly turned on, startled audiences breathed a "gasp of delight followed by a spontaneous and prolonged burst of applause...."

The first formal performance presented at the City Theater was "The Bohemian Girl." The most memorable aspect of the program occurred at the opening of Act One when every light in the house was turned off.  Suddenly, the darkness was pierced by a multitude of bright incandescent light rays beaming forth from the "stars" on a planetarium-like light source at the middle of the stage.

Of course, the audience was entranced by this device, which Edison called a "moon box." One reporter described its rays as "fairy lights that threw out beams like good deeds in a naughty world...." At the end of this short segment, it was turned off. The stage area was then re-illuminated by incandescent light.... and the program continued....

When Act One came to a close, the attention of the audience was directed to one of the lodges where Thomas Edison and his fiancÚ Mina Miller had quietly taken seats. Once the applause died down, it was announced that Edison and assistants from his Isolated Illuminated Light Co. in New York City had worked most of the night finishing up the task of connecting the stage area to the switchboard "with a complicated maze of wiring that was no thicker than a knitting needle." Accompanying Tom and Mina, "also very much enjoying the show," were Brockton's world famous shoe manufacturer William L. Douglas and the city's "first and greatest mayor" Ziba Keith.

A related item of educational interest took place immediately after the show  when Edison accepted an invitation to visit the newly electrified home of prominent shoe manufacturer Fred Packard. As he and Mina were being transported by carriage from the City Theater over to Packard's newly wired "Victorian palace" on Bolton Place, Edison's quick eye spotted an overhead line leading to a large nearby building with incandescent light shining through some of its windows.... When told that his wiring of downtown Brockton had been temporarily extended to the Brockton Public Library for the benefit of local High School students and numerous adult (mostly immigrant) workers attending the progressive city's nighttime vocational and naturalization classes, "he expressed as much interested in this use as he did in the 100 lamps blazing away across the street - outside and inside - the opulent Packard residence...." 

(Several months later, Edison made a brief re-appearance at the Packard residence when he attended the elaborate wedding of his friend Daniel W. Field. Another note of educational interest is that, so far as the author has yet been able to determine, the City Theater was also the first building in the world to host an indoor high school graduation ceremony, employing incandescent stage and foot lighting. The first of several of these impressive exercises took place on June 29th, 1885.) 

The natural acoustics in the 1,500 seat main auditorium of the Brockton City Theater were said to be "as good as any in New England." Later, its sound was enhanced by one of the first electrical amplification system ever to grace a dramatic theater - courtesy of the Edison Illuminating Company. 

Shortly before the turn of the century, a kinetiscope arcade or peep-show parlor was was constructed directly across the street from the City Theater next to a charming skating rink, seen above. Edison later demonstrated experimental synchronization of motion pictures and sound, and talking pictures that were connected to this work, including many of Edison's earliest moving pictures. One of the most popular of these productions was a two minute "flick" of Brockton's teetotaler boxer - and avid temperance advocate - John L. Sullivan, losing his heavyweight title to "Gentleman" Jim Corbett. The much heralded fight - which was the first heavyweight championship bout in which the participants wore gloves - was shot inside one of Edison's studios on September 7, 1892 in New Orleans. The clip proves that Corbett was a brilliant contender. He countered sharply and managed to sidestep a score of Sullivan's bullish charges. In the 21st round, after Sullivan had totally exhausted himself, Corbett pounded the champion into submission, finally knocking out the local hero with a powerful right hand punch. 

The City Theater also featured a number of Edison's earliest "talkies," including the highly dramatic film on the Civil War, called The Birth of A Nation. Personal appearances by world renowned artists and celebrities were also popular fare. Stars included such figures as Edwin Booth, George Primrose, Edward H. Marlowe, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Fritz Kreisler....  Shortly after World War Two, adventurers Billy Mitchell, Admiral Byrd, and Eddie Rickenbacker were introduced from its stage.

During the 1920s, visiting stock companies and vaudeville troupes were especially popular. For example, the hilarious and memorable sketch "School Days" played many times featuring Eddie Cantor, Walter Winchell, and Lila Lee playing the parts of the pupils." Also featured at the City theater at this time were George M. Cohan, George Burns, Milton Berle, Jack Benny, Gracie Allen, Georgie Jessell, Sophie Tucker, Ralph Bellamy, The Marx Brothers, John Mc Cormick, Guy Lombardo and - immediately after his birth in this area - "baby" Donald O'Connor 

Incredibly, the fabulous City Theater - including the beautiful electrolier that once hung from its hand carved central dome - was "callously demolished" in 1954. Some "old timers" claimed that "when the countless old bulbs that once blazed within this structure with breathtaking charm were smashed and forever extinguished the vital spirit of the once great City of Brockton may have died with them." It is the writer's fervent hope that they are mistaken.

* Statistics indicate that as soon as most American theaters had converted from gas to electricity, the number of fires that had been formerly associated with them was reduced by more than 50%.