More than meets the eye: Somerville Theatre

Somerville Theatre in Davis Square is pictured on April 15, 2021. Ann Marie Burke / The Tufts Daily

The Somerville Theatre’s gorgeous marquee out front is framed by owls and raised by lion heads. “Stay home and be safe,” it reads. “We will reopen soon.” Beneath it a “Parasite” (2019) poster still sits in a frame, as if to mark the moment in the movie industry when theaters shut their doors.

The theater is in vaudeville style, its largest auditorium carved by two ornate arches: one framing the stage and one crossing the front of the balcony. Chandeliers drip light bulbs from the ceiling, illuminating the rosy ceiling and ivory walls. Box seating burrows into the walls on both sides. Above the stage and orchestra pit, a shifting red curtain with golden trim hangs, waiting to draw back and reveal the movie screen swirling into life or, sometimes, live actors under spotlights.

Ian Judge, director of operations at the Somerville Theatre, has always been fond of the building. 

“I actually grew up down the street from here,” Judge said. “If you would ask me when I was 10 years old what my dream job would be, I would have said, ‘Oh, running that theater in the square,’ and now it’s what I’ve been [doing] for almost 20 years.”

After spending so much time in the theater, Judge knows where he likes to sit. He prefers to view the screen from above. 

“I always as a spectator really like the front rows of the balcony,” he stated. “At a movie or a concert, that’s my favorite spot.”

The Somerville Theatre has been embedded in its surrounding neighborhood for over a century. 

“It’s still doing the same thing for the community that it did 107 years ago: live entertainment and movies, [since] the first day it opened,” Judge explained. 

The theater is a family business; only three families have ever owned it. After Joseph Hobbs built it in 1914 as part of his Hobbs building, which included a basement café, a bowling alley and billiards, the theater hit the ground running with weekly plays, vaudeville performances, opera shows and the hot new craze: films. 

The theater had various connections to Hollywood in its beginnings. Busby Berkeley, the famous director who worked on “42nd Street” (1933), “Gold Diggers of 1933” (1933), “Babes in Arms” (1939) and other musicals of the ‘30s and ‘40s, also directed plays in the Somerville Theatre in the ‘20s. Tallulah Bankhead, a film and live theater star, acted at the theater early on in her career, and Ray Bolger, who played the scarecrow in “The Wizard of Oz” (1939), danced in vaudeville performances. 

“The early days had a lot of rotating cast like that, people who were connected to showbiz,” Judge said.

In 1926, the Hobbs family leased and then sold the theater to Arthur F. Viano, who switched to just film showings during the Great Depression. Somehow, the theater was still able to provide fresh popcorn and various giveaways on prize nights, like household appliances and dishware. Live performances only came back to the theater in 1982, shortly before the Fraiman family took over the business.

The theater continues to get attention from big names. “In the last 20 years that I’ve been here, we’ve had Bruce Springsteen and U2 play here,” Judge said. “Those two … were pretty remarkable for a little movie theater.”

The town of Somerville protects the building’s exterior as a historical site, and the theater still brings its rich treasures of the past to audiences today. The main auditorium proudly boasts two antique Norelco DP-70 projectors, which show archival movies in 35 mm and 70 mm film. 

As for the future of the movie industry, Judge remarked that the pandemic might be deepening problems that were already happening, such as tension between movie studios and theaters over release windows — the time between when a movie is released in theaters and when it goes to home viewing via streaming or on DVD.

“Movie studios want smaller windows and movie theaters want at least 90 days,” Judge explained.

Studios control all kinds of movie-going factors, such as how many times a day a theater shows a movie and whether two movies share an auditorium.

“Very often we’ll book a Disney family movie and they’ll force you to have a late, late show, like a 10 p.m. show,” Judge continued. “Nobody’s going to a Disney movie at 10 p.m … but you can’t [show another movie] because Disney is Disney …  You want to play Star Wars? Star Wars has to play in your largest auditorium for eight weeks, and if you move it to a smaller auditorium you have to pay more for it.” 

Since discovering that they could sell movies straight to viewers on their streaming platform, Disney has become less reliant on theaters.

“Movie theaters are closed right now and a lot of these movies are being streamed,” Judge said. “That’s going to change, I think, how long movie theaters get movies exclusively.” 

However, most studios still depend on the box office for revenue, especially for anticipated blockbusters. Ten dollars for a single movie ticket has much more impact per viewing than almost a $14 monthly Netflix subscription. Even Disney is holding Marvel’s “Black Widow” (2021) back from Disney+ until theaters open up. Filmmakers, too, want their movies on the big screen.

Judge remains optimistic for the Somerville Theatre. 

“Maybe for some theaters [smaller release windows] will be a negative, but for us, we’re really not worried about that because we’ve already played plenty of movies that were streaming at the same time,” Judge said. “[People still] want to have that movie experience …  Things like ‘Roma’ (2018) or ‘The Irishman’ (2019) overall… played just fine.”

Indeed, it is difficult for a laptop to compare with the dimmed lights, widescreens and cozy popcorn aromas of the Somerville Theatre’s smaller rooms, let alone a screen spanning a 41-foot wide stage, two subwoofers, 24 surround speakers and up to 850 people reacting to a film with you in the main auditorium.

The Somerville Theatre has managed to stay for this long, and Judge does not expect the pandemic to stop the neighborhood fixture now. 

“We are less at risk than, say, a chain like AMC because we are way more involved in our community and … film festivals, live performances and classic films are an important part of our mix,” Judge said. “I think that we are way more balanced than some of our competitors. You know, if you have 19 screens to fill, you’ve got a lot to worry about. You can only show ‘King Kong’ … on 10 screens so many times … We are in touch with our audience more; I know a lot of our customers by their names and faces.”

Unfortunately, the curtain will have to remain closed for a bit more time. Still, the staff is currently doing a lot of work to maintain and restore the theater, and keep it involved in the community.

Of course, the million dollar question is: When will the theater reopen? 

“My best educated guess would probably be by the end of the summer,” Judge said. “The city of Somerville is extra restrictive … They haven’t allowed movie theaters to reopen at all.” 

Somerville has mandated that theaters remain “on hold” for the time being.

When it reopens, the theater will be a little bit new for everyone. 

“We’re sprucing it up quite a bit inside,” Judge said. “So, we hope you guys will come and take a look.”


COPYRIGHT 2021 THE TUFTS DAILY. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.