Exhibit celebrates the glory days of neighborhood 'picture palaces'
At E.M. Loew's Davis Square theater, folks were laughing it up at the antics of Abbott and Costello in "Hold That Ghost"—and 10 lucky patrons won a Thanksgiving turkey. Over at Teele Square, they were watching Bette Davis and James Cagney in "The Bride Came C.O.D.," and 15 people went home with a free bird. And at the Somerville and Broadway theaters, a double-bill was preceded by Uncle Ned's Radio Varieties—"Stars of Nightclubs and Radio!"
Sixty years ago, that was a typical Saturday night in Somerville, a city that once boasted 14 neighborhood movie theaters and supported the kind of vibrant cinema-going experience that thrived during the first half of the last century.
All but one of the theaters are gone now, but the stories of "The Lost Theatres of Somerville" have been resurrected by a Tufts anthropologist and his students, who have worked with several community groups to document this piece of cultural history. Their work is the focus of an exhibit that runs through March 2004 at the Somerville Museum, 1 Westwood Road.
"Neighborhood theaters were much more than just places to see movies," says David M. Guss, associate professor of anthropology. As cultural institutions, they "helped to define people's sense of place" and served as anchors, or "reference points," for urban neighborhoods.
"This is not just nostalgia, but learning about community-building," Guss said.
In 1904, moving pictures came to the city and were shown not at a movie theater—that concept hadn't taken hold yet—but at the Oddfellows Hall. By April 1914, the first "stand-alone picture palace" premiered in New York, and just a month later, the Somerville Theatre opened. The theater had its own stock company and presented a mix of live shows and film until 1932, when it became a full-time movie house.
In time, other movie theaters followed, including the Ball Square, Broadway, Capitol, Central, Day Street Olympia (E.M. Loew's Davis Square), Orpheum, Pearson's Perfect Pictures, Strand (Union Square) and Teele Square.
In time, these "picture palaces" became integral to community identity—places, rather than just spaces. "What is it that turns space into place?" Guss said. "It's the interaction filled with emotional meaning that takes place.
"From the end of the 19th century to the 1960s and the beginning of suburbia, during that period, people used public space to entertain themselves.
"Unlike movies today, where you drive to the multiplex, sit down in a theater that's not different than any other, with people you don't know, watch one feature and an announcement not to use your cell phone, people used to go to 'nabes,' " Guss said, using an old slang term for a neighborhood theater.
At the old neighborhood theaters, "you spent four hours. They had a Pathe newsreel, cartoon, sing-a-long, a giveaway, some sort of musical event and then two features. You knew the people around you," Guss said. "It was quite a different way of cinema-going."
In time, demographic and economic changes made it difficult for independent urban theaters to survive. Their spaces were put to different uses, such as warehouses and condos. The old Central Theater, for example, was a rock-climbing gym from 1989 to 1993, and since has been carved up into office space. The site of the Broadway Theatre is about to become pottery studios, Guss said.
"It's the issue of re-use and urban change," Guss said. "We see how space interacts with changes in the community."
Outside the classroom
"I wanted a chance to work in our own community, a project that was not just a classroom exercise," he said.
In addition, architectural preservation has been Guss' long-time "interest and passion." He was involved with the group that helped save the Brooks Estate in Medford. A resident of Somerville, he sits on the city's Historic Preservation Commission.
The specific idea for the theater project took life after Guss stumbled upon a collection of photographs of theaters from eastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island at a paper show—a collectible show featuring photographs and all manner of printed materials. "Being an anthropologist, I pretty much like to collect things," he said.
Among the photographs was a shot of the Broadway Theatre in Somerville, most likely used by a salesman, since it listed the number of seats and the ticket prices along the bottom. "I had no idea there even was such a place," Guss said. The theater had been located on lower Broadway, and when Guss went down there, he was indeed able to find the building, although the theater's original stained glass façade has been covered up.
"I began talking to my neighbors, and they started telling me these wonderful stories, and it was fabulous," Guss said. "There are incredible stories about each of these theaters."
After speaking with Evelyn Battinelli of the Somerville Museum, the idea took hold for an exhibition about Somerville's lost theaters. Rather than limit the show to archival photos, Guss developed the idea of creating "life histories" for each of the theaters and involving other institutions throughout the city.
"Hundreds of people have been involved in the project," he said. "It's been quite a remarkable ride, I'll tell you."
A Tufts course
The students produced a short film about Somerville's Union Square, which, with its three movie theaters, was once the heart of the city, and recorded a half-hour CD with remembrances of the old picture palaces.
Seven photographers were commissioned to document the theater sites as they exist today, aided by a $12,000 grant from the Lef Foundation. The project also has received funding and other support from the University College of Citizenship and Public Service, the Tufts Provost's Office, the Somerville Arts Council, Somerville Theater, Somerville High School, Somerville Public Library, Somerville Historic Preservation Commission, Theatre Historical Society of America, the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities and the National Foundation for the Humanities.
Admission to the exhibit is free. Hours are Thursdays from 2 to 7 p.m.; Fridays from 2-5 p.m. and Saturdays from noon to 5 p.m. For more information, call the museum at (617) 666-9810.
During the year that the exhibit is on display, the Somerville Museum will sponsor presentations by theater and architectural historians. Events for April include:
April 3, 7 p.m. : "The Movie-Going Experience: Community and the Culture of Promotion," a lecture and discussion by Kathryn Fuller, Virginia Commonwealth University, author of "At the Picture Show: Small-town Audiences and the Creation of Movie Fan Culture" and "Celebrate Richmond Theatre."
April 10, 7 p.m. : "The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of the Neighborhood Theater," a lecture and discussion by Garen Daly, former manager, Somerville Theatre and Dedham Community Theatre, and Don King, theater historian and owner.
April 24, 7 p.m. : "Curator's Tour," David Guss, associate professor of anthropology at Tufts, will relate the stories behind the exhibit materials and discuss the role of local cinemas in community-building.