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Then & Now: The Play's the Thing

This venerable building started life amid controversy.

Looking at this building built in 1828, it’s hard to believe that its early history was steeped in controversy.

In the early 1820s, J. W. Barton owned a tavern/hotel at the corner of Essex and Crombie streets. His father had purchased the Ship Tavern from Benjamin Crombie who moved to Boston.

J.W. Barton felt the time was ripe for Salem to have a theater. In 1828, this Greek Revival Building was built as the first theater in Salem.

While there were theaters in Boston and there had been various plays and shows in Salem over the years, Barton probably never expected the reactions he got from Salemites.

Apparently the Puritans, who had banned plays in England when they were in power in the 17th century, still had adherents in Massachusetts. Citing a law written into Mass law in 1750 that banned plays due to an incident in Boston, they took issue with the thought of a theater here, which they believed fostered immorality. They felt the preamble for the 1750 law was still true. The preamble read: “To prevent and avoid the many mischiefs, which arise from
public stage plays, interludes and other theatrical entertainments, which not only occasion great and unnecessary expenses, and discourage industry and frugality, but likewise tend greatly to increase immorality, impiety and contempt of religion.”

The 1750, law had been amended in 1806 to allow for theaters and plays in Boston provided they were licensed and regulated. In response to the anticipated opening of Salem’s theater, it was proposed in the legislature that the 1790 law be amended to not allow this to occur. Apparently the proposal was to not allow Salem to have plays while leaving Boston exempt from the law. This prompted the Gazette to opine that it was “inconceivable for the legislature to keep the morals for Salem while leaving Boston in its abominations.”

Amid many pointed statements, Salem became divided into those who would allow it and those very much opposed. The legislature voted on the amendment with Essex County representatives voting for and against. The amendment was defeated on January 22,1828.

Theater was allowed. The Salem Gazette, a proponent of plays, wrote a number of favorable articles about the theater and when the Salem Theater opened, gave it full coverage. They wrote positively about the manager, Aaron Phillips, who had been a theater manager in New York before becoming the lessee for the Salem Theater.

On Feb. 4, 1828 the theater opened with the play Wives as they Were, and Maids as they Are written in 1797 by Elizabeth Inchbald. This was an interesting choice for Salem’s first play. While it was a comedy in five acts, it also was a social commentary on the role of women in Georgian Society. Using witty dialogue and strong female characters, the play satirizes men’s attitudes and rejects women’s stereotypical roles in the repressive Georgian society of England.

Some critics had labeled it subversive when it played in London. It seems the Salem Theater people felt there was merit in staging such a play here. The cost of admission to the Salem Theater was, in the first tier of boxes 75 cents; second tier, 50 cents and in the pit, 37 1/2 cents.

This same play was revived in 2008 and ran to good reviews at the Covent Garden Theater in London.

The Salem Theater stayed opened for four years in this building staging a large number of plays over the years. It appears that there were new plays every few weeks. The theater closed in 1832
and was sold.

In writing about the history of theater in Salem in 1849, J. B. Felt in his Annals of Salem showed where he stood on the question of plays and gives us a glimpse of the strong, lasting feelings that were engendered by the controversy. Felt wrote that after four years the proprietors of the Salem Theater found it very unprofitable and sold the building.

He went on to write, “From that time to the present, our citizens have found it a much more profitable mode of spending their time and money, to hear lectures on interesting and useful subjects than to congregate for the purpose of listening to actors.”

Needless to say, Felt doesn’t mention the economic conditions that probably contributed to the demise of this theater in Salem.
While various plays were staged in halls in the city after the theater closed, it would be a number of decades before Salem became a theatrical center with the advent of vaudeville.

When it sold, it became the Crombie Street Congregational Church which was formed by a dissenting group from the Howard Street
Church. The first pastor was William Williams.

The Crombie Street Congregational Church or, as it was later called, the Crombie Street Church was in this building until the 21st century. In 1983, The Salem Mission, a program of the Open Door United Church of Christ opened in this building offering shelter and food to the homeless.

Over the next  20 yearsm the Salem Mission provided 34 shelter beds and innumerable meals to the homeless as part of their ministry.

In 2005, the Salem Mission bought the closed St. Mary’s Italian
Church on Margin Street from the Archdiocese of Boston. The mission moved in August 2005 and put this building up for sale. Since then, it has been converted into residential condos as seen in the now pictures.

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