An OBITUARY for the HARVARD SQ. THEATER, Cambridge, MA (1926 – 2012)

Freshman students moving into Harvard and other Boston area schools this fall, and wandering through Harvard Square, witnessed something no freshman student has seen in this neighborhood for over 80 years: a blank marquee on the Harvard Sq. Theater. In 1925, construction began on the 1,800 seat palace, with doors opening in 1926 on Massachusetts Avenue as The University Theater. In the 1960’s it was stripped down, modernized and rechristened the Harvard Sq. Theatre. The entrance moved around the corner onto Church Street in 1982, a change that heralded a succession of theater chain ownerships. When I first visited it had become part of the USA Cinemas chain. In the summer of 1992, when I worked here as an assistant manager, it was The Loews Harvard Square Theater. The final incarnation since 2006 is the AMC Loews Theater in Harvard Square.

Its programming has been as varied as the theater’s name, from major Hollywood studio productions to European films to independent groundbreakers, plus an impressive slate of milestone concerts. Photographs featuring the marquee in Mo Lotman’s fascinating and fun book “Harvard Square: An Illustrated History Since 1950″ will remind anyone of the classic movies of their youth: the 1950’s featured Halls of Montezuma screening with a March of Time documentary short, and later the odd pairing of the medieval The Black Knight with the noirish potboiler Turn The Key Softly. The 1960’s saw David Lean’s epic Doctor Zhivago, as well as another odd pairing: Shenandoah with Bedtime Story. One shot of the multiplex in 1987 offers Raising Arizona, Swimming To Cambodia, Platoon, Tin Men and a Ken Russell retrospective.

In the 1970’s, films continued to show here, but so did some significant live events. Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, David Bowie and Bonnie Raitt have each performed on this stage. Bonnie Raitt’s opening act was christened “the future of rock & roll” following his performance that night. On January 15, 1974, when the Harvard Lampoon awarded John Wayne their first Brass Balls Award, Wayne entered Harvard Square on a tank riding up Mass Ave, arriving at the Harvard Square Theater to receive the award. From 1984 thru the theater’s final night this summer, the ’70’s continued to reign every Saturday with midnight screenings of the iconic musical The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

When I moved to Boston in 1988, the first theater I went to was the USA’s Harvard Sq. Cinema. Mom & I saw Robert Redford’s The Milagro Beanfield War. The building was a pastiche of different eras of movie theater architecture. The single-screen palace had been divided into 3 screens in the early 80’s, and subdivided into 5 by my first visit. The round concession stand in the middle of the lobby seemed like a holdover from the ’60’s refit. Where there had been a balcony, two smaller cinemas with seats at an awkward angle to the screen had been created. Two more small rooms were added where the backstage area stood from back when the theater could support live shows. Despite these modern updates, remnants of the gilded origins remained in the main theater, most notably in the ornamental moldings on either side of the screen.

My brother Ed was honorably discharged for the Army the week before Batman opened in 1989. To Ed, there could be no better homecoming than seeing one of the most anticipated films of the decade on this large screen. We waited in line for 3 hours with 500 other nerds to see the opening Thursday midnight show. Ed still laughs when he recalls the usher who corralled the line, yelling “I don’t care who you are, I don’t care who your friends are, if your ass ain’t in line, you’re not seeing Batman tonight!” I fell in fleeting lust the night I saw Tequila Sunrise in one of those awkwardly angled balcony theaters. I fell in lasting love the night I saw, believe it or not, Total Recall on my first date with Maria. And I was here on the final night for The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Between 1990 and 1994 I worked for 5 different movie theaters in Boston, St. Louis and Los Angeles. I had been promoted to assistant manager in the Loews Copley Theater before being transferred to Harvard Square in ’92. Copley was Loews’ flashship in New England; it had was a very corporate vibe, due mostly to our District Manager’s office being right across the hall from the Manager’s Office. Harvard Square by contrast felt like a small town theater that coexisted with its neighborhood. One of the other assistant managers was instrumental in finding work for a few people who the more corporate types might hesitate to hire in their theaters, including an autistic usher and an elderly doorman who was very friendly as long as he took his meds. I think I liked that manager a little more than she liked me; I suspect she saw me as one more suit from Copley. I thought her shaved head, tattoos, multiple piercings and punk jacket with flowing hippy skirts were emblematic of what made this theater like no other in the Loews chain.

I didn’t need to work in the Harvard Sq. Theatre very long before I found my own connection to the neighborhood. There was a middle aged couple who would come by once or twice a month who we would let in for free. I’m not certain of how down on their luck they were, whether they were homeless and living in shelters, or just damn close to it. They were sweet and friendly, had shared their first date in this theater in the late ’60’s, and all these years later still had the genuine affection of a couple you knew could survive anything as long as they were together. They made a point of coming earlier in the week when they knew we wouldn’t be sold out; they didn’t want us to give away weekend seats that others might buy, they just hoped we could spare seats that would otherwise go empty. Movies made them happy and gave them a few hours a month to not have to worry about what tomorrow might hold. Sappy as that may sound, make no mistake, these two were the kind of movie nerds who delivered my nerd education at a very impressionable age. Among the movies I let them into were Howards End and The Player; they engaged the ushers and I in an enlightening debate on Merchant / Ivory and period English films following the former, and Altman films and movies about movie-making following the latter. In short, we benefited as much from their company as they did from ours.

