Weekender Feature | Boston is a mecca of unusual, historical theaters

From artsy to strange, Boston’s theaters have everything to offer

By Zach Drucker

Published: Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Updated: Thursday, November 10, 2011

Boston has been a longtime hub for filmmakers and movie buffs alike. Though common sense would deem Hollywood the epicenter of film, Boston is a prevalent backdrop and is also host to numerous festivals and cinema-based events. Just ask Matt Damon and Ben Affleck who — since their coronation as Hollywood hotshots — have been bringing movie sets to Boston since "Good Will Hunting" (1997).

Yet, for the average moviegoer, Boston is a goldmine of unique theaters, each with its own history and legacy. Sure, Beantown has its fair share of run-of-the-mill multiplexes such as AMC Loews Boston Common, but for the selective cinema patron, the independent aficionado and the foreign flick follower, Boston is an Eden.

The Landmark

Located by Harvard University's campus on 40 Brattle Street, the Brattle Theatre is a lasting remnant of the 19th century. In January 1889, the Brattle was founded by the Cambridge Social Union (CSU) as a venue for literary, musical and dramatic entertainments. It opened its doors in 1890. One of the co-founders of the union was Rev. Samuel Longfellow, brother of the celebrated poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

In its early years, the Brattle morphed from a library into a live theater that has seen famous actors such as Hermione Gingold and Zero Mostel grace its stage. In fact, a revival of "Othello" that premiered at the Brattle in 1942 starred Paul Robeson — the first black actor to ever portray Shakespeare's Moorish general — in the title role alongside an all-white ensemble.

Finally, in 1953, the Brattle made its ultimate conversion into the movie house it is today. Keeping with tradition, the Brattle is one of the few theaters in the world that continues to use a rear projector. In other words, the sole screen in the quaint, red brick building operates with a projection system that plays reels of film from behind the actual screen, as opposed to behind the audience.

The now non-profit theater is venerated for showing art house and independent films and also hosts a plethora of events and festivals throughout the season. Next week it will host the Boston-area premiere of this year's "Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey" — the critically acclaimed documentary about Kevin Clash, the talented man who originated Elmo — as well as the Boston premiere of "Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone," the upcoming documentary on the formation of alternative-ska-punk legends, Fishbone.

For the nostalgic viewer, the Brattle constantly recycles classic films. The theater has a pronounced obsession with Hollywood stalwart Humphrey Bogart and sees a packed house every Valentine's Day when it shows "Casablanca" (1942).

The Brattle is a relic that hearkens back to the rise of modern cinema and simply cannot be ignored by even the most ignorant moviegoer.

The Indie Haven

A short walk from the Kendall/Massachusetts Institute of Technology T stop, tucked away behind some modernist buildings and a parking garage, sits the Kendall Square Cinema. The theater is renowned for having myriad independent films showing at the same time. Owned by Landmark Theatres, a theater franchise under the umbrella organization Wagner/Cuban Companies, Kendall Square Cinema is dedicated specifically to avant-garde motion pictures. Rather than showcase action epics, animated pictures or comedy blockbusters, Kendall tailors to an offbeat crowd that is fed up with or unimpressed by the current state of silver-screen affairs.

With eight features showing at once, Kendall provides the adventurous viewer with purely independent choices, many showing limited, one-week engagements. For example, this Friday, "Melancholia," Lars von Trier's aesthetic, apocalyptic sci-fi drama, and "Into the Abyss," Werner Herzog's latest documentary about two Texans convicted of a triple homicide, open as limited installments. "The Other F Word," a documentary about nihilistic, punk rock legends coping with the trials and tribulations of fatherhood, also opens this Friday for one week only.

Even more ephemeral in its run at Kendall is the upcoming "Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview," a showing of the 1995 interview between Jobs and journalist Bob Cringely. "Steve Jobs" will be shown for two days only, on Wednesday and Thursday of next week.

