One of the more iconic theater buildings to ever stand in Boston was the Howard Athenaeum, later the Old Howard, which stood on the former Howard Street in Downtown Boston. The origins of the building begin in 1843, when a flimsy, tent was built to serve as a church for the small Millerite sect. The small but loyal congregation eventually abandoned the site following disappointment with the minister’s promise that the world would end in 1844. After Armageddon failed to materialize, the founder of the sect, William Miller, an ex-Deputy Sheriff from Poultney, Vermont, was discredited and the Millerites moved on. After running their former minister out of town, several church members (who had given up all their worldly possessions in preparation for their trip to heaven,) decided to recoup some of their losses by selling the property to Messers Boyd and Beard, who opened a theater here in 1845. A fire destroyed the structure, and it was replaced by a larger, fireproof building that same year. The new building was constructed in 1845 and was designed by architect Isaiah Rogers in the Gothic Revival style with massive granite blocks from Quincy.
The Howard Athenaeum saw many iconic performers and historical events in its 100 years. A young John Wilkes Booth, played Hamlet at the Howard before becoming famous for a more nefarious deed in Washington in 1865. Also, Sarah Parker Remond, a Black anti-slavery activist and lecturer with the American Anti-Slavery Society (and later a medical doctor), had bought a ticket through the mail for the Donizetti opera, Don Pasquale, but, upon arriving, refused to sit in a segregated section for the show. She was forcibly removed and pushed down a flight of stairs. She eventually won a desegregation lawsuit against the managers of the Howard Athenaeum and received $500 in a settlement.
This three-story brick and stone building in Downtown Providence was built in 1915 as a motion picture theatre, one of the first purpose-built movie houses in the city. Local architect Thomas J. Hill Pierce designed the building which had a central theatre core with offices at the street which enhanced the building’s income by optimizing rental space and providing a sound buffer between the street and the auditorium. Taken over by Publix, the building was briefly known as the Paramount Theatre from 1930-34, when the Strand name was restored. After WWII, populations were moving farther and farther from downtown, the theater struggled to attract customers, so like many other downtown movie theaters, the Strand shifted its clientele by featuring adult films, a revenue stream that only worked for a few years before the owners converted some of the auditorium space into commercial/office use. When Downtown Providence began to see a resurgence, owners re-opened the old Strand as a live music venue, known as Lupos Heartbreak Hotel and Roxy Providence. In 2017, new owners closed the theatre for a three month, $1 million renovation project, reopening as the Strand Ballroom, a wildly popular venue.
Not to be confused with the former B.F. Keith’s Boston Theatre (last post), the B.F. Keith Memorial Theater on Washington Street, remains as one of the most sophisticated architectural compositions found in Boston. The Keith’s Memorial was one of his most elaborate designs of the prominent theater architect Thomas W. Lamb. The B. F. Keith Memorial Theatre was erected under the close personal supervision of Edward Franklin Albee as Albee’s tribute to the memory of his late partner and friend, Benjamin Franklin Keith. For that reason, it was built with a degree of luxury in its details and design that is almost unrivaled. On October 23, 1928, just before the theater opened, the Radio-Keith-Orpheum (RKO) company was formed and became the owner of the theater after consolidations and mergers. The Keith Memorial theater opened on October 29, 1928, presenting first-run films along with live vaudeville. By 1929, the theater had converted to showing only films and remained a leading Boston movie showcase through the 1950s. In 1965, the theatre was purchased from RKO by Sack Theatres, and the new owners refurbished the building, and renamed it the Savoy Theatre. The theater used the frontage, formerly used by the B.F. Keith’s Boston Theatre on Tremont Street to showcase a large marquee. In the early 1970s the massive arch framing the opening between the stage and the auditorium was bricked up, and a second auditorium was installed within the stage. The theatre was then named the Savoy 1 & 2. The twinned theatre continued to operate as a pair of film houses until 1978, when it was bought by the Opera Company of Boston, who renamed the building the Boston Opera House. After a decade, the group could not maintain the ornate building and The Opera Company closed the theatre in 1991, and the building began a period of rapid deterioration. In the early 2000s, the gorgeous building was restored and re-opened as the Citizens Bank Opera House, which (pre-Covid) runs a steady rotation of touring Broadway productions, Boston Ballet Nutcracker holiday shows and more. Also, if you havent been inside the building for a tour, you are missing out!
