Relit and Reopening: The Return of the Somerville Theatre
Sitting in the middle of Davis Square at night, it’s hard not to be drawn to the lights of the Somerville Theatre. Yellowish-white lights, neatly framing an awning, once again exude a brilliance in the darkness. After being closed for a year and a half due to the pandemic, the Somerville Theatre re-opened on September 17, 2021.
In 1914, the theater was built as a space for on-stage performances—including vaudeville and opera—in addition to movies. In its early years, all of these formats were part of the theater’s programming, but when the Great Depression hit, the theater began only showing movies, and live performances did not return until the 1980s. In recent years, the theater has held 30 to 40 live events each year, including comedians and music groups such as Adele, Bruce Springsteen, and U2.
The interior of the theater has a classic, retro charm, heightening viewers’ experiences. Sophomore Emily Childs is a Somerville local who has been to the theater many times. She said, “It’s fun on the inside, it’s well done, it’s exciting, [and] it’s personable. They have the owls up in the corners and the decorations are always interesting.”
The theater shows a broad range of films—including classic movies and art films—in addition to mainstream releases. Childs talked about some of her experiences watching movies at the theater: “They also do vintage movies and throwbacks. I got to see Sixteen Candles in the theater and it was so much fun… and I loved when they did the Halloween specials.”
The theater also offers a variety of film formats, being one of a small number of theaters in New England that shows movies in 70 mm. 70 mm refers to a film format where the physical film and projected image on the screen is twice as wide as typical 35 mm movie film formats. Not only is a 70 mm image larger, but it allows the viewer to see more details and is of a higher resolution.
Junior Eliseo Vigil, a film and media studies major, has been to the Somerville Theatre twice. He explained that he was initially drawn to the theater because of one of the film formats that the theater was offering. “I wanted to see Once Upon a Time in Hollywood because [the Somerville Theatre was] offering it in 15mm and I thought that’d be super interesting to see,” he said.
There is also the sheer entertainment value of seeing a movie in theaters that makes going to the Somerville Theatre an enjoyable experience. Childs said, “I prefer when they do specials because I like seeing the movies that… I’m already familiar with on the big screen because I’ve never [had] that experience.”
Sophomore Daniel Schwartz felt similarly about the value of seeing movies in theaters: “In the theater it’s much more immersive, and it has a much grander feel because there are the big speakers and the huge screen. It makes even the bad movies fun, just to be there.”
When COVID-19 hit, the theater was no longer allowed to operate. Ian Judge, creative director at the Somerville Theatre, described his experience during the closure. “I’ve been running theaters for over 25 years and [the closure due to COVID] was 100 percent the most difficult thing,” he said. While some of the theater staff were supported by the Paycheck Protection Program loans through part of the summer in 2020, he explained that for most of the closure, all of the staff were furloughed. While this period was difficult, the closure also provided an opportunity for the theater to complete some renovations. The theater now has a newly renovated ballroom, in addition to an updated lobby and ticket sales areas.
While a year-and-a-half closure could easily be catastrophic for a small business, the Somerville Theatre is reopening with a bang. Their Facebook post announcing their reopening, captioned “Did you miss us?” has hundreds of likes, with many people in the comments cheering on the theater’s return. One person wrote: “The place I miss most from 5 years living in Davis Square.” Another person commented, “I’ve missed you since 1987! (When I moved to California).” Someone else said, “Happy to [see] you back open again. I miss the 70 mm presentations.”
From these comments, it is easy to see how much community members value the Somerville Theatre. The theater has existed for 107 years, surviving the Spanish flu and now COVID-19. While the vintage interior, exciting selection of movies, and live events certainly help create a special relationship with community members, the theater has survived all these years for more reasons than its ability to create a fun entertainment experience.
Judge said, “We are connected with our customers, we are connected with the community. And that’s why we’ve been able to survive for this long because as the community evolves and changes and gets more diverse, what we offer does as well.” Though, some elements of the theater have stayed the same. Even with renovations, the theater has retained its classic interior style, but through specific choices in programming, the theater can support the needs and wants of the community.
Highlighting the specific local desires and preferences that the theater responds to, Judge said, “We live in an area where people don’t necessarily want to see the top three films… and certainly when we do classic movies, and live events, those are all things that people around here seem to value.”
This connection with the community is the result of intentional communication according to Judge. He said, “In terms of the events, it’s reaching out to different groups and people in the community who want to feel represented. I think that that’s important too, to be inclusive. But really, it’s just about communication. Communication and understanding go a long way in all facets of life. And movie theaters really shouldn’t be too different.”
The survival of the Somerville Theatre is important because of the role it plays in community members’ lives. Childs discussed the importance of the theater to the community as a whole: “It’s a nice staple of Davis Square and it’s a nice staple of our community. And I think people flock to it. I think it really does build a lot of community and when I was in high school, a lot of my experience with it was that people would want to go there and make memories and share experiences.”
Schwartz is just now experiencing the theater being open for the first time and sees it becoming a regular part of his life. He said, “I definitely want to go with friends. Because you could make a thing, like every weekend, you go to the movies.” For others, the theater can also serve as a place to spend time alone. Vigil said, “I feel like I could build a nice routine going and taking me-time seeing a movie there.”
Community members feel strongly about the theater, and now that it’s reopened, it will continue to play an important role in their life. Judge explained, “A movie house is what people think of as part of a community center, so we still function that way. We’re not off in some mall. We’re really integrated into the fabric of the city.”