By: Michael Giammasi
In North Brookline, just a few bus stops west of downtown Boston, Massachusetts, tucked in-between an Upper Crust pizzeria and a CVS Pharmacy lays a testament to perseverance and community in the form of a beautiful Art Deco movie house. The theatre has a rich history from even before her founding in 1933 and close-call with closing down in the late 1970s, to her present success offering engaging events for the entire Boston neighborhood. With all of her ups and downs, the Coolidge Corner Theatre still persists as one of the “best art house cinemas in the country” (Trahan, 2015) that presents the “finest international, documentary, animated, and independent film selections and series” (“Coolidge Corner Theatre Foundation History & Mission,” n.d.). After almost being demolished, the theatre is now a centerpiece in the Boston neighborhood, and it’s easy to understand why after learning about her history.
We start in the mid-nineteenth Century as a local family’s corner store gave name to the square. At the corner of Harvard and Beacon Streets, the Coolidge’s store catered to the wealthiest of the old city, and with the extension of the trolley line from Boston, Brookline rapidly began to expand. At the square’s exact intersection looms the S.S. Pierce Building and its pitched roofs and clock tower, a classical Tudor structure. The booming 1920s brought another expansion as well as another architectural style: Art Deco. We see this still in the Art Deco bank and the Arcade Building, both of which still stand and function today (“Coolidge Corner,” 2016). After seventeen-years of a town arbitration about the corruptive powers of film on youth (“CCTF History & Mission,” n.d.), a 1931 referendum to open a motion picture theatre was passed (“Gala Opening Night at Coolidge Corner,” 1933). Though originally scoped for a location on Beacon Street, a representative from the Beacon Universalist Church, built in 1906 (“CCTF History & Mission,” n.d.) and located one block away on Harvard Street, offered up the Church’s lot in exchange for half of the new theatre’s profits (“Church Would Build Theatre,” 1933). The proposal was approved, and the first theatre in Brookline – the “richest town in the world” (“First Brookline Theatre Will Be Opened December 30,” 1933; “Gala Opening Night,” 1933) was built.
A relatively unknown architect named Ernest F. Hayward was tapped for the theatre’s design (“Gala Opening Night,” 1933), and she was finished and opened in December of 1933. The architect worked in Art Deco in accordance with the booming 1920s and 1930s style, and drew inspiration especially from the Roxy Theatre [1927-1960, per wikipedia.org/wiki/Roxy_Theatre_(New_York_City)] in New York City. For the new motion picture house, Hayward chose a red and gold color scheme as seen in the façade (LIRefugee, 2011) and throughout the interior (Walker, 2017; and Zhao, 2014). Her atrium was finished in black and white marble. The technology (much of which was copied from the Roxy) was the most up-to-date at the time, and Hayward even included audiphones in the first three rows for deaf audience members (“Gala Opening Night,” 1933). The 1500-seat theatre was constructed over the church on Harvard Street and immediately made her goal to be a “meeting place for the community, bringing culture and relief from care within the reach of all,” per an ad at the height of the Great Depression (“CCTF History & Mission,” n.d.). Beth Gilligan, the current Director of Development and Marketing at the Theatre, describes the theatre’s early years:
“The theatre was a single screen grand art deco movie house with a balcony and ushers showing you to your seats. It offered a coat room and free coffee and cake in the mezzanine during intermission – it was a full scale grand movie palace” (Yuelys, 2015).
Throughout the rest of the Great Depression, World War II, and after, the motion picture house served the best of cinema. She played first runs of features with the biggest stars throughout all eras of film, from Charlie Chaplin and Shirley Temple to Marlon Brando and Audrey Hepburn, the Marx Brothers, and nearly all in between for just thirty-three cents (“Revisiting the History of the Coolidge Corner Theatre,” 2016). For a long time she premiered films, but transitioned in the late 1970s into an art house theatre by new owner Justin Freed, who wanted to turn it into a “venue for the unexpected” (“CCTF History & Mission,” n.d.). With his vision, he reintroduced Boston audiences to classic revivals, foreign films old and new, and exclusive independents. In 1979, the balcony was converted into a second, smaller screen (“Coolidge Corner Theatre,” n.d.).
