A haunting on Huntington
Theater imbued with spirit of founder
By Eric McHenry
The Jewett Repertory Theatre, defunct since 1930, enjoyed a brief revival on Huntington Avenue in early August.
BU physical plant workers, replacing a wooden School for the Arts sign over the Boston University Theatre's stage entrance, uncovered the Jewett's original blazon. Engraved on the building's stone façade, it reads The Jewett Repertory Theatre Fund Inc Administration Bvildg in foot-tall letters -- a reminder of the man who built and is believed still to haunt the theater.
"People found it fascinating," says Roger Meeker, director of the BU Theatre production center and SFA assistant professor. "None of us knew that sign was underneath. There are always little bits and pieces of surprising theater history that get uncovered, because no one has ever kept a really comprehensive record."
Meeker guesses that the Jewett sign hadn't seen the light of day since 1981, the last time major renovations of the theater took place. BU has owned the block of buildings that now houses the Huntington Theatre Company, stretching from 252 to 264 Huntington Ave., since 1953. Originally known as the Repertory Theatre of Boston, the complex was built in the mid-1920s to accommodate a troupe called the Henry Jewett Players, America's first resident professional theater company.
An Australian-born actor and director best known as Julia Marlowe's leading man, Henry Jewett mustered his players shortly after the turn of the century and began staging Shakespeare at the Boston Opera House. He moved them to a facility called the Copley Theatre in 1916, and seven years later established the Jewett Repertory Fund, which enabled construction of what was to be his company's permanent home. In choosing the Huntington Avenue site, he deliberately placed his theater in the thick of Boston's cultural landmarks -- Symphony Hall, the Museum of Fine Arts, the Opera House. The city seemed to embrace Jewett's project. Sponsors of the fund included such prominent Brahmins as A. Lawrence Lowell, president of Harvard University, and U.S. President Calvin Coolidge. The theater opened with a production of Richard Brinsley Sheridan's The Rivals on November 10, 1925.
But despite its auspicious beginning and tax-exempt status, the company couldn't stay in the black for very long. The reasons for its failure remain hazy. One hard-to-substantiate story involves Mrs. Jewett's absconding with the business manager and all the money. To be certain, the Jewett faced competition from commercial playhouses in the Boylston/Tremont district, and from a new form of entertainment, the talkie. When the theater closed in 1930, it was converted into a movie house. Jewett himself died the same year.
It would be misleading, however, to say that he'd given up the ghost. On the contrary, many believe that Jewett has remained an artist-in-residence at the theater. At times, he has seemed simply to be a benign presiding spirit. More often he's been a prankster.
Meeker himself claims to have met the late impresario many years ago, when returning to his office after an evening rehearsal.
"Some spirit," he says, "somebody, was down at the end of the hall. It was a man, dressed in sort of Elizabethan garb, and it was all of the things that you typically associate with ghosts -- a figure that you can see through, sort of gray and diaphanous.
"I kept approaching," he recalls. "I'm curious about these things -- but the figure, the vision, disappeared. And it wasn't like it walked out of the room or anything. It just went away.
"Now how much of this is imagination and suggestion I don't know," Meeker says. "At the time, all the kids claimed to have seen the ghost -- sitting in the theater watching a rehearsal or something. So the power of suggestion was pretty strong. And everyone in theater has a fairly vivid imagination anyway. Most of these sightings could simply have been products of that imagination. But on the other hand, I don't dismiss the possibility of there being some kind of an energy around that does manifest itself. Who knows?"
A few years after Meeker's encounter, a Jewett descendant offered the University a portrait of Henry, dressed in Elizabethan garb. At the relative's request, the portrait was restored and hung over the grand staircase leading up from the theater's lobby. Ghost sightings, Meeker says, have tapered off since then.
"I can't think of anyone who would claim to have seen him within the past year," he says. "So we don't know if he's happy with what's going on and therefore has gone on to some other haunt, or what.
"We certainly like to think of it as positive feedback on our productions."