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


  1. Interesting. I just wanted to pointout that I had identified the Brookline Village Theater as being under construction in the Brookline Village 1937 nightime photo in the Village archives elswhere on this website.
    Ronald Gillis

  2. Thanks. Here's a link to that photo on the Brookline Historical Society site.