On April 2, 1923, New Bedford opened its last new theatre in the city’s downtown area – THE ZEITERION. Built for the “live performance of vaudeville”, it opened with “Troubles of 1922” starring and written by George Jessel. Barney Zeitz and his brothers built the $800,000 Zeiterion with the intention it be the biggest and best theatre in New Bedford. The two story tapestry brick building, designed by Frank Leary and Frank Walker, is an adaption of the Georgian Revival style. Inside, the decorative shield with the family’s “Z” logo and marble columned walls dominated the lobby. The Morning Mercury described the auditorium as “Impressive in its beauty.” The color scheme was ivory and old rose; silk tapestry on the walls, a frieze of gold leaf Grecian dancing figures; a large oval sunset scene on the ceiling, an orchestra rail of solid gum wood, and a $7,000 cut glass Czechoslovakian chandelier.
The theatre did not meet with immediate success and by September 1923 it had closed briefly and reopened that month as the STATE, a silent movie house. Its first film was the New England premiere of D. W. Griffith’s, “The White Rose”. From this point on the STATE would feature only occasional live performances.
Five world premieres were held at the STATE. The most important premiere was the 1956 opening of “Moby Dick” complete with Gregory Peck in attendance, a Time magazine souvenir issue and a white whale that terrified audiences everywhere. The STATE was modernized in 1971.
Marble walls were covered with wood paneling, chandeliers in the lobby were removed, contemporary rocking seats replaced original leather and black paint replaced ivory and old rose.
On December 31, 1981, the Penler Brothers of Paragon Travel donated the theatre portion of the building to the Waterfront Historic Area League (WHALE) who provided $200,000 for the first phase of restoration and commissioned a feasibility study.
Once one of 17 operating theatres in New Bedford, the Zeiterion has been restored to its original grandeur. It is reborn as the symbol of an age when theatres were truly palaces for the people.
The ZEITERION held it’s gala-reopening on September 25, 1982 starring Shirley Jones in Concert.
To become eligible for major state funding for restoration, WHALE transferred title of the theatre to the City of New Bedford. The building is now managed and maintained by The Zeiterion Theatre, Inc.
Beginning in the summer of 2014, Phase I of The Zeiterion renovation focused primarily on the exterior of the building and included repointing of the brick façade, three banks of doors with beautiful mill work, along with the restoration and replacement of much of the original architectural white terra cotta trim.
The $1.1 million project was funded and managed by the City of New Bedford through a combination of the City’s Capital Improvement Program, and grants from U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) Program, and the Massachusetts Cultural Council’s Cultural Facilities Fund.
“The Zeiterion is our region’s premiere performing arts center, one of the most important cultural institutions in New Bedford, and a major economic driver for our downtown,” said Mayor Jon Mitchell. “The building—inside and out—should reflect its stature as a presenter of world-class programming. The completion of this initial phase of the façade restoration is a major milestone toward returning this building to its original glory.”