The Wilbur Theatre was built in 1914 by the Shubert brothers who named it for their friend and theatre manager A.L. Wilbur. It was built on the site of the former Winthrop School for Girls. The Wilbur was the first Boston theatre to draw its inspiration from American Colonial architecture rather than from European sources. It was designed by architect Clarence H. Blackall. To ensure authenticity, the porticos on the front of the theatre were copied directly from the 1837 Thomas Bailey Midrich House at 59 Mt. Vernon Street on Beacon Hill. This Federal Revival style is characterized by a quiet simplicity and intimate, almost home-like atmosphere. Architectural historian Douglas Tucci said of the Wilbur, "The auditorium is in its chaste way the handsomest of any Boston playhouse."
The Wilbur Theatre opened in 1914 with a production of Romance starring Dorothy Keane. Over the years The Wilbur has been the scene of many landmark theatrical productions, including Thornton Wilder's Our Town (1938), A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), in which Marlon Brando became an overnight superstar, My Sister Eileen with Betty Furness (1941), A Bell for Adano with Frederick March, A Long Day's Journey Into Night (1956) with Frederick March and Jason Robards, Jr., and Dear Liar (1960), in which Katharine Cornell gave the last performance of her distinguished career.
Other stars who have appeared on The Wilbur stage include Ethel Barrymore, Fred Astaire, Claire Luce, Jessica Tandy, Hume Cronyn, Montgomery Clift, Joan Blondell, Karl Maiden and Brian Bedford. Throughout the years The Wilbur has changed hands many times and has had a colorful history. In 1969, the Jujamcyn Company took over the theatre from the Shubert Organization, undertaking a restoration of the theatre with included the addition of air-conditioning. Under Jujamcyn management, spectacles such as Hair and charmers such as You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown dismayed or delighted thousands of Bostonians.
The subsequent owners, Charles Parker and Richard Bader, attempted to maintain the theatre in its traditional configuration, presenting a production of All My Sons in the spring of 1987. In September 1987, growing financial pressure led to the decision to install tables and chairs in the orchestra to create a cabaret club. When they later attempted to install a nightclub in The Wilbur with dancing on the stage, (May 1988) local theater unions picketed the theater and the nightclub show closed.
A $500,000 renovation was undertaken in 1989 when Robert S. Merowitz purchased the building. The renovation included re-rigging the stage, soundproofing the theatre, restoring the seats, and making the theatre handicapped accessible. It re-opened to a gala performance of Steel Magnolias in October, 1989. Bruce Rossley, the city's Commissioner of Arts and Humanities, hailed the re-opening, "The Wilbur is one of the gems of the Midtown Cultural District, and it's about time it took its rightful place as one of the best theaters in our city." Producer and current lease-holder Jon B. Platt added, "This means that dozens of Off-Broadway hits that have by-passed the city because there wasn't an appropriate venue for them, will now come to Boston."
In 1996, Platt ushered in a new era for the theatre with the premier of Master Class starring Academy Award-winner Faye Dunaway. This and the 1998 sold-out pre-Broadway engagement of Wait Until Dark starring Academy Award-winners Marisa Tomei and Quentin Tarantino have helped to restore Boston's position as a proving ground for theatrical productions bound for the Great White Way. In subsequent years, Broadway Across America pulled out of the Wilbur Theatre. The theatre stood dark for 90% of the time with one time productions like 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and A Night at the Rock Opera popping up here and there.
In 2007 the theatre was put on the market. In 2008 it was leased by Bill Blumenreich, owner of the Comedy Connection and will serve as the home of the Comedy Connection in Boston (formerly located in Quincy Market), hosting both comedy and musical talent. The Comedy Connection, which has been around for more than a quarter century, has featured big names such as Chris Rock, Dane Cook, Rosie O'Donnell, Dennis Miller, Robin Williams and so many more. This transition makes the Wilbur Theatre the first comedy theater in the country.