New Bedford’s Zeiterion at 100: What Was the Very First Show?
The historic theater that houses New Bedford’s Zeiterion Performing Arts Center just turned 100 years old, and there is a celebration of its centennial all this year with an exciting slate of shows.
But what was the first show to be performed at the “Z” back on Opening Night in 1923?
First, some history.
The Zeitz family opened the Zeiterion Theater on April 2, 1923, a time when New Bedford was rich in theaters – at one point, the city had 17 operating theaters. It opened 10 years after the Orpheum Theatre opened in the city’s South End.
In those days of vaudeville, there were large circuits that all ran in specific theaters with acts usually signed exclusively to that circuit. The Orpheum Circuit was one of the largest, along with the Keith Circuit (in 1928, the two circuits merged, eventually becoming the Radio Keith Circuit, more commonly known as RKO).
In 1921, though, as the Keith Circuit reigned supreme, an upstart hit the scene: the Shubert Circuit, organized with a $20 million investment and 20 theaters. The Zeiterion was one of those new Shubert theaters.
By 1923, the Shubert theaters were getting out of vaudeville. Eventually, the Zeiterion became a movie house, fueled by the advent of “talkies” following the release of The Jazz Singer in 1927.
On Opening Night, however, the Zeiterion hosted one of vaudeville’s biggest stars who had created his own touring show. The very first show at “The Z” was George Jessel’s “The Troubles of 1922.”
Jessel became famous for his vaudeville skit “Hello Mama,” in which he had a humorous one-sided phone conversation with his mother. He kept doing the bit throughout his life, into the late 1970s, before his death in 1981.
“The Troubles of 1922” was part of Jessel's smash hit “The Troubles” series, going back to his first solo show in 1919. In those days, it was common for a touring act to come up with a new version each year.
The version that hit the Zeiterion had two very popular songs. One was “When You and I Were Young Maggie Blues,” which had popular recorded versions later by Bing Crosby (with his son Gary), The Four Clefs and others.
The second was “Baby Blue Eyes,” which unfortunately, this was the only version we could find of it online. Apologies for the off-key singing.
Jessel, by the way, originated the lead role of The Jazz Singer on the stage and was set to take the role in that “talkie” later on, but his salary demands were too high and instead Jolson took the role, which became the biggest of his career.
"The Troubles of 1922" had its program printed up in the New Bedford Sunday Standard, promising that opening night would feature “five Shubert vaudeville acts and a musical satire on the revue craze” that was “one of the best that ever happened here.”
The program also boasted of the Zeiterion’s fine design and entertainment lineup.
“In presenting the Zeiterion to the public of New Bedford, the management wishes to give assurances that as neither trouble nor expense has been considered in building a comfortable, commodious and convenient family theater – so neither trouble nor expense will be considered in obtaining the highest type of entertainment,” it read.
See the full-page Opening Night program here
“We intend to give New Bedford first class productions of metropolitan standard. We believe there are enough theater-going people in the city to support such productions,” it read.
When discussing the ornate look of the theater, it read, “Newspaper and print are poor mediums with which to convey to you the myriad artistic beauties of color and design so effectively used in the interior decorating of the Zeiterion.”
“It is safe to assert that you never saw a handsomer piece of work in any theater anywhere. It is New Bedford’s playhouse and New Bedford is going to be as proud of it as the management is. Down to the minutest detail, exceptional care has been taken to make it not only the newest but the best. We are satisfied to leave the verdict in your hands.”
“The designs are none of them stock; they were all made-to-order so as to harmonize with the general aesthetic effect. The result is astounding,” it continued. “You’re going to like the Zeiterion, and the better you come to know and to appreciate it, the more you’re going to like it.”
It’s safe to say that 100 years later, New Bedford still really likes and appreciates the Zeiterion, which is currently undergoing a $31 million renovation. Oh, and the Orpheum – shuttered for decades – has hit the market once again.
“The Z” will hold a public celebration on Saturday, August 12 before the restoration begins. It is also collecting the public’s memories of the theater or its wishes for the future on the Zeiterion Story Hotline, so call (774) 425-3417 and leave your voicemail message.