Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Movies Come to Brookline (Part 2)

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.

This second of two blog posts tells the tale of the 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.

(Part 1 covered the years up to the town-wide movie referendum of 1923. Part 2 picks up with the story of that event.)

The People Vote
Public opinion played an important part in Brookline's continuing rejection of applications to build a motion picture theater in town. Vocal opponents, including clergymen, educators, and ordinary citizens, made themselves heard from the start.

Several times during the 1910s, as documented in Part 1, the Board of Selectmen polled those in attendance at hearings to gauge popular views. In every case sentiment ran against allowing a theater, and the Selectmen followed suit.

In the spring of 1923, with two new proposals before the Board, the Selectmen decided to put the question to a non-binding town-wide vote.

The Selectmen, very properly, [wrote the Brookline Chronicle] have the right to ask 'do the few persons who attend hearings on motion-pictures represent the views of the town as a whole?'

The ballot was set for April 24th. (There was already a special election scheduled to elect a replacement for the recently deceased town treasurer. In the end, the treasurer race received far less attention than the movie vote.)

The opposition mobilized quickly. An anti-movie meeting at the library drew 200 people. The Parent-Teacher Organization passed a resolution urging a No vote. A full-page ad -- "NO Moving-Pictures for BROOKLINE! -- was taken out in the Chronicle.

Proponents seemed far less organized.

Illustration: Anti-movie advertisement from the 1923 referendum
The referendum received extensive coverage in the press, not just in the Chronicle but in the Boston papers as well. Space was provided for people on both sides of the question to express their views.

Opponents focused primarily on the movies' detrimental effect on children and the threat a movie theater posed to the residential character of the town. Proponents saw a boon to the town's business and convenience for residents who otherwise had to travel to other towns to enjoy a picture show.

"A number of moving pictures in Brookline Village--indeed a single moving-picture theater as an entering wedge for others which would inevitably follow--would begin the metropolitization of our community," wrote Harvey Cushing in the Chronicle, "and would in time completely alter its character and its desirability as a place of residence now so much sought after...."

"I am convinced," Walter D. Allen, Secretary of the Brookline Board of Trade told the Globe, "that a first-class picture house at Coolidge Corner, properly regulated, would stimulate trade. Business men would receive the matinee trade that now goes to Allston. Why should we consider children alone? Are not grown ups, elderly people unable to travel afar, to be considered?"

[See Having Their Say, below, for more examples of what opponents and proponents were saying before the referendum.]

In the end, it wasn't close. Brookline voters on April 24th overwhelmingly rejected the notion of a movie theater in town, 5,634 to 1,659. The two existing theater proposals were withdrawn. A third that was in the works was never submitted. There would be no attempts to bring the movies to town for another six years.

The Tide Turns
In July 1929, John F. Fleming presented a proposal for a moving picture theater at the intersection of Washington Street and Brookline Avenue. "During the past five years," Fleming told the Board of Selectmen, "there has come about quite a change in the sentiment of our Brookline people in regard to the wisdom of granting licenses for moving picture theaters in Brookline."

But the Board, the 1923 vote very much in mind, refused to consider any such proposal without another referendum. The following spring, a movement spearheaded by the Coolidge Corner Merchants Association began organizing to bring the movie question back to the ballot.

A vote was set for November 4, 1930. This time, proponents were prepared. Local merchants led the effort, sending circulars to customers and handing them out to residents. Signs urging a Yes vote appeared in store windows. Opponents, said the Chronicle, were made up of older residents who had been in opposition in 1923.

Illustration: Ad urging a Yes vote in the 1930 referendumThe population had changed and, as one letter writer pointed out, so had the movies. Talking pictures had come on the scene. Big studios had taken control of the industry. Perhaps most important was the implementation in March 1930 of a production code, commonly known as the Hays Code, that introduced the kind of censorship and control of content that Brookline movie supporters had urged and opponents had derided as impossible to achieve.

On November 4th, 80% of registered voters went to the polls and showed that times had, indeed, changed. Nearly 20 years after a theater was first proposed for Brookline, the Yes votes carried the day 8,219 to 6,884.

Opening the Gates

Within a week of the referendum, six groups had presented proposals for a total of eight theaters in town. The Board of Selectmen deferred discussion until January by which time the number of proposals had grown to 14.

One was for a new building on the site of the Beacon Universalist Church on Harvard Street, the eventual site of today's Coolidge Corner Theatre. But the Church proposal did not make the first cut. Instead, the first license for a movie theater in Brookline was granted to George W. Wightman and the Paramount-Publix Company for a building at the corner of Beacon and Charles Street.

Later that year, a second license was granted for a theater in Brookline Village, at the intersection of Washington and Pearl Streets.

The Wightman project ran into trouble, further delaying the long-awaited opening of a theater in town. In November 1931, the license was revoked, but the Selectmen left the door open for Wightman to pull a new deal together.

Illustration: Sketch for George Wightman's proposed theater at Beacon and Charles Streets
In February 1932, a new plan for the Beacon Universalist site was put forth, calling for a remodeling of the church into a theater instead of construction of a new building. It would be an independent theater called the Brookline Neighborhood Theatre -- Wightman had called his theater the Coolidge Corner Theatre -- and the church would receive half of the profits as rent.

But the Selectmen still seemed to hold out hope that the Wightman plan would come together. Discussions dragged on until June 1933 when Wightman announced he could not secure financing and the license was provisionally guaranteed to the Harvard Amusement Company for a theater on the site of the Beacon Universalist Church.

M.J. Shapiro and Son, a specialist in theater construction, was named general contractor in July and finally, after more than two decades of waiting, Brookline had its own movie house in December of 1933.

