In his 2013 work “Pioneer Theatre in the Boise Basin: 1863-1899,” Dr. Charles Lauterbach examined the historical circumstances that allowed Boise to earn its status as a bona-fide “show town” at the beginning of the 20th century. His latest book, “The Golden Age of Boise Theatre: 1900-1920,” picks up where “Pioneer Theatre” left off, detailing the heyday of live theatrical performance in the city. Lauterbach’s book is an engaging reference work that celebrates a fascinating era in Boise’s cultural history.
Thanks in part to Boise’s connection to the national railroad system beginning in 1883 and the subsequent population boom, a variety of theatrical companies and performers made the city a regular stop on their circuit at the turn of the century. With residencies ranging from a week to several months, Lauterbach describes the variety of entertainment audiences enjoyed, including Broadway dramas, stock company farces and melodramas, vaudeville productions, minstrels and big tent variety shows.
A professor emeritus of Boise State’s Department of Theatre Arts, Lauterbach’s research is presented in his signature style, filled with amusing, anecdotal tidbits throughout. He provides a comprehensive overview of the theatrical entertainment offered to Boise residents on a year-by-year basis from 1900 through 1920. His detailed narrative includes the number and type of theatrical performances, performer names, venue information and critical and popular reactions to the productions according to the local press.
While the focus of Lauterbach’s study is live entertainment, the introduction of moving pictures inevitably makes its way into Boise’s theatrical history during this era. Live entertainment peaked in Boise in 1909 when residents attended nearly 400 performances throughout the year. Following that, as the film industry gained momentum, live productions decreased steadily. With approximately 32 movie theaters opening in Boise between 1904 and 1930, Lauterbach describes how the two art forms were initially closely intertwined until the moving picture industry came to dominate the entertainment business. He concludes that after 1920, Boise could no longer claim the theatrical “show town” status it once held.
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While we are fortunate to enjoy high-quality theater productions in Boise today, little evidence of Boise’s theatrical Golden Age remains visible on our streets. As new construction continues to change the landscape of the city, Lauterbach’s book reminds us that 100 years ago theater managers noisily competed for business by shouting through megaphones while standing in front of their grand theaters, long since demolished. Only the Turner Theatre — a venue that once hosted nationally acclaimed performers from 1907 to 1913 — still stands as the popular nightclub China Blue on the corner of 6th and Main streets. Built seven years after Lauterbach’s defined Golden Age, the Egyptian Theatre offers our best glimpse into early Boise theatrical history, continuously presenting film and live performances since it opened in 1927.
Though the venues are gone, “The Golden Age of Boise Theatre” preserves the details of the era, evoking the sights and sounds of a lively entertainment scene. Fans of theater, film and local history will immensely enjoy Dr. Lauterbach’s account of Boise’s theatrical glory days.
Gwyn Hervochon is an archivist and librarian in Special Collections and Archives at Boise State University’s Albertsons Library.