However, throughout the 1980s, competition with movieplexes and televisions and VCRs left the theatre in financial ruin, on the brink of shutting down. In fact, a sale had already been arranged to a developer to demolish the theatre for a new apartment complex. The theatre’s longtime hard-times combined with a public frustration over a steep increase in property tax (though this was due to the city’s longtime policy of rent-control) provided a chance to alleviate some of the city’s tax burden (Harmon, 2014).
Though the sale was basically set, David Kleiler, a film professor at Babson College in neighboring Wellesley, MA, and his grassroots campaign, Friends of the Coolidge, were able to lobby the city to declare the site historic, which nullified the sale in the fall of 1988. Kleiler and his organization founded a new nonprofit to handle the theatre, the Coolidge Corner Theatre Foundation, which still maintains the theatre today. After two unsuccessful attempts to raise the $2.6 million needed for renovations, in January the following year the CCTF led a four-hundred person “hug” around the theatre to “save the Coolidge” (“CCTF History & Mission,” n.d.) in a “pure example of people coming together to save an institution that gave shared meaning to their lives” (Harmon, 2014). The CCTF was again in jeopardy of being shut down, but a Brookline realtor and longtime fan of the Coolidge bought the theatre and leased it back to the Foundation for a stunning 99-year lease (Harmon, 2014; “CCTF History & Mission,” n.d.). The theatre held her grand re-opening on November 8, 1989. With the theatre still struggling, Kleiler departed in 1993 (“CCTF History & Mission,” n.d.).
However, during the indie film expert’s tenure as executive director, he managed to assemble a star board of directors, without whom the theatre may not still be standing. The original board of directors of the CCTF “grasped the movie house as a social institution” (Harmon, 2014) and were able to completely change the trajectory of the struggling theatre. In 1999, Joe Zina stepped in as executive director. Still strapped with debt from overdue rent, about $350,000, the board was able to convince Harold Brown, the owner of the lease, to forgive the debt entirely (“CCTF History & Mission,” n.d.). With this, the theatre was able to start to profit once more, and clever leadership and marketing helped the theatre become a “jewel of the Boston indie scene” (Harmon, 2014).
The early-2000s saw a full restoration for the theatre, in which she received all new roofing, flooring, seats, lighting, and a restored atrium and concessions. To the main auditorium a retractable stage was added, as well as a third and fourth screening room, in which they feature premiering small independent films and ‘big house holdovers.’ The staff was augmented and professionalized, and the theatre started running like a well-oiled machine (“CCTF History & Mission,” n.d.). With Zina and the board’s combined vision, the theatre started to cement its notoriety with prestigious but accessible events. Throughout her years, the Coolidge has kept her tradition of providing the best film in one of the most beautiful environments. Not only is she a direct ancestor from the haughty Art Deco ‘20s and frugal 1930s, having lived through all of Boston’s modern history, excellent management keeps her original vision: At her opening night gala, President of the Harvard Amusement Company, who originally owned the Coolidge, vowed for her theatre to offer “clean, wholesome entertainment that will bring relaxation after the day’s strain” (“Gala Opening Night,” 1933). Clever marketing and enchanting showings keep up her mission.
