A closed Keith’s Theater advertises “It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World” at the nearby Indiana Theater
Today, scaffolding surrounds the Consolidated Building at 115 North Pennsylvania Street in downtown Indianapolis as TWG Development, LLC restores the 1910 high-rise into apartments and retail space. But did you know that long before the last tenants, Downtown Comics, moved out of the R. P. Daggett & Co. designed building in 2000, its front doors once led the way to a theater that featured Indy’s first peek at a moving picture?
On September 13th, 1875, on ground that once was the location of a wooden shack housing a fur, hide and produce store, Park Theater owners Dickson & Talbott opened the Grand Opera House. The Grand was Indianapolis’ preeminent locale for both “serious” theater and variety acts until the 1880 opening of the English Opera House & Hotel a few blocks away on the circle.
According to an August, 1964 article covering the closing of the theater, control of The Grand was passed to Vaudevillian promoters Anderson & Ziegler in 1901 and then to Vaudevillian magnate B.F. Keith soon after. However, Keith and Co. had to have taken over control at least three years prior, as the theater is clearly listed as Keith’s Grand Opera House in the above portion of the 1898 Sandborn Insurance Map of Indianapolis.
The aforementioned Benjamin Franklin Keith, a New Hampshire native born January 26, 1846, indeed ran away and joined the circus as a young man. Inspired by the touring “Van Amburg’s Circus“, a circus company that bore the name of its founder and the world’s first “lion-tamer”, Isaac Van Amburg, Keith joined the Forepaugh Circus, worked for P.T. Barnum protege George Bunnell’s curiosity museum in New York, and then worked for Barnum himself before opening his own dime museum in Boston in 1883.
Keith teamed up with fellow circus promoter, Edward Franklin Albee II to take over Boston’s Bijou Theater in 1885. As Antebellum America’s appetite for the Vaudevillian variety show exploded and the novelty of the movie picture gained interest, the two built or took over theaters in New York, Philadelphia and all over the Midwest, including the Grand Opera House in Indianapolis. After Keith’s death in 1914, their company, by then very invested in the burgeoning motion picture industry, merged with a rival circuit of theaters know as the Orpheum. This newly merged conglomerate originally went by the Keith-Albee-Orpheum Co. but a few months later was renamed, the more memorable Radio-Keith-Orpheum (or RKO) Motion Picture Studios.
In 1910, the series of small buildings that lined Pennsylvania Street were razed to make room for the 15 story Lemcke Annex (later the Consolidated Building) that was built adjacent to the existing (and now non-existing) Lemcke Building at the northeast corner of Market and Pennsylvania Streets, and owned by local business man Ralph A. Lemcke, who would later lose as an anti-Klan candidate in the 1925 Republican Mayoral primary to the Ku Klux Klan supported John Duvall.
Keith’s Theater entertained Indianapolis through the first three decades of the 20th century with a combination of theater, motion pictures and variety acts, including at least one engagement by famed magician and escape artist Harry Houdini, who tailored his act to Indianapolis’ heavily Germanic population by escaping from a tub of beer provided by the Indianapolis Brewing Co.
The Depression hit the entertainment industry hard as Americans struggled to feed themselves, let alone come up with the means to purchase entertainment, and Keith’s had to tighten the belt as well, offering shows at rock-bottom prices. In 1936, the theater was occupied by the New Deal funded Federal Players who produced 33 plays in their first and only season.
Keith’s continued to struggle into the ’40s even after the addition of the air conditioning that theater goers had grown accustomed to and now required. In the few years immediately after the end of World War II, the theater returned to its Vaudevillian roots, offering variety acts including the likes of Blackstone the Magician. However, with old theaters around downtown became increasingly difficult to fill with the dawning of the television age, Keith’s permanently closed in 1964 and it was announced the aging opera house would be destroyed. Confusion arose with said announcement, as many in the community didn’t distinguish the theater from its Consolidated Building entrance. But the Consolidated was spared the fate of Keith’s, whose owners had arranged the razing of the theater to expand in its own right. While the Keith’s Opera House is on the long list of ornate movie houses that no longer grace the Mile Square, at least we are fortunate to not lose the high-rise that sealed its fate.