Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Movies Come to Brookline -- At Last!

The Coolidge Corner Theatre, Brookline's first (and only remaining) movie theater, opened on December 30, 1933. Its survival is a tribute to the efforts of many to save the theater from forces that more than once threatened to shut down this local and regional treasure.

The struggles of the '70s and '80s were not the first times the Coolidge had to fight for its existence.  In fact, the opening of the theater back in 1933 came only after many years of opposition to the very idea of a movie theater in town.

I won't tell the theater's story here. (See the Coolidge's own slideshow for more on its history.)  Instead, I'll tell the tale (in two parts) of those pre-Coolidge years and of the determined resistance -- equally as determined as more recent efforts to save the theater -- that kept Brookline theaterless much longer than nearby communities.


Boston and the Early Days of the Movie Business

Until 1910 or so, the movie business in Boston -- and in the U.S. in general -- targeted a largely immigrant and working class audience. Theaters were clustered downtown and in poorer neighborhoods. But as theater owners sought the more affluent, middle-class family trade that began to change.

In the years before World War One, "new theaters opened in virtually every major residential neighborhood surrounding the city," wrote film scholar Russell Merritt in a case study of the early movie business in Boston.1

By the end of 1913, moving picture theaters had been approved in Dorchester, Roxbury, Back Bay, Cambridge, Somerville, Newton, Belmont, and Watertown.

But not in Brookline.

Illustration: Globe Headline, 1911As early as 1911, the Board of Selectmen rejected applications to build theaters in town. In October of that year, two Catholic and two Protestant pastors convinced the selectmen to turn down proposals for two theaters in Village Square. (The Boston Globe noted that this was the third time the board had gone on record as opposed to a movie theater.)

Rev. Michael T. McManus of St. Mary's of the Assumption expressed concern about the unwholesome influence a motion picture theater would have on the many young St. Mary's parishioners who lived a short distance from the proposed locations.

This argument about children would continue be at the forefront of opposition in the years to come.

Standing Firm in Opposition

In January 1913, a group led by Max Talbot proposed to build a theater on Washington Street between Brookline Avenue and Pearl Street (where 10 Brookline Place is now). The petitioners promised to show only high quality pictures and offered to have the selectmen, or a committee they would appoint, approve all pictures before they were shown.

The Talbot group's application was rejected. Again, local clergy played a part in rallying opinion against the theater, even urging their parishioners from their pulpits the Sunday before the meeting to stand against the granting of a license.



An Exception is Made

Although there were no movie theaters in Brookline until 1933, there were public showings of motion pictures.

On January 2, 1914 -- almost 20 years to the day before the opening of the Coolidge Corner Theatre -- the Brookline Friendly Society held a town-approved show in its headquarters in the Union Building at the corner of Walnut and High Streets.

The Friendly Society, predecessor of today's Brookline Community Foundation, was a charitable organization that included boys' and girls' club among the many services it provided.

The show was a big event. There were about 300 in attendance, mostly children who regularly took part in activities at the Union Building. Massachusetts Governor-Elect David Walsh attended and was introduced by the chairman of the Board of Selectmen.

The movies, reported the Boston Globe, included "From the Mine to the Mint" (about the making of U.S. coins) and three reels about the adventures of Robinson Crusoe. The Brookline Chronicle noted that "the most popular among the pictures shown depicted the adventures of wild animals escaping from a circus train."

As was typical of motion picture shows in that era, the films were interspersed with other entertainment. "Between the reels [said the Globe], J. Wesley White sang sea songs, Miss McNeil of Brookline gave a fancy dancing exhibition and P.A. Rogers played xylophone solos."

The Friendly Society continued to have regular movie shows in its 400-seat hall on Friday and Saturday afternoons and evenings for some time after. Admission, according to one account, was 5-cents for children and adults and 3-cents for members of the Society's boys' and girls' clubs.

Movies were also shown in other halls and outdoors on the Cypress Street playground for July 4th celebrations and other special occasions in the 1910s and 1920s. But opposition to a commercial theater remained firm.
In the spring of 1915, a group led by former selectman and state senator John A. Curtin proposed building a theater in Coolidge Corner at a cost of $150,000-200,000. The Chronicle editorialized against it a few weeks before a public hearing on the petition:

"Such amusement places may not deserve all of the charges that have been brought against them, there may be good as well as bad ones [said the editorial]...

"It does not necessarily follow from the fact that a community is densely populated, and within the zone of an overflowing city population, that it must surrender its individuality as residential community and succumb to the amorphous, promiscuous conditions of city life...

"A moving picture theatre at Coolidge Corner may in itself be unobjectionable, but it will break a precedent and result in other moving picture theatres on Beacon Street and elsewhere, and the future of these streets will be doomed."

The following week, a letter from "A Citizen," noting the availability of motion pictures theaters in other communities, argued otherwise:

"I am an occasional patron of this form of entertainment and would like the privilege of being able to attend one in my own town with my own townspeople...[W]hat force can there be to the suggestion that what is desirable for our people outside of Brookline is not good for them inside the confines or their own town?"

A hearing was held before the Board of Selectmen in April. A representative of the Harvard Congregational Church spoke in favor, as long as there was strict censorship of what was shown.

Rev. John Sheehan of St. Mary's spoke against. "As soon as a picture house comes to Coolidge Corner one will come to Village Square," said Sheehan. "Once a picture show gets in one can say all he likes about censorship, but there will be no adequate censorship."

The selectmen polled those at the hearing to gauge public opinion. 60 voted No; 48 voted Yes. The Board rejected the application.

Other proposals continued to come forward, and be turned down. One came from Nathan H. Gordon, an early partner of Louis B. Mayer of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer fame. (Gordon and Mayer both lived in Brookline at one time in the 1910s.)

Gordon's 1916 proposal called for a $350,000 theater with 2,000 seats at the corner of Harvard Street and Webster Place. It won overwhelming support from the Brookline Board of Trade whose members voted 137-40 in favor of the plan. It was rejected by the Board of Selectmen.

In the spring of 1919, it appeared the tide might be turning. Three new proposals were put forward, all within a few blocks of each other in Coolidge Corner. (One was for conversion of the Beacon Universalist Church, the building that eventually became the Coolidge Corner Theatre.)

The Brookline Chronicle sensed a change in the air:

In refusing to grant motion picture licenses here the Selectmen have been guided by public opinion. Since the last refusal, opinion appears to have swung the other way. The opinion of the town as a whole now seems to be strongly in favor of a picture house, provided, of course, it be a first-class enterprise, properly supervised.

Advertisement in favor of movie theater
The paper misjudged (or maybe opponents were just better organized). Hundreds of residents showed up at the May 6th hearing and when the Board polled those in attendance the vote was 203-85 against approving a theater. All three proposals were rejected.

That more or less put a halt to efforts to bring a motion picture theater to Brookline until 1923. Then things heated up again, and the issue was put before the whole town for a vote.

I'll continue with the story of 1923 movie referendum and its aftermath in Part 2 tomorrow.


1 "Nickelodeon theaters, 1905-1914: building an audience for the movies" in The American Film Industry, revised edition, edited by Tino Balio. University of Wisconsin Press, 1985, p83-102

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