The constant influx and departure of intriguing, under-the-radar films makes Kendall Square such a distinctive, unrivaled cinematic experience. Kendall Square Cinema is located on 1 Kendall Square in Cambridge, Mass.

The One That's Worth the Schlep

Though many Tufts students have had the opportunity to see films in the two aforementioned theaters, far fewer take the time and effort to go to the Coolidge Corner Theatre. The longevity of this theater is surpassed only by that of the Brattle: Originally erected as a church in 1906, the Coolidge Theatre was converted into an Art Deco Cineplex in 1933 and has never looked back.

Located in the heart of Brookline, about a twenty-minute drive from campus, the Coolidge is a vintage theater on a mission to promote culture through independent film screenings and other forms of broadcasted entertainment.

During the year, the Coolidge runs weekly midnight showings of cult classics and re-mastered sing-alongs, as well as weekend variety shows for children. In the following weeks, insomniacs and somnambulists alike can catch Giorgio Moroder's 1984 adaptation of "Metropolis," "Flashdance" (1983) and even a live Burlesque marathon.

Yet, for the Eurocentrists, HD screenings of works performed by London's National Theatre and Europe's Grand Operas play on select weekends as well.

Additionally, one of the most popular draws of Coolidge is its "Science on Screen" series, in which accomplished individuals in different medical, technical and scientific fields use films to stimulate a discussion about contemporary advances. The next installment in the series will be "12 Monkeys" (1995), Terry Gilliam's post-apocalyptic gem, paired with a riveting dialogue led by Carl Zimmer, a prolific author and Yale University lecturer on science writing.

Additionally, until Nov. 13, the Boston Jewish Film Festival will be playing to audiences at the Coolidge. Thus, with an enticing amalgam of current, classic and retro showings, the Coolidge Corner Theatre attracts different crowds, but transplants all moviegoers to an antiquated, authentic cinematic atmosphere. Combine this vintage feel with a non-profit label and a stress on education, and the Coolidge Theatre is a wholly inimitable venue.

The Davis Square Staple

For Tufts students and faculty without the means or time to venture too far from campus, there is a paramount theater in our own backyard. The legacy of Somerville Theatre, believe it or not, rivals the histories of the Brattle and the Coolidge. Founded primarily as a vaudeville venue in 1914, Somerville Theatre also hosted plays, operas and motion pictures. The basement of the theater was replete with a cafe, billiards hall and a bowling alley. Now, the cinema house is — along with the Brattle and the Coolidge — one of the few theaters to serve alcohol to patrons, as well as fresh popcorn and delicious ice cream.

The real draw for college kids on a budget, however, is the price of each ticket. Matinee screenings of popular films cost only $5. To put things in perspective, that's less than a sandwich at Commons Deli & Grill or a medium cup of ice cream at J.P. Licks.

Somerville Theatre has its own personality, best exemplified by the free "Museum of Bad Art" on the bottom floor. Here, movie patrons are sure to succumb to quizzical intrigue, taking a few minutes to peruse the anti-art fare. Furthermore, the theatre is multi-dimensional, as it continues to host live performances and speakers. Among those who have graced center stage are Bruce Springsteen, Hunter S. Thompson, Maya Angelou, Kevin Spacey, Phish and Joan Baez, to name a few. Most recently, U2 rocked the Somerville Theatre, specifically electing the Davis Square location as the venue for a surprise show.

Yet, the Somerville Theatre's number one priority is quality cinematic entertainment. Showing a mix of mainstream and alternative features, Somerville Theatre harbors a diverse crowd, but the biggest crowds show up during festival season. The Somerville Theatre hosts the Boston International Film Festival, housing short films, documentaries and independent motion pictures while emphasizing multi-culturalism.

You Can't Go Wrong…

With so many interesting theaters in the area, viewers have only themselves to blame for a lackluster film outing. Even "Shark Night 3D" (2011) can be enjoyable with a frosty beer and some homemade ice cream. Yet, for the pragmatic fan who desires the most gargantuan theater with the greatest assortment of flicks, Boston is still the place for you.

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