Walter Scott Butterfield
Michigan’s “Theater Man” (1867-1936)
When Tony Pastor’s Star Troupe brought “The Largest and Best Vaudeville and Specialty Company on Earth” to Kalamazoo’s Union Hall in November 1876, audience members that night were unknowingly witness to the humble beginnings of one of America’s most popular pastimes.
Live stage shows that incorporated comedy, music, dance and drama into a neat and somewhat respectable package quickly found massive new audiences in metropolitan areas and on the road in smaller communities and rural regions. Vaudeville came to dominate popular entertainment in America for decades and remained so through the 1920s.
During the final decades of the 19th century traveling variety shows, concert orchestras, dramatic companies, and minstrel troupes occupied the stages at Union Hall and the Academy of Music, but it took a man named W.S. Butterfield — “The Bijou Man” — to finally establish full time vaudeville theaters in downtown Kalamazoo.
Born April 25, 1867, in Connersville, Indiana, Walter Scott Butterfield developed a fondness for theater at an early age. After moving to Columbus, Ohio, the young Butterfield was delivering newspapers when he discovered the nearby Comstock Theater, where he took a job distributing programs. He soon worked his way up as an usher, doorkeeper, assistant treasurer and finally treasurer. A year or so later Butterfield took a job across town to the Grand Opera House where he put in several more years of work. Theatrical work it seems was in his blood by this time.
In 1891 Butterfield married Maria Louise Mills and moved to Chicago, where he soon found work as treasurer at the Chicago Academy of Music. After the birth of their daughter, Mitties Louise Butterfield (1892–1928), W.S. Butterfield — along with some 27 million others — visited Chicago’s spectacular 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, where he spent time marveling at the many acts along the midway. It was an exciting time to be in Chicago.
The marriage didn’t last but during his time in Chicago Butterfield did manage to connect with the “King of the Melodrama,” Charles E. Blaney, and spent the next dozen years as a manager and part owner doing advance work for Blaney’s traveling theatrical productions, including William Bonelli’s “An American Gentleman” (c.1902) and a massively popular stage adaptation of “Buster Brown” (1905). Butterfield even penned a four-act play of his own in 1901 entitled “An Odd Fellow” (Butterfield was a member of the Odd Fellows (I.O.O.F) fraternal organization), and soon became recognized within the industry as one of the best ahead-of-the-show men in the country.
“Butterfield is business from the word ‘go,’ an enterprising, friendly, affable gentleman whom it is a pleasure to know and who is a desirable resident in any community. Kalamazoo is glad to enroll him among her up-to-date business men…”
—Kalamazoo Gazette, 21 January 1906
Butterfield eventually traded life on the road for domestic life in West Michigan with his second wife, Caroline Kelley McCord (1873–1930), and their two daughters, Caroline Hamilton Butterfield (1903–1954) and Laura McCord Butterfield (1905–1969). The couple met and married in 1903 while actress Caroline was playing the part of Mrs. Brown in the “Buster Brown” road show.
“The Bijou Man”
In 1905 W.S. Butterfield established a string of so-called “Bijou” theaters in Battle Creek, Jackson and eventually Kalamazoo. Soon Butterfield had control of eight such theaters in as many cities across lower Michigan, adding Flint, Bay City, Ann Arbor, Saginaw and Lansing. With such a circuit he was able to secure top quality acts by offering performers a week in each city, which guaranteed a two-month run of steady employment with limited travel expense.
In 1906, Butterfield formed the Bijou Theatrical Enterprise Company, Inc., and expanded his enterprise to 40 such theaters around the Midwest as part of the famous Keith-Proctor circuit, featuring top name entertainers from New York and Chicago. In 1907 he added Port Huron, Dowagiac, Niles, Marshall, and Albion to his growing stable of Michigan theaters, and two more daughters to his growing family; Julia Scott Butterfield (1908–1977) and Helen Butterfield (1911–1955), but hard work soon took its toll and the marriage ultimately failed. The couple divorced in 1921.
While vaudeville was the core of his business, Butterfield eventually realized the growth in popularity of motion pictures and began showing short film reels along with the vaudeville routines in his theaters (he was apparently one of the first to do so). As time went on cinema began to supplant the live variety entertainment. Butterfield responded with a series of upscale entertainment palaces that placed Michigan in step with other major metropolitan areas.
In 1923 “Colonel” Butterfield married his third wife, Irene Dailey and traveled extensively to both Europe and Hawaii. In 1930, they celebrated the birth of daughter Anne Butterfield.
Michigan’s Iconic Movie Palaces
W.S. Butterfield passed away in Boston on April 23, 1936, at the age of 68. He is buried at Oak Hill Cemetery in Battle Creek, but his legacy lives on in the company he founded and the theaters he helped create. W.S. Butterfield Theatres, Inc., was incorporated in 1926 and is currently based Monroe, MI, specializing in nonresidential building operators.
By the 1940s, Butterfield Theaters, Inc. had grown to become the largest independently owned theater circuit in the nation with upwards of 114 theaters under its control, including popular movie houses in Grand Rapids, Flint, Lansing, Ann Arbor, St. Joe, Holland, Big Rapids, Ionia, and Kalamazoo. Many of the theaters W.S. Butterfield helped create survive to this day as testament to the golden age of movie palaces. Butterfield himself was in fact responsible for many of the state’s iconic and most beloved historic theater buildings, including the State Theatre in Kalamazoo, the Michigan Theatre in Jackson, the Capital Theatre in Flint, the State Theatre in Ann Arbor, and others.
Before the days of television and home media, theatrical entertainment was an important part of everyday life in Kalamazoo during the early 20th century, and Walter S. Butterfield was a major part of it. He was responsible for four of the city’s most popular playhouses; the Bijou (est. 1905), the Majestic (est. 1907), the Regent (est. 1919), and the State Theatre (est. 1927). The State Theatre today stands as evidence of W.S. Butterfield’s vision and remains one of Kalamazoo’s most important and beloved entertainment venues.
Like many of our Local History essays, this article is by no means a definitive study; rather it may be viewed as a work-in-progress. If you have new information, corrections, or items to share, please contact the author or the Local History Room.
Written by Keith Howard, Kalamazoo Public Library Staff, 2019.
A History of Theater in Kalamazoo
Pixley, Jorge V.
H 792 P694
Theater in Kalamazoo from 1860–1890
H 792 J65
“Butterfield: His Life Story”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 10 December 1905, Part Three, p.1, col.3.
“Flint In Bijou Circuit”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 28 February 1906, p.4, col.4.
“Bijou Is In New Booking Agency”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 21 August 1906, p.7, col.2.
“Vaudeville Merger Takes In Kalamazoo”
Kalamazoo Gazette, November 22, 1906, p.1, col.5.
“Divorce Asked By Butterfield”
Kalamazoo Gazette, August 25, 1920, p.1.
“Butterfield Is Given Divorce”
Kalamazoo Gazette, April 29, 1921, p.1, col.8.
“Ablaze With Radiant Beauty – Ann Arbor’s New State Theater”
Ann Arbor News, March 17, 1942, p.13-20 (eight-page section devoted to W.S. Butterfield Theatres)
Local History Room Files
History Room Subject File: Theater
History Room Name File: Butterfield, William S.