When a freshly renovated Circle Cinema opened in the fall of 1965, the sparkling multiplex (humbly dubbed “lavish” by developers) featured modern amenities such as rocking chair seats. Advertisements for the theater touted “exclusive, first-run motion pictures in Boston.” It was a single-screen theater with more than 1,000 seats.
Almost 50 years later, the Brutalist-style building has fallen into sad decay. The Circle Cinema, which has sat empty since 2008, is filled with dead plants and its ceilings are water-stained. Developers are hoping to raze the Cleveland Circle theater, which straddles Brighton and Brookline, by the end of the year to begin construction on a hotel, upscale apartments, and stores.
There doesn’t appear to be much worth saving at the dilapidated theater, but a pair of local women hope to preserve an artifact from the theater’s halcyon days that they say has become a local landmark: a rusted sign that simply reads “Circle.”
“I like to walk around the [Brookline] reservoir,” says Susan Legere, who, along with Susan Mara Bregman, is hoping to save the sign. “A friend of mine said seeing the Circle sign is like seeing the Hollywood sign.”
The two women are not looking to save the marquee on the front of the cinema. What they think is worth preserving is one sign on the side of the building that dates back to 1940.
“It’s like the Citgo sign at Fenway,” says Peg Collins, president of the Allston-Brighton Historical Society. “It’s a neighborhood landmark. People still use it to give directions.”
Legere, a Newton sociologist, and her friend Bregman, a Boston photographer who often takes pictures of old signs, decided to try to preserve the Circle sign partially because they realized no one else was stepping forward to do so. Each woman has memories of the theater, although not all of them are fond.
“I remember the walls being too thin, and the smell of mold,” Bregman says. “The seats were also pretty uncomfortable. But I did see some great movies there.”
The modest sign may not be as grand and ornate as those at some of the other old movie houses in town, such as the 1932 Paramount Theatre sign in Downtown Crossing or the Art Deco 1933 Coolidge Corner Theatre sign, but the two Susans (as they call themselves) feel it’s an important part of the area’s history.
“People get sentimental about these things, and I think they don’t want the memory of the theater to completely disappear,” Bregman said.
Even if the project developer gives the Susans the Circle sign — they are in talks with the Boston Development Group — the two are not exactly sure what they would do with it. They’ve been in contact with sign museums and experts across the country looking for suggestions. Ideally, they would like to find a home for it in Cleveland Circle, where it could stand as a memorial to the once state-of-the-art theater.
The Circle opened in October 1940 as a nondescript brick building. A photo of the marquee at that time touted the movie house as “Boston’s Finest Suburban Theatre.” The building’s facade was updated by architect William Riseman, the late husband of Boston socialite Marilyn Riseman, in 1965.
The only part of the 1940 exterior that remained after the renovation was the midcentury Circle sign on the side of the building, the sign now coveted by the Susans.
Even if Bregman and Legere are unable to save the sign, they’re preserving the memory of the theater by enlisting the community to share stories, photographs, or even ticket stubs. They will then present the collection to the Allston Brighton Historical Society. Their Facebook page, www.facebook.com/LongLiveCircleCinema, is drawing comments from former employees and patrons who reminisce about seeing “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” or eating at the Howard Johnson that once stood next firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther.