Sunday, August 14, 2016

Theater Roots, Pt. 2: The Fine Arts

When I started a series on the great formative theaters of my moviegoing years, I took it for granted that most of them would have been gone by now.  The old local theater in Acton, MA, just a twenty-minute walk away at the back corner of a quaint strip mall, where I first saw the trailer to Raiders of the Lost Ark, had long since been demolished.  
An entire chain of eight 1-3 screen theaters just a train ride away in downtown Boston, where I saw the other half of all the great 80's movies I didn't see back home, all disappeared one by one in the 90's, to become one big 20-screen plex on Tremont St.  And even the Harvard Square Cinema that looked over the Square in Cambridge wasn't around to show daily classic college-town double features anymore, even after it'd turned into an AMC 5-plex.
So when I set out to write on the Fine Arts theater in Maynard, MA, I grit my teeth, Googled to find a vintage photo, got ready to tear a piece of clothes, and discovered...a website of current showtimes.  It was still around.  The Fine Arts lived.

From what I saw, the theater had a longer, more storied history than I was aware of:  The theater had been considered a showplace of Boston's MetroWest suburbs since 1949, and one of the major movie palaces of the area in its day.
Which was a surprise--To me, growing up, it had always had a more comfortable feel, tucked just off of Maynard's two main streets, where the small town began turning into private houses and house-based businesses.  The unprepossessing outside--in the good way--looked like someone's modern ranch house that had been remodeled into a theater...Walk inside, past the local-theater entrance posters that always suggested an "old fashioned theater", past the working old-school popcorn machine that the theater kept around for atmosphere, and the main theater had the big-stage remnant of the 1949 movie-palace theater it used to.  Down a hall, and tucked just up the corner along the edge of the building (by the glass exit that showed the small-town parking), was a small hundred-seater screen for revivals and foreign arthouse films.

And after having to cross the iron bridge and leave the Seneca Falls Strand as the one "Theater where I lost my moviegoing virginity", it was that little theater down the hall that had most of the movie memories for me.  The good movies were all at the local Acton theater, like every other theater, but Fine Arts was a local regional Boston/MetroWest chain in Newton, Maynard, Waltham and the University section of Boston that showed the "prestige" films, the Oscar-bait and the breakout foreign/indies.  The Fine Arts chain was considered the best place you could go see movies if you had a chance, provided that they were actually showing something you wanted to see.  And most of those were in the big theater.  

An independently-owned theater or local chain could pretty much do what it wanted, as long as the manager could bid to get hands on it and book it for show.  To get a good play of all the good titles coming out, some movies only played a week, or two weeks, at the manager's discretion, and every Fine Arts theater gave you a calendar of what would be showing there that month, and when it would leave...If they said that "The Deer Hunter" would only be playing for one week, one week was what you had to see it.  In between, they could also show anything they liked as filler--Which could not only mean discovering an underplayed critical favorite, just because the management thought more people could see it, but also showing some college-town classic films on the Tuesday-Thursday nights before the big movie came in on Friday.  Had to show something.
One other hometown advantage a local-chain theater had, was that being relatively independent, and booking their own movies, they weren't as beholden to pay their "duty" back to the studios in crippling percentages of ticket sales, to boost hit studio profit numbers.  The theater just had to keep itself operating, and make enough money to show something else--You didn't so much buy a ticket to the movie, as you bought a ticket to the theater, to watch a movie.  Which meant that the theater could sell you ten tickets at once, for anything you want to see that month...What did it matter, as long as the cash was paid?  It was a little easier to do back in the early 80's when first night ticket prices had gone up to $3, but for me, I always KNEW what present would be in my birthday and Christmas haul:  For the insane (to me) luxury of $30, a Fine Arts 10-ticket card--punched off for every movie like a train ticket--would keep me in moviegoing clover for the next three to four months.  You can do that today with refillable gift cards at chain cineplexes, if you don't mind paying $100-150 to relive the thrill, but the fact that you already had your tickets, not the payment, made moviegoing more of an impulse.  If the little down-the-hall theater was showing a rare MGM revival, deciding to go out to see it was same "huh, haven't seen it!" impulse as streaming a movie on Netflix, which was also "free" for the taking.

And there were a few old revivals floating around back then--MGM and Columbia had TV income to fall back on, but TV didn't show Gone With the Wind, and only showed Wizard of Oz once a year.  I remember my dad telling me for my own good that I should see Forbidden Planet if I liked those cool sci-fi movies of the late 70's--And if it was showing at the Theater 2 in an MGM double feature with The Time Machine, well, there ya go.  It was free and it was Tuesday.  The 1940 Thief of Bagdad I'd never seen until a big restoration; Duck Soup and Horsefeathers might be shown together, and even if it wasn't the first time watching it, it was still fun to hear a modern audience react to Groucho's uncharacteristically contemporary snark.
It wasn't the TCM Fathom classic screenings at Cinemark mall plexes--A small corner sixty-seater, with no stadium seating, wasn't a "showplace" of movies, it was a place where you got together to watch them.  It was small enough to watch old movies even if they weren't new hits, just because you wanted to be part of an audience watching them.  You walked out of the theater onto a woodsy street, to the town's meter parking lot just across the way, and maybe even talked about how fun the movie was if you hadn't seen it before.  Most people don't do that today.  They're too concerned about the trouble it took just to get to the theater, and how to get out of it.

I'd drifted away from the theater when I'd drifted away from MetroWest, further out in the state at the end of the 80's.  If it was a surprise to find out thirty years later that the theater was still around, it was a bigger surprise to find out what had happened to it:
As the industry fell away from independently owned theaters, and the Fine Arts chain folded along with every other chain theater in downtown Boston, the theater kept its name as just Maynard's local first-run three-screen, showing the big hit movies you didn't have to go all the way out to the big plexes in Framingham to see.  But the old building was in a state of decay, to the point that the owners pretty much let it go to ruin, finally selling the building in 2012.  (Even a small cafe restaurant that used to sit next door, where most would have a croissant and coffee before the movie, was now a dirty vacant eyesore.)

New owner Steve Trumble made news for the "insane" decision to buy and restore the theater building and projection system, and by that point, restoration it needed.  DESPERATELY.
Why would he take on a challenge to restore a theater where locals had complained for ten years about the decay, where every hallway, every ceiling and every wiring looked like it would be better demolished for public safety?  Because, as an area native, he remembered the theater.  "I remember exactly where I sat when I saw my first James Bond movie," Trumble commented in interviews about why he took on the project.  
Funny you should mench, Steve--I remember exactly where I sat when I first saw Forbidden Planet with my dad.  It was three or four rows down from where you're standing, in fact.  
Everyone remembers a local theater, if it's about the theater and not the movies.

It's good to know the local independent or semi-independent theater is not dead.  Starved, wounded, throttled, neglected, and forced to show Suicide Squad today, but not dead.  It lives because people want to see it alive, and don't like to imagine what happens when we make them extinct.
Trumble spent years of construction money to bring back the Fine Arts he remembered in Maynard's town square, and even promised that Theater 2...well, now it's Theater 3, would continue to show occasional old-film revivals, DVD and TCM be darned.  Even if, when he started, the lack of old prints kept by current studios on digital-projection meant that Saturday Night Fever and Spaceballs had to be considered "old classics".
The current showtimes show all three theaters filled with the last of a busy summer's hits, but a quiet September and October is on its way.  Meanwhile "Fans of Films" screenings still show up as a filmgoer event on Tuesdays and Wednesdays once a month.
Make it Goldfinger or Duck Soup, Steve, and you've got a deal.

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