Executives at the Coolidge love pairing films with interesting talks and events, and offer multiple events per month to keep the films cycling. Most notably, in the late 2000s, around 2009 [the year Zina stepped down and Denise Kassell succeeded him (“CCTF History & Mission,” n.d.)], the Coolidge started offering Science on Screen events, pairing scientific talks with science-fiction films (Teitell, 2012; Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and Coolidge Corner Theatre, 2014) in an “effort to give people a deeper understanding of the way the world works.” This has been received with superb acclaim. Feature films include “The Andromeda Strain” (Wise, 1971), “Sleeper” (Allen, 1973), and “The Birds” (Hitchcock, 1963), (Teitell, 2012). This has brought a wide-ranging audience, who all want to learn a little more about science and watch magnificent films, and the Coolidge provides a unique, intriguing way to get exactly that. With the help of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, a nonprofit organization that advocates for science and technology literacy by supporting books, radio, film, television, theater, and “new media” (Sloan Foundation and CCT, 2014), the Coolidge Corner Theatre Foundation has distributed over $400,000 to over 40 independent cinemas across the nation in order to jumpstart their own science programs (Teitell, 2012).
Similar acclaim has been received for the myriad of events the Coolidge hosts. From a summer outdoor screening series at Boston’s Wharf District Park, presented on 35mm film (Fisher, 2015) to midnight horror movies on the weekends, children’s variety showings, an opera series, and films for the deaf and hard-of-hearing (“CCTF History & Mission,” n.d.), the Coolidge offers a film experience for everyone. In 2015, the Coolidge hosted the Alloy Orchestra, “one of the first and most acclaimed film accompanists” for a screening of silent “Upstream” (Ford, 1927), originally thought lost until a print was found in New Zealand, and a showing of Chaplin’s short, “The Adventurer” (1917). Incidentally, the Alloy first started at the Coolidge in 1991, performing at a screening of “Metropolis” (Lang, 1927) (King, 2015). The Coolidge has a history as rich as Boston, and she often hosts current film premieres – but only films that take place in Bean Town. Keeping with her rich tradition, she hosts the biggest stars: most recently in 2015, Johnny Depp and the cast of “Black Mass” (Cooper) walked the red carpet at the premiere of the gangster film about the notorious Boston crime lord, Whitey Bulger [per wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Mass_(film)].
Local film premieres often rally a city (unless it’s overdone, like Los Angeles or New York). In 2015, “Spotlight” (McCarthy), the film about The Boston Globe’s “investigation of the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal” premiered at the Coolidge. Mark Ruffalo, who plays Globe reporter Mike Rezendes, called it a quieter and more sober premiere than their previous walk in New York. “It just feels right to be here,” the director noted (Goldstein, 2015). It’s always right to be at the Coolidge.
Ever since her founding, the Coolidge has been a luxurious place accessible to the entire public. Even still, tickets are under fifteen dollars. And with the 2010 initiative to sell wine and beer in house (Trahan, 2015), she has been bringing the community closer together through film by maintaining her original ideals of being a public space. Even centered in one of the wealthiest areas in the United States, she is easily accessible and affordable for everyone in their community and others. The Coolidge, the glorious movie palace that sponsored china giveaways during the Depression, the nearly-turned-into-an-apartment cinema, now strives not for greatness financially, but communally, finding profit in providing for everyone. She was saved from being demolished twice, and has transformed into a centerpiece “at the heart of Harvard Street” (Harmon, 2014). But too many other beautiful theatres and historic cultural centers are demolished in our ever-expansive ways.
As I was researching the Coolidge Corner Theatre, I stumbled upon an initiative to restore the old Everett Square Theatre (most recently Premiere Performances) in Logan Square, Boston. Built in 1915, this theatre’s rich history was cut short when it was abandoned in the mid-1980s. Used as a Vaudeville, music, motion picture, and auction house throughout its tenure, the pixie cinema failed in her attempt at fundraising for badly needed restoration, but did receive a grant to replicate her original sign and restore her atrium. The Historic Boston, Inc. now sits on the abandoned building until they can raise the $5 to $10 million estimated needed to get her fully functional again (“Everett Square Theatre,” 2014). I hope they raise it. If the Coolidge has anything to teach us, it would be to persevere. She had a long journey and is finally able to focus on being the best. And the best she is.