Cincinnati’s theater history lives on through the Digital Library

Written by Clarity Amrein, Senior Library Services Assistant, Downtown Main Library

While we may not be able to bring you the plush seats of a theater and the excitement of a night out, the Library can help you relive the glitz and glam of our city's theater-going past. Cincinnati boasts a rich history of vaudeville variety shows, burlesque, theater, opera, and other stage entertainment. Through the Digital Library, opens a new window and the eBranch, opens a new window, you can read about Cincinnati’s vibrant past, leaf through playbills, and discover how our city earned its nickname “The Queen City of the West.”

A Brief History of the B.F. Keith’s Theatre

In the late 1800s to the mid-1900s, Cincinnati was home to dozens of theaters. The B.F. Keith’s Theatre, located on Fifth and Walnut streets, was first the Fountain Square theater. Opened in 1892, it was designed by Cincinnati architect James W. McLaughlin, who coincidentally also designed the old Main Library downtown.

The theater opened as the Columbia Theatre and then was taken over by Benjamin Franklin Keith, where it operated as a popular vaudeville theater until 1921. It underwent several more renovations until it was razed in the 1960s during a renovation of Cincinnati’s architectural staple Fountain Square. A well-researched article in 2016 from Cincinnati.com details the rise and fall of many beloved Cincinnati theaters, opens a new window

Original Vaudeville and Theater Programs in the Digital Library 

If you visit the Digital Library homepage, you can scroll down the first page and click Cincinnati Vaudeville Programs, opens a new window. Here, you’ll find hundreds of the original playbills, programs, and handbills of B.F. Keith’s renowned theater spanning nearly 30 years around the turn of the 20th century.

Digitally flip through the scans page-by-page to see show lineups, photographs of performers, and vintage advertisements. View programs from the theater during both the Columbia Theatre and B.F. Keith’s eras, where performers like the Marx Brothers and Ginger Rogers once took the stage. You can also download or print many of these materials. 

Admire the ornately illustrated covers and carefully preserved content of other Cincinnati theaters’ playbills too, such as the Empress and Olympic Theatres, the Orpheum, and Pike’s Opera House. Some of the playbills are more than 125 years old. These digital scans are available thanks to the Genealogy & Local History Department at the Downtown Main Library, where the original physical copies are still housed.       

To look at more Cincinnati theater artifacts, the Digital Library also has photographs of theaters and other historic buildings filed under Cincinnati Photo and Print File, opens a new window (you can even find photos of the B.F. Keith’s Theatre’s demolition in 1966). Under Arts & Recreation, opens a new window, you can browse old concert programs and the Symphony Orchestra’s yearbooks since 1895.

Dive Deeper into Cincinnati History through the eBranch & Research Materials

For more reading on Cincinnati’s theater and vaudeville history, visit the eBranch and log in to Hoopla, opens a new window to read Cincinnati Theaters by Steven J. Rolfes, part of the notable Images of America series. Or log in to Freading, opens a new window to read Lost Cincinnati by Jeff Suess. It's all free with your Library card!

NewsBank, opens a new window or ProQuest, opens a new window allows you to read historical editions of the Cincinnati Enquirer, the Cincinnati Post, and others. Dive into full-text news articles about the rise and fall of Cincinnati theater, vaudeville, and burlesque as it was happening.  

With these digital resources, the glamour of a bygone era in Cincinnati’s history lives on, archived for generations to come. Imagine a night out at the theater with one of these playbills in hand as the curtains open - right from your own home.

Visit Cincinnatilibrary.org, opens a new window for more online readings and digital artifacts. 

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