Next time you’re going to see a film in main auditorium at the Somerville Theater, get there a bit early, when the lights are still on and look up. You’ll find yourself in a gorgeous theater, staring at the ceiling above the classic red-curtained stage. It’s painted magnificently, with palpable art-deco influences; it calls back to an earlier time. The Somerville Theater was originally built as not only a cinema, but also a vaudeville stage. Its history is rich; the dedicated page on the theater’s site is an engaging read.
I was there last on April 16th – a Wednesday night, mind you – and the Somerville Theater was tightly packed with bearded, artisan beer-drinking, NPR dad-rock types. You know, the typical Somervillian. Of course, they were all there to see John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats croon and clamor his poetry over the pulse of his worn guitar. To describe this experience would be the focus of an entirely different article, but here’s a vignette: a man, shouting, asks John to play his favorite song. To my right, a thickly bearded, beret-wearing man of 40 or so years responds, “he hasn’t played that since ’97!” Boy, these were some devoted fans. John’s sometimes playful, sometimes tormented voice reverberated through the room – the theater has great acoustics.
Yet, despite its beauty as a music venue, we at Tufts seldom think of it as such. Enamored of its low film prices and quaint bar, we all misuse the theater for its films and beer.
Ian Judge, director of operations for FEI Theaters, commented on this phenomenon, “the Somerville Theatre is not and never was primarily a music venue. It has always served the community with movies and stage shows together.” This stems from its history. “The theater was actually built specifically for movies and vaudeville; music and live plays came later.”
Nonetheless, the theater’s history is peppered with famous performers. Tallulah Bankhead, a classic 40s bonne vivante was once a member of the Somerville Players, amongst other greats of the era: Busby Berkeley, later Ray Bolger – the list continues. The 20s still haunt the theater today. A female ghost – ostensibly that of a former employee, Sally Irish – has haunted the orchestra (rows J and K) seats since her suicide.
Sally’s not all that haunts the Somerville stage. “Today, it is sometimes used for plays, musicals, operas, and burlesque shows. In the past 6 months alone we have hosted all of the above.”
Ian Judge later elaborated on the theater’s musical role in Boston. “For the Boston music scene, it seems to be a definite rung on the ladder – maybe you play Passim, or the Middle East, then you graduate to us, then hopefully you move up to the Orpheum, and beyond.”
Yet, the theater’s reputation is best seen from afar. “Most people who grew up in Somerville certainly think of it as a movie theater either, actually. It was chiefly a movie theater from the day it opened, not just beyond the Depression.”
Perhaps the reason that Somerville is not consistently thought of as a music venue is because it isn’t a consistent one. Outside promoters book their shows at Somerville; the theater does not book for itself. The Somerville Theater’s primary source of profit is its film showings, and so to make money on its rental, it is necessary to almost sell out a show. It needs not make any risks in booking, and subsequently its events calendar is spotty.
When it comes to the actual music booked, the theater has a clear aesthetic. “We can veto an act if we feel it wouldn’t fit well with our theater’s historic nature, like heavy metal, rap, things like that. The promoters who do produce shows here tend to book a certain kind of music – usually up and coming folk/pop stuff, or world music kinds of shows.”
The Somerville Theater is certainly a community treasure and we at Tufts should cherish it. Next time you’re looking for a good show, check their events page.