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Rediscovering Somerville's

While just one of Somerville's 14 neighborhood movie theaters is still standing, they are all about to return to life, thanks to a unique project led by Tufts anthropologist David Guss.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [01.25.02] Once bustling community fixtures, Somerville's rich collection of neighborhood theaters has largely disappeared. Only one of the city's 14 cinemas still stands, while the rest have been replaced over time by parking lots and strip shopping centers. Though they may be gone, a Tufts anthropology professor is leading a unique project to make sure the local theaters won't be forgotten.

Working with the Somerville Museum, Tufts' David Guss has been documenting the rise and eventual decline of the city's vibrant theater culture for an upcoming exhibit called "The Lost Theaters of Somerville," reported the Boston Globe.

For many long-time residents of the area, Somerville's theaters defined their communities, Guss says. Their names -- like the Day Street Olympia, the Orpheum and Pearson's Perfect Pictures -- served as social and geographic landmarks within the city.

"For a lot of people growing up in Somerville, these theaters were the borders for different groups, different gangs," Guss -- an 11-year Somerville resident -- told the Globe. "I mean, if you were from Teele Square, you didn't go to the Capitol Theater on Broadway!"

Of course, the local hangouts also played an important economic role.

"If you look at any of these theaters, they were hubs of the economic activity of these neighborhoods," Guss told the Globe. "They were neighborhood centers before the advent of television. People treated them as their living room. And when they closed, the little shops adjacent to them often closed as well."

And for many years, it looked like most of the history and culture of these theaters was lost.

"There aren't many pictures of these theaters around," Guss said in the Globe's report. "They were like neighborhood grocers. People didn't necessarily pay close attention to them, and they rarely took pictures of them."

But a year ago, the Tufts professor stumbled onto a treasure trove of old photos of Somerville's old cinemas at a collector's show. The materials became the foundation for Guss's project to restore and preserve the theaters' history.

"Guss found himself in a conversation with Evelyn Battinelli, curator of the Somerville Museum," reported the Globe. "Battinelli proposed an exhibition, but Guss envisioned an oral history, a lecture series with former theater owners and employees, and even a book."

With grants from Somerville, Tufts and the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities, all of the ideas may soon become a reality.

To help him capture the theaters' vibrant history, Guss has enlisted help from across the Tufts and Somerville communities.

"He has developed a class at Tufts for this spring titled 'Theaters of Community and the Social Production of Space,'" reported the Globe. "With the help of Somerville high schoolers, Guss's students will conduct oral histories with former theater owners, employees, and patrons; the oral history will become part of an archive at the Somerville Museum and will make up part of the book."

Professional photographers will shoot pictures of the 14 theater sites around Somerville as they look today.

Once completed, Guss told the Globe that he hopes the project will help revive an important part of Somerville's history that was nearly lost forever.

"This project affects the whole city and the city's history," he told the newspaper. "It represents Somerville's working-class history, which is getting erased with gentrification. We're documenting a history that needs to be documented."

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