Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Fine Arts Theatre, Maynard - History

100 years of movie theater history in Maynard, MA. For a few years, 1949-1952, there were three theaters in Maynard: Colonial, Peoples and Fine Arts. Colonial had lowest ticket price. Peoples was largest, and only one with a balcony. Fine Arts had only one screen until 1969.

First showing of a motion picture in Maynard was at the Riverside CO-OP (now site of Knights of Columbus building) in 1902. There is also mention of a 1909 exhibition of Sherman's moving pictures at same place. Newspapers of that era mentioned S.E. Sherman as a have-projector-will-travel impresario. By 1914 there were occasional showing of features, shorts and newsreels at Colonial Hall. These were silent films in black and white, oft accompanied by live music, typically a solo pianist. Intermissions featured performances by local singers. 

Back then, showing movies was a dangerous business. Until around 1950 all film was made of cellulose nitrate, a highly flammable substance with a chemical composition akin to gunpowder. Film exposed to fire or a spark could burst into intense flames, releasing copious, toxic fumes in the process. Once ignited it could not be easily extinguished. There are fire safety movies showing cellulose nitrate film burning underwater! Luckily, Maynard never suffered a theater fire when an audience was present.

During the first half of the 20th century local businesses often
sponsored sports teams for publicity purposes. At Peoples
Theatre, Burton Coughlan (in suit) managed the team.
He was 34 at the time.
The first location with regularly scheduled movie showings was the aforementioned Colonial Hall, second story of 65-69 Main Street, in business from 1916 onward. Bartholomew 'BJ' Coughlin was one of the owners. Older residents of Maynard remember that nine cents got you in and one penny bought candy. Riverside Theatre (then the second floor of what is now Gruber Bros. Furniture) started showing movies in 1922, run by Samuel Lerer. Riverside's run ended with a fire in 1934. Colonial was still in business as late as 1952.

The first building specifically designed to serve as a motion picture palace was Peoples Theatre. The building still stands at 14 Nason Street, converted to office space. Initially two groups of local businessmen were scrambling for downtown locations and funding. James A. Coughlan, Hector Hobers and James J. Ledgart organized the Peoples Theatre Company and sold shares for $25. The co-operative movement was very strong in Maynard at the time, so the idea of local people being able to buy into ownership and share the profits was well received. In fact, the decision to go for crowd-sourced funding was instrumental to choosing the theater's name. 

The second group (BJ Coughlin, the Naylor brothers, others) had land at the corner of Nason & Main, but not quite enough money. The two groups merged. Peoples Theatre opened on May 6, 1921 with seating for 700 people (250 in the balcony). A huge chandelier graced the lobby. Tickets were 25 cents. Circa 1951 the price of a ticket was up to 44 cents for adults, 16 cents for children. The theater closed its doors around 1959.

Peoples Theatre Office Building. Click on photo to enlarge.
Although the Coughlans, father James and son Burton, were both involved with Peoples, Burton decided to build his own theater on the family property at 17 and 19 Summer Street. James had started there with a horse stable in 1897, later adding an auto repair shop. Burton’s vision, the luxuriously appointed Fine Arts Theatre, with 400 seats, no balcony, opened on June 29, 1949 with a showing of The Red Shoes. An adjoining second theater, 300 seats, with its own ticket window, was added in 1969. One employee reminisced: "...the projectionist had to scamper across the roof to get to the [projection] booth for the smaller of the theaters." That theater was divided into two parts in 1989.

Fine Arts Theatre, Maynard MA, February 2012
Over decades, Fine Arts lost it lustre (and much of its heat, air conditioning, sound-system and waterproofiness), until by the beginnings of this century it was a threadbare carpets, duct-taped seats and sad bathrooms mess. The Shea family, operating as Deco Entertainment Services, leased the property in late 2002 and started a lengthy rehab process on the interior. Then, in 2013, Burton Coughlan's daughter sold the theater plus the building at 17 Summer Street (originally part of the stables, later Burton's art gallery) to the partnership of Steven Trumble and Melanie Perry.      

Opening night ticket, signed by Steve Trumble
Their extensive rehabilitation process, outside and inside, took far more money and time than initially expected, including twelve months with closed doors and dark screens. Trumble swears that during the remodeling process they excavated and renovated through layers upon layers of movie theater detritus, auto shop, and finally down to the wooden timbers and square-cut nails of the horse stable. So all the more sweet that 65 years after its premiere, the Fine Arts Theatre had its grand (re)opening November 5, 2014 with a showing of the movie Interstellar.

As of March 2015 two theaters are operative, albeit with film rather than digital projectors, and plans to complete renovation of the third room are on hold.

Fifty of David Mark’s 2012-2014 columns were published in book "Hidden History of Maynard" available at The Paper Store, on-line, and as an e-book.

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