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Now Showing: Somerville's Reel Gems

Now Showing: Somerville's Reel GemsThe rich and vibrant history of Somerville’s local theaters has been revived in a new exhibit created by a Tufts professor and his students. Somerville, Mass.

Boston [04.03.03] A locksmith's shop. A warehouse. A parking lot. All three share a common link as former sites of some of Somerville's rich collection of neighborhood movie theaters. Of the 14 cinemas that called the city home, only one still exists. But their rich history - nearly lost - has been revived in a new exhibit created by a Tufts professor and his students.

"The golden age of cinema has returned," reported The Boston Herald. "The yearlong ‘The Lost Theatres of Somerville' exhibit, opening [March 29th] at the Somerville Museum, strives to capture the importance of the neighborhood theater."

A collection of old photos inspired David Guss - an anthropology professor at Tufts - to embark on the unique project.

"As a professor ... with an interest in vernacular architecture and urban culture, he often visits shows of ephemera - fliers, posters and other paper artifacts," reported The Boston Globe. "At one show a few years ago, he came across a set of photographs of old neighborhood movie theaters - ‘the nabes,' as they were known in the trade."

Recognizing that the domed stained glass entrance was of Somerville's Broadway Theatre, Guss decided to find the site of the old cinema. He ended up discovering a treasure trove of stories from local residents who remembered the old theater.

"The stories they were telling me were so emotionally charged and passionate," he told the Globe.

The Tufts professor decided to buy all of the old photos, and set off to collect the stories and history that surrounded them.

"Guss has spent three years collection oral histories and artifacts to recover the forgotten era of movie-going, when Hollywood glamour was just a short walk away," reported the Herald.

But it was the stories about the people who lived and worked around Somerville's theaters that bring the exhibit to life.

"Guss found a woman who had owned a luncheonette beside the Broadway for decades," reported the Globe. "He found people whose families had owned the theaters, people who had managed them, people who had gone to the movies in them every week. He got some of his Tufts students to gather more stories. Working with students at Somerville High School, they eventually came back with 65 oral histories about the theaters."

At their peak, Somerville's theaters were more than just movie houses - they were the center of the community.

"The experience was much richer than just seeing a movie," Guss told the Globe. "There was live music, vaudeville acts, shorts, newsreels, giveaways."

And just outside their doors, local businesses flourished.

"Because concession stands didn't exist until the 1940s, all around each theater there was a cluster of lunch counters, ice cream parlors and candy stores - a whole thriving ecosystem of urban gathering places, with the theater at its heart," reported the Globe.

They may be gone now, but the local theaters should not be forgotten, Guss said.

"For kids to see this [exhibit], it's a very real example of what the movie-going experience was," the Tufts professor told the Herald. "These are memory sites where everyday, working-class people had important things happen to them."

And for many - like longtime theater owner Bob Schnooner - they were a home away from home.

"If it got too noisy, he'd go up in front," Guss told the Globe. "He'd stop the show and say to the kids, ‘If there's any more yelling and throwing popcorn, that's it.' Just as if you were in your own home."

 

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