Today, the Orpheum Theater is famous as a concert venue. Live albums by The Police, U2, and Aerosmith have all been recorded in the space; when the theater transitioned from movies and vaudeville to music in the early 1970s, James Brown was among the first performers. Over the years, it’s been known as the Orpheum, the Aquarius, the Music Hall, and the Empire Theater.
The Orpheum, however, was originally built in 1852 as a classical music venue, hosting the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the New England Conservatory of Music shortly after their conception in 1881. It was known then as the Boston Music Hall, and in addition to classical performances, notable speakers were brought to lecture there, including Harriet Beecher Stowe and Oscar Wilde. In 1900, with the expansion of the city and the construction of the subway, the symphony moved to Symphony Hall and ownership of the space changed hands several times before it was remodeled and reopened as a vaudeville theater in 1916.
While still in its earliest iteration, however, the Boston Music Hall served as the setting for the finale of Henry James’ 1885 novel The Bostonians. Though James is known as a transatlantic author, frequently writing about Americans in Europe, he lived in Boston for some years in the mid-1860s. The Bostonians chronicles the relationship between two Boston feminists, Olive and Verena, and the southern lawyer, Basil Ransom, who falls in love with Verena and seeks to draw her away from the city’s radical influences. Much of the novel details the political movements in Boston at the time and Ransom and Olive’s competition for Verena’s interest. In the final, dramatic scene, Ransom describes the Boston Music Hall:
“The place struck him with a kind of Roman vastness; the doors which opened out of the upper balconies, high aloft, and which were constantly swinging to and fro with the passage of spectators and ushers, reminded him of the vomitoria that he had read about in descriptions of the Colosseum…. The hall was so capacious and serious, and the audience increased so rapidly without filling it…”