Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Lost Theatres of Somerville

Amidst grading seemingly hundreds of college writing papers; I found the time to interview Somerville artist Angela Cunningham.  Cunningham is a resident of Winter Hill, a full-time studio artist working out of the Mudflat Studio in East Somerville, as well as President of the Board of Mudflat Studio.  She co-curated the Lost Theatres of Somerville exhibit at the Studio along with Tracy Redmond. The Lost Theatres exhibit is courtesy of David Guss and The Somerville Museum, who own the intellectual  and theatrical rights.

What is the Mudflat Studio?

Mudflat Studio is a non-profit ceramic arts school and artist studio in East Somerville. We serve the metropolitan Boston area with classes, workshops, and outreach programs for students of all ages. We also provide private studio spaces to 40 clay artists.

Tell us about your event.

Lost Theatres of Somerville, courtesy of David Guss and the Somerville Museum, is a part of a larger series of events celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Broadway Theatre in East Somerville. The exhibit uses photographs, movie posters, artifacts, and memorabilia to explore the glory days when as many as 14 movie houses operated in neighborhoods throughout Somerville.  

Give us a brief history of Broadway Theatre.

 The Broadway Theatre first opened in November 1915. It was built by a man named Hurst, who financed the construction by selling shares for $10, which entitled shareholders to free weekly admission for a year as well as to a share in the profits. Unfortunately, Hurst's Broadway Theatre went into bankruptcy just months after opening. Under new ownership, Hoffman's Broadway Theatre operated until 1929, when it was again sold to Arthur F. Viano, who was joined in business by his sons, Arthur Jr and Robert. The Viano family also came to own the Somerville Theatre and Teele Square Theatre, as well as the Regent and Capitol in neighboring Arlington. They were truly the "first family" of Somerville's movie theatre scene.

Broadway Theatre remained open until 1982. For decades after the theatre closed, the building was used as a warehouse, and later sat vacant except for a small, storefront dentist office until purchased by Mudflat Studio. Mudflat began renovations in 2010, creating artists studios, classrooms, offices, and a community meeting room. In 2011, Mudflat moved into the building, once again bringing life, community, and the arts back to the Broadway Theatre.

Mudflat's renovation of the building carefully and thoughtfully preserved as many details as possible from the former theatre, including grand wood and plaster molding that panels the walls, areas of tin ceiling, and a grand proscenium arch framing the back wall where the movie screen once hung. Mudflat also renovated the exterior of the building to highlight the original theatre's detailed decorative elements, and added a balcony and arched window that recall the original stained glass window that once emblazoned the front facade.

How did the germ of the idea for the Lost Theatres of Somerville come about?

The exhibit reflects the passion of Tufts University anthropology professor Dr. David Guss, who became intrigued by a 1945 photograph of the old Broadway Theatre and who set off to learn about the storied past of Somerville's movie houses. In the course of his research, Dr. Guss was invited by the Somerville Museum to curate an exhibition; the "Lost Theatres" project was the culmination. The exhibit has only been on view one other time in 2003-4 at the Somerville Museum. Here is a link to David Guss' award winning essay on the Lost Theatres of Somerville in the Journal of the Theatre Historical Society of America:

This past summer, Mudflat approached David Guss and the Somerville Museum about the potential of hosting the Lost Theatres exhibit as part of our Centennial Celebration. Mudflat's exhibition of "Lost Theatres" focuses especially on the history of our own Broadway Theatre building.

What else?
Our sister event celebrating "A Century of Arts at the Broadway Theatre" is happening this Sat, Oct 24. Mudflat will revisit Broadway Theatres history as a movie palace with a special double feature that is free and open to the public. 3 pm face painting, 4pm Wizard of Oz, 7 pm Nosferatu with live score by organist Jeff Rapsis!  This event is sponsored by Somerville Theatre. For more info: 

Although we call them movie theaters, the 14 theaters of Somerville's glory days really offered multi-media experiences, from movies to vaudeville to singing competitions, etc. Come to the exhibit and check it out!

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