Having Their Say

Voices, pro and con, from the debate leading up to the 1923 moving picture referendum

"Motion pictures are pure dope for children. They require no thought; you simply look and look." - Mary McSkimmon, Principal, Pierce School

"Pictures give children a distorted view of life and this is not fair to them." - Gilbert Pierce, President of the Central Council of the Brookline Parent Teacher Association

"Is it not possible for a 'model town' like Brookline to find a representative group of citizens of sufficient character and intelligence to supervise the management of such a theater? With such a committee in charge and with parents and teachers alive to their responsibilities, let us have a community picture house in Brookline." - Pro Bono Publico"

But if the theater or movie 'fan' feels that he must have his favorite amusement, are there not theaters and movies galore in Boston, Roxbury, Brighton, and Allston? Why not go when they are already established and let Brookline be free from some of the objectionable features in the business." - George B. Foster

"The Jews are opposed to eating pork, well, let them go without. You are opposed to motion pictures, well, stay away. But if the Jews, being a majority in your locality, undertook to prohibit the sale of pork there, what would you say? This is tyranny. I am a free American, and I kick." - Frederic Cunningham

"It may be said that children go already. They will go three times as often when the movie is just a step down the street." - Ann C. Hoague

"It seems to me parents should be able to rule their children about the number of times in a week a child should attend." - Long A Tax-Payer

"What youth needs and thrives on in its hours of recreation are light, air, sunshine, activity. Brookline abounds in these opportunities in its playgrounds and gymnasium. The movie means darkness, except for one illuminated spot, trying on the eyes." - E.B.S.

"Why in all this talk against movies isn't a mother's view considered? In reading the list over, I guess almost everyone is perfectly able to go at any time out of town for their amusement, while you take a mother who is too tired to go nights, but might want to go with her own children in her home town. You know there are lots of respectable people who can only afford 'movies' for their amusement but have to stay at home, as carfares amount to so much." - A Mother

"Most teachers of children realize that one of the chief enemies of education at the present time is the moving picture theater because of the strain upon the nervous system of the children and the weakening of their mental powers. How dull must lessons seem after the abnormal thrills of the movies!" - Mary A. White

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 website 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

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

A Real Life "Make Way for Ducklings"

Make Way for Ducklings coverA mother mallard trying to lead her brood of ducklings across a busy street is aided by a policeman who stops traffic to let them pass.

It's a famous scene, of course, from Robert McCloskey's classic children's book Make Way for Ducklings. But it also describes an actual event that took place on Beacon Street in Brookline in 1919 -- more than two decades before McCloskey's award-winning book appeared in print.

The tale was told in the August 16, 1919 edition of the Brookline Chronicle. ("Mallard Moves Large Family: Shows Rare Intelligence in Crossing Thoroughfare.")

A pair of mallards, reported the Chronicle, had been observed each summer for four years flying from the Muddy River to Hall's Pond to make their nest. When the ducklings had hatched and were ready to fly, the whole clan would make its way back to the Muddy River to live.

Photo: Hall's Pond, 2007This particular year the ducklings -- ten of them -- hatched later than usual, on June 24th. Something happened to one of them during the night of the 26th, however, and the next morning the mother duck -- "evidently realizing that the place was unsafe, and doubtless with the happy memory of the Fenway and of the river with its sheltered islands" -- set out on foot with her not-yet-flying family.

At eight o'clock that morning [reported the Chronicle] she set out on the long journey, followed by the nine little ones, then only three days old and so tiny as to be hardly distinguishable in the long grass. Up the bank they went, and down the nearby alley, and a few moments later the astonished gaze of the traffic officer stationed at the corner of Beacon and Carlton Streets beheld them preparing to cross the wide main thoroughfare. Much amused and greatly interested, he stopped all traffic on the busy street until the duck, quacking continuously, had conducted her brood safely to the other side.

A second policeman on the scene escorted the mallards up Carlton Street and down Colchester Street to the Fenway.

But here the greatest difficulty of the journey was encountered, for the railroad tracks had to be crossed in order to reach the river. To go over the bridge [the Carlton Street Footbridge] was impossible for such little creatures, nor could they step over the high rails of the double track. Mother Duck became anxious. She led the little ones down to the bank; she urged them vociferously; she (so the eye-witness describes it) went close to the rail and 'rolled' herself over it, calling the ducklings to follow. And at last they did. Imitating her maneuver with all their tiny strength, they 'rolled' or pushed themselves over the same way.

Joyfully they scrambled up the opposite bank, across the path and the strip of grass, and in another moment they were splashing in the river, where they swam and paddled about, seeming entirely at home and nothing daunted by their extraordinary adventure.

We are inclined to think of a duck as one of our most stupid creatures [continued the story], but can a bird be thought dull who could plan and execute such a move as this? People may say it was merely the instinct of preservation. But still one wonders how that mother duck, who had always until now flown the distance between pond and park, high above the housetops, knew so surely what streets would take her there and make the shortest possible journey for those tiny ducklings. And besides, why did she choose the only crossing within half a mile where there was a traffic officer!

Could this story have been the inspiration for Robert McCloskey's classic tale? It seems unlikely. McCloskey was five years old in 1919, and didn't come to Boston (to study at the Vesper George Art School) until 1935. But he did have this to say about the origins of the story:

I had first noticed the ducks when walking through the Boston Public Garden every morning on my way to art school. When I returned to Boston four years later I noticed the traffic problem of the ducks and heard a few stories about them. Then the book just sort of developed from there."

It's possible the Brookline tale is one of the stories he heard. Or it may be that, in a time of more ducks and less traffic, incidents like this were not uncommon.

One final note: 90 years later, Brookline people are still coming to the rescue of ducklings in need. See this story, first brought to my attention via the Brookline TAB blog.