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Somerville Theatre celebrates its 100th birthday

Landmark celebrates 100 years in a changing neighborhood. With Technicolor, naturally.

The Somerville Theatre is celebrating its centenary with a gala — black tie encouraged.

John Blanding/Globe Staff

The Somerville Theatre is celebrating its centenary with a gala — black tie encouraged.

Ian Judge doesn’t own the Somerville Theatre, which turns 100 on Sunday, but he still considers it his “baby.” He’s been general manager since 2002, and he knows its secrets (it’s haunted), its history (there was a Prohibition speakeasy in the basement), and its lore (speakeasy patrons hid bottles in the ceiling).

Not surprisingly, Judge has given a lot of thought to its centennial celebration, which is no small accomplishment at a time when many cinemas, including the Somerville, have struggled to stay afloat. When the theater debuted May 11, 1914, Fenway Park had recently opened, the Titanic had sunk, and World War I was about to break out. The gala event featured a vaudeville show with dancers, singers, and a comedian, “The Inventor’s Wife,” a silent motion picture “of absorbing interest,” and other unspecified “excellent pictures.”

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On the date of its birth, the Somerville Theatre will again host a gala celebration of absorbing interest, formal wear encouraged. There will be vaudeville acts including a magician and comedy duo, some unspecified classic short films, and an old Technicolor print of “The Wizard of Oz.’’ Judge chose the classic because “to me, it perfectly summarizes how timeless movies are,” he said. (Also, because he couldn’t find a print of “The Inventor’s Wife.”)

“We want it to be an old-fashioned night of entertainment with not a lot of speechifying,” he said. But if he were to speechify, he knows what he would say. “The most rare thing about this theater isn’t necessarily the fact that it’s 100,” said Judge, 37, who grew up three blocks away and eventually migrated to a home 10 blocks away.

“It’s that it’s still doing exactly what it did when it opened, in the same way. It combines movies with live shows. It serves the community. Sometimes it’s been a very working-class neighborhood, sometimes a funkier neighborhood. In the ’70s and ’80s it was more downtrodden. But it’s been able to survive 100 years because it’s always reflected the community around it.”

Changing with neigborhood

The neighborhood is unquestionably in one of its funkier phases; just spend five minutes under the theater’s marquee in the maelstrom that is Davis Square. The mail carrier plods by in shorts, his legs covered in loud tattoos. A businessman strides by with a peace-sign button in his jacket lapel. A cyclist is on his mobile phone.

The theater shares this eccentric vibe. A collection of Pez dispensers lines a windowsill. Remnants of the theater’s history hang from the walls — the original 1914 exterior sign, a hand-lettered, Depression-era sign addressed “To Our Lady Patrons” offering giveaways of “Oneida Stainless Steel.” The Museum of Bad Art perches in the basement: The current show includes a work of velvet art and an anonymous painting titled “Nude With Folding Chair,” which was recovered from someone’s trash in Rumford, R.I.

“There’s a dividing line now in the theater world,” said Judge, who is also the director of operations. He is a large man whose graciousness seems out of place in today’s impersonal multiplex era. “There’s the high-end $25 theaters,” he said. “And there are theaters for everyone else, where you don’t have to take out a home equity loan.”

The Somerville Theatre is a theater for everyone else. (Except those who drive. “The parking situation is always dire,” said Judge, who recommends taking the T.) The prices are lower than many other theaters ($6 for matinees, $9 for evenings, $2.50 for a small popcorn with real butter.)

It’s been a first-run theater since 2007. But it also shows classic and silent films and hosts film festivals, a family film series, live theater, the annual holiday “Slutcracker” burlesque show, and about 50 concerts a year in its ornate 900-seat, classical revival-style auditorium, with balcony and orchestra pit.

In 2009, U2 performed there. Bruce Springsteen did a pair of shows in 2003. Tickets from notable past concerts are displayed in a glass case in the lobby: Chick Corea, Cheap Trick, Arlo Guthrie. Norah Jones was here, and so were Tracey Chapman and Adele.

“For us, it’s a very significant theater, a wonderful theater to bring music to because of the intimacy and the acoustics, which are exceptional,” said Maure Aronson, executive director of World Music/CRASHarts, who has booked hundreds of concerts here in the past 23 years. “Fenway Park is one of the best places to see a baseball game. And the Somerville Theatre is one of the best places to see a live concert.”

All in the family

Unlike Fenway, which has changed hands several times, the Somerville Theatre has been owned by only three families in its history — the Hobbs family; the Viano family (which started the tradition of gimmicky giveaways including saving accounts with $25 already in them, appliances, and fur coats); and since 1984 the Fraiman family, which took over in 1990. Melvin Fraiman, now 91, was in the real estate business and bought it because of his longtime love of movies, according to his son Richard, who now is the boss. “Every night, he watches oldies movies. It was a match made in heaven.”

The Fraimans bought the theater when it was on the downswing. “The springs came through the seats,” Maure Aronson recalled.

“It was dilapidated,” said Richard Fraiman, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Paul Simon and is munching on a morning box of popcorn. “The seats were broken. The heat wasn’t working.”

He said his family was committed to revitalizing it. He estimates that over the years they’ve injected “north of $3 million” into the building. They added four cinemas by using space in the building that had other uses, installed a new sound and digital projection system (though they kept all the old film projectors for classic movies), and installed new seats for all five cinemas. In 2006 they repainted the theater for the first time since 1932. They also installed new drapes and stage rigging.

One of their biggest challenges came in the years leading up to 2007 when it became a first-run theater. “The second-run movie business is obsolete, what with videos, Netflix, on demand, computer access,” said Fraiman. “We had to fight to get on the first run circuit,” due to what he called the “dark side” of the movie industry — a “pernicious and monopolistic” system by which some national chains exert influence on distributors to determine who shows what. “It was a long, difficult battle,” he said, “but eventually we won.”

In 2006, the theater bought a liquor license to sell wine and beer, which has helped finance some of the renovations. “We are always thinking out of the box,” Fraiman said. “We have to make the facility more attractive to our audiences.”

Ian Judge puts it in movie terms. “You know that famous scene in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ where Jimmy Stewart is joyously running through town, saying ‘Merry Christmas’ to all sorts of things? He says ‘Merry Christmas’ to the movie house. It’s one of the pieces of Americana; you do expect a town to have a movie house, not a mall with a movie house. It’s something special. And we’re that movie house.”

Linda Matchan can be reached at l_matchan@globe.com.
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