The Keith-Albee Performing Arts Center opened to the public on May 8, 1928 as the Keith-Albee Theatre. The Hyman brothers, majority owners of The Greater Huntington Theatre Corporation, built the Keith-Albee, to greatly enhance their family of downtown theatres that then included the Huntington, the Orpheum, and the State. Its magnificent facade and lavish interior were designed by Thomas Lamb, one of America’s greatest theatre architects.
The Hymans named their new theatre in honor of the then premiere “vaudeville” booking company in the East, the “Keith-Albee Circuit.” Though largely forgotten today, vaudeville was once considered the most popular form of entertainment in the country. Vaudeville circuits fielded programs throughout the nation that presented an array of performances in a series of unrelated acts that, when aggregated, provided an enjoyable, live variety show. With the growth of motion picture popularity in the early part of the Twentieth Century, the nation’s top theatre operators adopted programming that alternated the screening of feature films with the presentation of vaudeville programs. The Keith-Albee was built to accommodate that format.
Benjamin Keith and Edward Albee were master vaudeville producers and their contracted entertainers were among the best in America. At the outset, this dazzling theatre exclusively featured vaudeville entertainers under contract to the then famous Keith-Albee Circuit to complement its feature length films.
By the end of 1928 vaudeville’s “Orpheum Circuit” had merged with the Keith-Albee Circuit and fast growing company in the new field of radio, RCA had purchased control of the Keith-Albee-Orpheum Circuit and its collection of more than 700 medium-sized and large theatres. RCA then formed RKO Radio Pictures (Radio-Keith-Orpheum) to produce, exhibit and distribute a then new technological marvel, sound movies, “Talkies,” as they were known. In doing so, RCA could make full, profitable use of its newly patented sound-on-film technology. Sound motion pictures quickly became America’s preferred entertainment and the vaudeville art form all but disappeared by 1940.
One of America’s most prolific and revered theatre architects, New York based Scotsman, Thomas L. Lamb, designed the Keith-Albee. That Lamb did so in the rare “atmospheric style” arguably makes the Keith-Albee his most special confection still operating. Thomas Lamb and his firm designed more than three hundred theatres worldwide. However, they only created eight of the expensive and exotic “atmospherics.”
In atmospheric theatres the auditorium is designed to create the illusion of being entertained outdoors in a magnificent courtyard. The audience is typically surrounded by the faux facades of various village homes and shops. Overhead, the domed ceiling simulates an expansive, blue night sky holding twinkling stars that are crossed by lazily drifting clouds. Intricate plasterwork, chandeliers, sconces and balconies create an air of sophistication. Even the restroom lounges are fittingly elegant. The atmospheric Keith-Albee clearly exemplified the opulence and grandeur of the 1920’s through its endless Spanish Baroque features.
Among the cutting-edge technology that Abe and Sol Hyman provided to the Keith-Albee was its cooling system. By 1925 New York’s pioneering mechanical engineer, Willis Carrier, had refined his early version of air conditioning sufficiently to adapt it to very large spaces. Carrier convinced William Fox, who then controlled Paramount Pictures, to test his new system in Paramount’s Thomas Lamb designed Rivoli Theatre in Times Square. Fox agreed to the successful trial since business lagged terribly at the Rivoli and at all theatres during hot weather.
Three years later the Hymans approved the expensive and elaborate Carrier system for the Keith-Albee. In Carrier’s system a chiller would cool water to a range of 35-40 degrees which was then pumped to a large air handling device on the top level of the theatre for distribution. The process began as already geothermal cool water was provided to the chiller from a well drilled under the theatre. Air passed then through a mist of the further chilled water thereby removing heat from the air. The freshly chilled air was then circulated into the auditorium through vents at the seat bases thus providing an air conditioned environment---astounding at the time. With the Keith-Albee’s early cool air system added to its state-of-the-art steam heating system, its full house capacity of 2,622 patrons could enjoy the fantasy courtyard in complete comfort in summer or winter.
In the Keith-Albee’s early years its audiences were treated to music from a top quality Wurlitzer theatre organ. It was a three manual (having three keyboards) and pedal organ and boasted 13 ranks of pipes. It possessed the traditional tuned percussions and traps (sound effects) which were very useful in accompanying silent films. The organ was sold sometime in the 1950s. However, thanks to Dr. Robert Edmunds and the Huntington Theatre Organ Project, Inc. he founded, the Keith-Albee’s original organ was found, purchased and returned to the Keith-Albee in 2009. In the years of its absence it had been installed in Muscatine, Iowa, Charleston, West Virginia and Greensboro, North Carolina.
