Celebrating the Past with Our Gaiety Theatre Exhibit

When we decided on a location for The Kensington, the spot came with an important challenge: How would we honor the building that was here before us? The Gaiety Theatre, designed by architect Clarence Blackall, played a starring role in the history of American burlesque.

Our team carefully preserved countless artifacts from the building and then faced the challenge of selecting one for our front window box exhibit. We turned to Linda Ziemba and Trace Design Group.

Ziemba was thrilled to review the many artifacts The Kensington had preserved from the original theater. “It is a substantial collection,” she offers. “We needed to be selective. How could we best create a feeling of what the original burlesque theater was all about?”

The focal point, it was ultimately decided, should come from the elaborate arch that surrounded the stage opening. “The stage had this very ornate proscenium arch with the faces of the ‘Gaiety Girls.’ They had saved these enormous pieces of the arch,” explains Ziemba. “Our idea was to use the plaster cast of the original Gaiety Girl keystone and make her the centerpiece of our exhibit. We took the 800-pound fragment to an artist in Somerville, where it was reinforced, painted and ultimately brought back to her former grandeur.”

In the 1920s, the Gaiety was one of the few theaters that featured black performers and integrated shows for integrated audiences.

“I learned a great deal about the girls who danced and the early gateway to the stage that burlesque proved to be for different populations,” says Ziemba. “It was the great equalizer in those days. Minorities who couldn’t perform in vaudeville could perform burlesque.”

Displayed alongside the Gaiety Girl in the stunning window exhibit are photographs — a combination of Boston dancers and other famous burlesque dancers from all over. The Boston Public Library and the Harvard Theater Collection at Harvard’s Houghton Library were instrumental to the photographic elements in the exhibit, providing access to their photo archives and working with researcher Nora Long in support of the project.

“It was such a fun project to work on,” Ziemba says. “The team was great. We had a lot of support from The Kensington. I had no idea of the colorful history of Boston’s theatrical past, and to be a part of showcasing untold stories from this era was such an honor.”