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A Davis Square Mainstay, Somerville Theatre Turns 100

Through a century of change, the Davis Square landmark still serves as a venue for movies and live performaces. It celebrates its 100th birthday this year with a classic film series.

Credit: Patch.com
Credit: Patch.com
On May 11, guests will gather at the Somerville Theatre in Davis Square for a special night of entertainment. The night will include three vaudeville performances accompanied by live music, the screening of classic film "shorts," and a showing of the 1939 movie, "The Wizard of Oz."

It will be a fitting way to celebrate the theatre's 100th birthday, and it's a real birthday: Somerville Theatre opened on May 11, 1914. Today it's "one of the oldest continuously operating movie theaters in the country," according to Ian Judge, director of operations at FEI Theatres, which owns the venue.

The celebration will be remarkable for a few of reasons. When Somerville Theatre first opened, it served the Davis Square community by showing movies and live performances. One hundred years later, it's still doing the same thing. The May 11 celebration, with vaudeville acts and movies, would be familiar to the Davis Square residents of 1914.

"The Wizard of Oz" also has a Somerville Theatre connection. The actor who played the Scarecrow in the film, Roy Bolger, once danced on the Somerville Theatre's stage, according to the theater's website.

Perhaps what's most remarkable is how "normal" the celebration will be in terms of Somerville Theatre's regular programing. Visit Somerville Theatre in any given month and you'll encounter the same type of entertainment: new movies, classic films, live music, stage performances, film festivals, traveling shows and community events.

Somerville Theatre, nearly 100 years old, is still used in the exact same way it was when it first opened. How many venues in Boston—in the whole country—can make that claim? Fenway Park is one. Somerville Theatre is another. It's a selective club.

Said Judge, "To maintain that status for a century: That, to me, is very unique."

Adapting to the times


Think about what's happened since 1914: World War I, the growth of the movie industry, Prohibition, the Depression, the death and resurrection of rail service in Davis Square, World War II, demographic and economic shifts in the neighborhood, the rise of suburban movie megaplexes, the fall of the Soviet Union and the birth of Netflix.

Through it all, Somerville Theatre has adapted to the times while maintaining it's essential mission and purpose. In that time, it's had just three owners.

The theater was originally built as part of the Hobbs Building by Joseph Hobbs, according to Judge and the theater's website. In addition to the theater, the building had a bowling alley and billiards room in the basement, a 700-person ballroom on the second floor, a number of street-level storefronts and some office space on the second floor. (The building is still home to office space, and Mr. Crepe now fills one of those street-level storefronts.)

In the 1910s and '20s, Davis Square was a busy destination point for people, said Judge, who grew up around the corner, as did his parents. There was "live theater every week in the heart of the square."

Hobbs sold the theater to Arthur Viano in 1926, and the Viano family owned the venue until the 1980s, when it was bought by the Fraiman family, the current owners.

The Vianos owned a number of theaters in the area, including the Teele Square Theatre (now a hole in the ground due to a large fire that struck in October of 2011), the Broadway Theatre (now home to Mudflat Studio), the Capitol Theatre and the Regent Theatre.

During the Depression, the Somerville Theatre stopped staging live performances and focused on movies, a trend that lasted through the 1970s.

Judge said his parents remember going to movies there when they were kids, when it was a family venue for a blue-collar community.

In the early 1980s Garen Daly leased the theater and operated it as an "art house," said Judge, explaining that it was home to independent films and cinema not shown elsewhere, similar to what the Brattle Theatre does now.

When the Fraimans took over the building, they conducted a series of renovations. Most of the building, such as the old bowling alley, the ballroom and much of the office space, had been abandoned and was in bad condition, Judge said. The Fraimans added modern bathrooms and four small screens. They rehabilitated the main theater and added the marquee.

A more in-depth history of Somerville Theatre can be found on the theater's website.

"It's remarkable to me that we're still here," said Judge. "The programing we have has always reflected the community around us ... that's how we've adapted and survived."

Remnants of the theater's history


In recent years, and during renovations, the theater's employees have sometimes encountered remnant's of the venue's past.

It was discovered the current stock room was once a speakeasy during Prohibition, Judge said. They found some old bottles hidden in the ceiling.

When renovating the main stage area, they found old backdrops used as scenery from when the theater staged live performances in the 1920s and early 1930s.

The orchestra pit had been filled in during the Depression, and when the Fraimans re-opened the pit, they found a program from 1932, the last time the pit had been used.

Of more significance was the piano they found in the orchestra pit. The Vianos had filled in the pit right on top of the piano. In fact, the piano was used to hold up the makeshift floor. It was a "load bearing piano," said Judge. That piano is now on display in the second-floor lobby.

Other discoveries included a promotional display from the 1935 film, "A Tale of Two Cities."

Celebrating 100 years with a film series


The birthday party on May 11 will be the big bash, but Somerville Theatre is celebrating its centennial all winter and spring with a series of classic films spanning the theater's history.

The series kicks off on Jan. 31 with a Mary Pickford program, Pickford being one of the founding stars of Hollywood. On Feb. 1 there will be a showing of the 1920 film, "Way Down East."

The series will then continue through May with films from every decade, such as the 1933 version of "King Kong," "Citizen Kane" (1941), "Psycho" (1960), "The Godfather" (1972), "The Princess Bride" (1987), and "Amelie" (2001).

Many locals will remember seeing these classic films at the Somerville Theatre when they first came out.

There are scores of films, so you should check the Somerville Theatre website to see which ones are playing.

Happy birthday.

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