On the most memorable of those quiet summer days early in the week, one of the ushers and I shared an adventure that made us feel like The Goonies. Our projectionist had warned us that he suspected one of the projector bulbs would burn out very soon. Replacements had been ordered, but they were delayed in shipping. The projectionist thought there was a stash of spare bulbs, but couldn’t remember for the life of him where he’d seen them. So this usher and I went hunting, and before we knew it, we’d wandered into corners of the theater that neither of us ever would have imagined still existed. We went under the stage, where former dressing rooms were covered with a layer of dust that would choke a vacuum cleaner. The only other sensation I can compare to the decayed look, the moldy smell, and the ambient dull echo under the stage are the cells in the solitary wing of Alcatraz. As deep as we wandered, so high we climbed. We wandered up into what we suspected was the stage rigging; it was so broiling in the dry summer heat that it felt like the area could burst into flames. And we found our way to the roof. From up there I realized my ultimate Boston dream would be to own this theater and live on the roof. To show the movies I want to show all day, and retire each night to a perch with a nearly 360 degree view of Cambridge, Boston and Somerville, hell I couldn’t think of a better way to blow a winning lottery ticket. We even managed to find one spare projector bulb.

I hate to admit it, but since returning to Boston in 2009, I (and other fairweather fans) may have been part of the problem that resulted in AMC Theaters’ decision to shutter Harvard Square. AMC had not committed any noticeable resources to this theater since taking it over. When 3D projection was added, it was not put in the biggest theater, it was cautiously rolled out first in one of the upstairs balcony theaters. I saw Avatar on opening weekend in the theater where they would normally open movies not befitting any spectacle. Sure, 3D eventually worked its way downstairs, but by then I had already embraced other options. I saw most of my big Hollywood films in AMC’s sparkly new theater on Boston Common. I went to Coolidge Corner or Landmark’s Kendall Square theater for independent films. If I wanted a dose of the Harvard Square that I missed, I went to The Brattle.

I may have not have shown my old workplace the proper affection these last few years, though I did make it here for Where The Wild Things Are, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, Public Enemies, and two of the precious few movies Maria has joined me for since our return to the area, Julie & Julia and Captain America. I also made it a point to be here for its final night. Earlier in the week had been the July 4th fireworks, which if you’ve never seen in Boston, are a big friggin’ deal. Sometimes Neil Diamond even shows up — that’s how big a deal! But that didn’t resonate with me as heavily as the hourly countdown to the Harvard Sq. Theatre going dark. It had been 10 years since I’d seen “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” and 17 years since I’d seen it here. This evening’s performance was like a jazz funeral. This cast and crew had performed dozens of times, possibly hundreds of times in this theater. There were no tears; there were laughs and hugs and the most go for broke, balls to the wall, rambunctiously deviant and meticulously staged Rocky performance I’ve ever seen. With so many cast members all wanting to share in the final curtain, the principle characters were all played by multiple performers, making for an electrifying mash-up of the skills that each performer brought to each scene. I never dared hope I’d witness the seduction of Rocky & Janet played by two women, and yet there they were. Sorry, I don’t have any photos of that; everyone else was too busy digging the scene to take pictures, and I didn’t want to be the one guy ejected for that transgression. Suffice it to say: woman as Janet + woman in gold lame’ swimsuit as Rocky = a bargain for the price of admission! Another fun and impossible to ignore facet of this evening’s performance was the evidence via the jokes of just how long I’d been away! Between the audience at large, and once very animated gent right behind me, I heard jokes about Osama bin Laden, Donald Rumsfeld, Mormons, Scientologists, Mel Gibson, Bank of America and who can count how many other subjects that were not cultural sticking points during my last visit to Dr. Frank’s lab & slab. I thought I would take so many more photos, and maybe even video, bu I confess I was quickly overtaken by the spirit of the room, in a way that I have never been at any other Rocky screening in this theater or anywhere else. I made a conscious decision not to document the performance in photos, to only say that I wish you had been there with me to celebrate the defiling of the virgins.

The morning after: I’m hearing that the investment group who bought this theater from AMC did so within 4 days of the closing, for a sum in the neighborhood of $6.5 million. Please allow me to publicly state here that if I win my aforementioned rooftop perch lottery, I will offer these folks an immediate 20% return on their investment to walk away. I have no idea what they intend for this space, but I’ll tell you what should go here: an East Coast version of the Alamo Draft House. In my Hollywood ending dreams, the Harvard Square Theater would have 2 dozen beers on tap, wine shipped in from my small market compadres in Santa Barbara County, and the best L.A. street vendor style bacon wrapped sausage sandwiches with caramelized onions and peppers, beef and black bean chili, eggplant lasagna and thick bacon-gasmic clam chowder in town. I’d lose a significant amount of seating in order to allow patrons maximum foot room and comfort; a little trick that makes The Vista Theater on Sunset Blvd one of movie-nerd-nation’s premiere destinations. And while I would never presume to compete with my beloved Brattle, I would go out of my way to keep the Lunch Movie ethos that defined my old agency conference room screenings alive for the next generation of movie nerds. I’d dig out the old and seek out the new with a diversity of titles such as we’ve already discussed, plus others I saw here, like Stormy Monday, Aria, Indiana Jones, Zentropa, and Wonder Boys. Until that day comes, I’ll happily remember the Harvard Square Theater this way, with hundreds lined up and eager to visit:

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2 Responses to “An OBITUARY for the HARVARD SQ. THEATER, Cambridge, MA (1926 – 2012)”

  1. Neil Gaughan Says:

    I saw “Dog Soldiers” here, and a couple others I can’t remember. I do remember the theater, though. Great low-fi ambience. RIP.

  2. FollySix Says:

    I worked there when I was 18 years old. It taught me how capitalism works to screw the workers, and how utterly bourgeois and spiteful of average workers Cambridge liberals are. Good riddance. And those Rocky Horror performers don’t goddamn clean up after themselves.

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