Benjamin Franklin Keith (B. F. Keith) was a vaudeville entrepreneur and known as the father of the “bigtime” entertainment. B.F. Keith was born in January 26, 1846 in Hillsborough Bridge, New Hampshire. He died in March 26, 1914, at The Breakers, Palm Beach Florida. Mr. Keith is best known for gentrifying vaudeville entertainment, from preceding honky-tonk entertainment, to the wholesome family entertainment for the middle-class. He had many elegant theaters throughout the United States and Canada. This article summarizes his most significant contributions for vaudeville entertainment by pointing out a few prominent themes that emerged from the cited sources.
Early influences on vaudeville
B. F. Keith left home at the age of seven to work on a farm in western Massachusetts. In the farm, he had a strongly religious upbringing. Wertheim points out that this gave him a strong sense of morality which “influenced his zealous crusade to eliminate indecency from the variety stage” and that “the farm life bred other traits that became vital to Keith’s achievements, especially the values of perseverance and thrift” necessary to becoming a strict practical businessman (5). At age 17 Mr. Keith left farming to begin his show business career in traveling circuses. While he did various jobs he was especially impressed by Amburgh's Circus that attempted to capture a mass audience. This experience provided Mr. Keith a good training ground to “Get the Coin” (his motto, meaning grab as much money as you can) while at the same time proclaiming moral purity and educational values in entertainment (McLean 32).
Mr. Keith was influenced by Tony Pastor, who worked to cleanse the stigma of the vulgar working class men-only “variety” acts . This was known as his “Respectability Mania.” Saloons, liquor, and prostitution played no part in his entertainment (Alan 105). Later, in 1883, Mr. Keith pushed this concept even further for the broader audience when he opened his Boston dime museum. At the museum, performers did continuous wholesome live variety acts in a 300-seat theater to promote entertainment for the family and not just the men. Redefining “variety” in the late 19th century was challenging however. Allan states that, “the function and meaning of variety acts differs as we move from one institutional context (the concert saloon) to another (the dime museum). Keith’s problem was not removing the taint of immorality from variety, but removing a working-class stigma from the dime museum” (114). In time though, Mr. Keith did work out through this challenge with his advisor and business partner, Edward Franklin Albee.
Partnership with Edwin Franklin Albee
The history of B. F. Keith is incomplete without his right-hand man, Edwin Franklin Albee who was a superb and penny-pinching manager from a similar background as that of Mr. Keith. Mr. Albee was born in 1857 in Machias port, on Machias Bay, Maine. When Albee was 19 he joined the P.T. Barnum Circus in 1876 and worked as a ticket seller. He also worked as a “fixer”, which was a type of advisor for the entertainment business who worked through problems of personnel and sales. Through their circus and dime museum connections they met and became friends. Like Mr. Keith, Albee also had a religious upbringing and a love of money. This made him instrumental as Mr. Keith’s advisor for transforming the museum into big time vaudeville entertainment (Wertheim 21).
Gentrifying vaudeville for the masses
As Mr. Keith’s right hand man, Albee said that he wanted his spectators “to behave as gentlemen or stay away from the theater.” Before shows would start Albee would make spectators aware of the theater policy: “When you come to this theater you are to treat the people in the audience and on the stage with respect or you are not to come here. The men and boys are to remove their hats. If you like a performer’s work you are to show your appreciation by hand-clapping. If you don’t like it, you can be silent or go out. there is to be no yelling, whistling, or hissing in this theater.” (Wertheim 30). Mr. Keith took Albee’s advice and communicated principles of courtesy to his audience in various ways. He gave his ushers strong supervisory power and he was known to rule over his employees with an iron fist, forcing them to comply with his ideas. For example, he had signs backstage that reminded the performers not to use vulgar language on the stage. Audience members who misbehaved were removed from the theater. Mr. Keith catered to the middle-class audience but kept to his strict standards.
Civility of big-time vaudeville wasn’t just communicated by rules explicitly stated, but also suggested in the classy ambience Mr. Keith created in his theaters. In time, his new approach to vaudeville had become so popular that he was pressed for space and he began to build theaters that resembled palaces. King explains the interior of the Austin Texas Palace Theater stating that “there was a commodious foyer with three doors leading to the orchestra and iron stairways rising to the balconies. Auditorium walls were done in buff and lavender and woodwork in white and gold, while the vaulted dome was as azure as the sky with floral wreaths tucked into its corner” (98). Such theaters were not new. They had already used for upper-class entertainment. What Keith did new was create elegant vaudeville houses for everyone (McLean 195). The vaudeville palace also functioned as a space were the public could escape their worries as they entered a dazzling atmosphere to be edified, mystified, and amazed.
Expansion and success of the Keith-Albee circuit
Mr. Keith did have tangles with managers of other vaudeville circuits. Smith states that Mr. Keith worked with the authoritarian principle that if you can’t lick them, buy them out or drive them out (13). He saw no problem between his religious principles and this behavior. After his death, Albee took over the powerful organization. The Keith-Albee circuit eventually controlled and subdued the competition of rivaling vaudeville managers by creating the United Booking Office (UBO) in the 1920s. This was a complex and monopolistic organization that worked as the middleman between agents and performers. In sum, the UBO ensured that Keith-Albee had virtually no competition (Smith 12). By 1915 after Mr. Keith had died, the Keith-Albee circuit controlled about 1500 theaters in the United States and Canada. In 1928 an additional 700 theaters from the Orpheum circuit merged into the Keith-Albee circuit. This made it the largest vaudeville circuit in the country. It could seat 1,500,000 people, had assets of $65,000,000, and employed more than 15,000 entertainers.
Documents of the life of B. F. Keith are scant but we do see the large effect he had in developing American vaudeville entertainment. This brief essay gives a few themes on the life and contributions of B. F. Keith. In sum, he knew how to appeal to the masses, keep his shows clean, take good advice, and make big profits, often at the expense of others. This made him extremely successful. Further research on his life and contribution to vaudeville can done through the University of Iowa Special Collections Library (Keith/Albee Collection).
"700 THEATRES MERGED IN VAUDEVILLE CIRCUIT: Keith-Albee and Orpheam Now Largest in Country--
Final Papers Signed." New York Times (1923-Current file) 1928, pp. 14.
Allen, Robert C. "B.F. Keith and the Origins of American Vaudeville." Theatre Survey, vol. 21, no. 2, 1980.,
DiMeglio, John E. Vaudeville USA. Popular Press, 1973.
Keith/Albee Collection- University of Iowa Libraries. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Dec. 2016.
King, Donald C., 2005. The theaters of Boston: a stage and screen history, Jefferson, N.C.
McLean, Albert F. American Vaudeville as Ritual, University of Kentucky Press, Lexington, Ky., 1965.
Smith, Bill. The Vaudevillians. Macmillan Publishing Company, 1976.
Wertheim, Arthur F., 1935. Vaudeville Wars: How the Keith-Albee and Orpheum Circuits Controlled the
Big-Time and its Performers, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2006.