Located on Cabot Street in Downtown Beverly, Mass, the aptly named Cabot Theater stands as one of the most iconic landmarks in the town and North Shore. The building was constructed in 1920 by Glover Ware and Harris Ware of Marblehead and named the Ware Theatre, at a cost of over $250,000 a century ago. The structure was designed by the architectural firm of Funk and Wilcox, who are credited for dozens of theaters in the Boston area. The lobby of the building was faced with pink marble with a gold-leaf embellished, vaulted ceiling. The auditorium, was furnished with a forty-three foot dome, chandeliers, and a $50,000 pipe organ. During the 1960s, the theater was sold to Loews who renamed it after its location on Cabot Street. In 1976, the building was purchased by Le Grand David and His Own Spectacular Magic Company, restoring the interior spaces, stage rigging, and dressing rooms. For 37 years, The Cabot hosted Le Grand David’s long-running magic show that entertained local audiences, made seven White House appearances and won recognition in the Guinness Book of Records and national magazines. The future of the theater was uncertain until it was purchased and a new board of directors was instituted who provide funding streams, new live acts and maintain the historic structure to this day.
The Larcom Theatre, in downtown Beverly, Massachusetts, was constructed in 1912, and is the oldest extant motion picture house in Beverly. The theatre was built on land that was formerly occupied by the home of Lucy Larcom, Beverly’s renowned poet and author, who wrote on the lives of the women in the textile mills of Lowell during the mid-1800s, and spiritual life in Massachusetts. Lucy Larcom was born in Beverly and after her father’s death when she was just 8 years old, the family relocated to Lowell as girls were wanted for employment in the mills. She excelled in school and later moved to Illinois and was employed as a teacher. She grew tired of the west and moved back to Beverly, later teaching at Wheaton Female Seminary (now Wheaton College) in Norton, MA. Larcom served as a model for the change in women’s roles in society. Larcom’s home in Beverly was just off the main commercial street and changing demands led to the redevelopment of the site for a motion-picture theater. Local architect George Swan was hired to design the modest theatre, which is adorned by masked faces. The theatre opened to showings of The Count of Monte Cristo, for just 10 cents a ticket! The theatre is used to this day as a multi-arts venue, under the name of Ms. Larcom.
Local theaters once dominated the urban landscape, providing flashing neon lights and marquees on Main Street USA. After WWII, many downtowns saw populations move to the suburbs and through the advancement in technology, many of these historic movie houses were demolished. Large cineplexes with 10+ screens were built, and the death of the small movie theater coincided with the death of many Main Streets in the mid and late 20th century. Fast forward to today, we see many Main Streets thriving (before the COVID crisis) thanks to women and minority-owned businesses investing in their communities.
One of the more identifiable buildings in Dock Square in Kennebunkport Village is one of the first you typically see when arriving from neighboring Kennebunk. The wood-frame building perched on stilts at the edge of the Kennebunk River features a prominent pyramidal roof and stunning windows. Through some digging, it appears the building was built in 1919 as the Lyric Theater, a 350-seat motion-picture cinema, that catered to the summer residents. Sometime after the 1970s, the theater was converted to retail use and now is home to Saxony Imports a place where you can pick up some presidential swag, gag gifts, or touristy clothing.
Built in 1916, this two-story former theater just off Main Street in Warren, RI evokes the recent memory of small motion picture theaters in cities and towns all over the region. The theater originally featured a large marquee and more muted colors on the exterior. After WWII, as with smaller theaters all over the country, this cinema struggled against the larger chains which featured 10+ screens and modern amenities, and ticket sales dwindled. The theater was sold in the late 1970s and converted to retail use. Since the 1990s, the building was occupied by the Imagine Gift Shop.
Believe it or not, the iconic Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline was originally built as a church. In 1906, the church was constructed as the Beacon Universalist Church and designed by C.Howard Walker. The new church building included four stores on the ground floor to both provide income for the building via rent and service the bustling Coolidge Corner area of Brookline. There was a central entrance to gain access to the church itself for partitioners. By the 1930s, the commercial character of the area overtook the need for a church, and the building was sold.
In 1933, after many years of trying to get a moving picture theater at Coolidge Corner, this building was converted at an estimated cost of $75,000 into an Art Deco movie house. Architect Ernest Hayward was hired to design the extensive remodel of the church into a theater and public hall. When completed it was called “The Brookline” and was the first theater built in the suburban town of Brookline. The movie house originally seated approximately 1,000 people, with about 700 seats on the main floor and 300 in the balcony. Most of the original fine Art Deco details still remain, notably ceiling decorations, bas-relief sculptures, and various lighting fixtures both in the lobbies and on the side walls of the auditorium. As with many smaller theaters in America in the 1970s, large cineplexes with over ten screens overtook the business of smaller, more historic theaters and the Brookline Theater was sold, but never closed!
In 1989, the Brookline community successfully rallied together in a grass-roots campaign to save the theater. Today, the Coolidge Corner Theater Foundation runs a diverse program of art films, popular films, independent films, first-runs, local filmmaker showcases, and children’s matinees and is a great asset to Brookline and the greater Boston community.