The reinstalled Keith-Albee organ now has even more musical breadth than it did in 1928 as more effects have been added, including an English Post Horn and a brass Saxophone. The Keith-Albee’s Wurlitzer is one of only two built for theatres in West Virginia which have now been returned to their home theatres. The other absent Wurlitzer was recently returned to the Granada Theatre in Bluefield, WV.
It is unusual for a theatre anywhere outside of a few metropolitan areas in the country to host a major motion picture’s worldwide premiere. Nevertheless, the magnificent Keith-Albee has had the distinction of hosting two of them and even one preview “premiere” prior to that film’s actual worldwide premiere in New York City.
In 1969, the Warner Brothers film Bridge at Remagen, starring George Segal, Robert Vaughn and Ben Gazzara, was first screened before a capacity audience at the Keith-Albee. The movie was based on a novel by Ken Heckler who served West Virginia via multiple terms in the U.S. Congress and as Secretary of State. Congressman Heckler had actually participated in the army campaign that sought to capture the bridge at Remagen, Germany in 1945, the subject of the film.
In 1988 Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise starred in the United Artists film Rain Man. As a kindness to the Autism Services Center in Huntington, which is housed in the Keith-Albee building, Dustin Hoffman and others associated with the film came to Huntington for a pre-premier benefit for Autism Services. Thus the film was screened in Huntington before its official premiere in New York.
The most important film for Huntington to premiere at the Keith-Albee is We Are Marshall. This movie tells the story of the tragic 1969 plane crash near Huntington which killed all onboard, including nearly all of the Marshall University football team and many key staff and supporters. The film starred Matthew McConaughey and much of it was filmed on location in Huntington. In fact, part of the filming even took place in and outside the Keith-Albee, yet another compliment for the theatre.
With the advent of multiplex cinemas the Keith-Albee was divided into multiple screening rooms. Jack and Edwin Hyman, Abe Hyman’s sons and heirs to whom care of the theatre was passed, were very careful with the historic fabric of the showplace they operated. Changes that were made in subdividing the auditorium could be easily be reversed as a result and later were.
Today, film festivals, weddings, graduations, dance recitals and a host of other events are held at the Keith-Albee. Touring Broadway shows and name acts, ranging in recent years from Frankie Valli and Smokey Robinson to Taylor Swift and Jay Leno keep the Keith-Albee’s stage busy as well. Perhaps most importantly, Marshall University’s “Marshall Artists Series,” which is distinguished as the second longest running collegiate performing arts series in the nation, has presented top national acts and shows on the Keith-Albee’s stage since 1939. More recently, the theatre became the permanent home to the Huntington Symphony Orchestra.
In 2006, the Keith-Albee stopped showing regularly scheduled movies but the theatre’s use as a live performance and special events venue was uninterrupted. In that same year the Greater Huntington Theatre Corporation graciously donated the theatre to the Marshall University Foundation. Later that year, title was transferred to the newly formed Keith-Albee Performing Arts Center Foundation, Inc., the tax exempt, charitable corporation which operates the Keith-Albee today.
With the planned for demolition of New York’s RKO Keith’s, Huntington’s Keith-Albee will become the only remaining Thomas Lamb designed atmospheric theatre in the world. It is currently unique in that it is the only one operating. New York’s RKO Keith’s has stood abandoned and declining for more than twenty years as court and political battles over its future have dragged on. With its roof nearly gone and its neglected and gutted interior crumbling, the theatre is scheduled for demolition soon. There is a chance that the less damaged lobby might be saved and restored as a part of the 26 story condominium tower that is planned for the site.
The RKO Keith’s opened to the public on Christmas Day, 1928, just a few months after Huntington’s Keith-Albee debuted. In that the RKO Keith’s was built and owned by the Keith-Albee Circuit itself, it was also first named “The Keith-Albee Theatre,” just as its West Virginia sibling.
Of the approximately 43 Thomas Lamb theatres known to be standing today perhaps the best known is the Boston Opera House. Meanwhile, two restored and busy Lamb-designed theatres that are not far from Huntington are the sumptuous Ohio and Palace theatres in downtown Columbus, Ohio.
Thomas Lamb’s few atmospheric theatres were expensive to construct. The Keith-Albee cost over $2 million in 1928. That equates today to a cost of just under $28 million, but only after a simple inflation adjustment. Constructing such a complex and ornate structure now would undoubtedly cost much more due to the high quality materials and craftsmanship involved---both now in short supply and disproportionately costly.
Understandably, this theatre was eagerly awaited following its announced construction and was immediately recognized as an ornament to the city when completed. With its opening, a special “Keith-Albee Section” in Huntington’s Herald-Advertiser gushed over the dazzling new theatre, lauding it as a “temple of amusement.” Now, nearly a century later, Mr. Lamb’s only operating atmospheric theatre is still, very much, a temple of amusement… and very much an ornament to its city.