In the wake of the flu pandemic of 1918, thousands of grand theaters sprang up in cities large and small across the country. The public was itching to get out. Vaudeville was at its height, and the fledgling movie industry was quickly becoming one of the nation’s great pastimes.
“It was a crazy time, just like now,” says Casey Soward, executive director of the Cabot Performing Arts Center in Beverly. “And it helped usher in the era of the Roaring Twenties.”
On Dec. 8, 1920, the North Shore city of Beverly celebrated the grand opening of the opulent Ware Theatre, designed by the same architectural firm behind the Boston Athenaeum. Renamed the Cabot Cinema in 1960, it’s been through several distinct phases in its lifetime, including a historic 35-year run for a beloved magic show and some periods that weren’t quite so magical.
For its next trick, the Cabot will mark the beginning of its second century by throwing a one-night-only wingding. Whether our own pandemic, if it ever ends, will usher in a new Roaring Twenties remains to be seen.
As Soward says, you only turn 100 once.
On Dec. 3, the Cabot will livestream its own birthday concert with special guests including James Taylor, Rosanne Cash, Raul Malo, Paula Cole, and many more. The theater is offering specialty cocktail kits for home delivery, and the event will kick off with a sneak peek of the building’s latest restoration project — the grand lobby, where two spectacular stained-glass “rose” windows were long ago hidden away by drop ceilings.
“This is a national treasure here in our backyard,” says Soward. “It kind of blows my mind.”
After years of disrepair, the Cabot’s revitalization began five years ago with the guidance of a consortium of local philanthropists and business owners. Ten thousand people filed into the seats for concerts and movies in 2015; by last year, that number had ballooned to 90,000. According to Soward, that influx accounted for $10 million in revenue for downtown Beverly.
To Paula Cole, the Rockport native who won the Best New Artist Grammy in 1998, the Beverly of her childhood represented the “big city,” the place her parents took her for special outings.
It was difficult just to get an FM signal out at the tip of Cape Ann, she says. “We didn’t get ‘up the line’ too much, as we called it,” on the commuter rail. “So Beverly was Magic Town.”
She got her first bike at Brown’s and her first leotard at Casa de Moda, two local institutions that are now gone.
On the rare occasion that she caught a movie at the Cabot, “it was like stepping into another era,” she recalls. Ushers in tuxedos escorted you to your seats: “Everyone was so well-dressed. They took tremendous pride in the place.”
Cole’s mother was a working artist, and her father taught in the biology department at what was then Salem State College. One of his colleagues there was Caesareo Pelaez, a Cuban immigrant who taught psychology. Pelaez was better known as Marco the Magi, the founder of Le Grand David, the Beverly-based magic show that would be listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for longevity.
The magic troupe bought the rundown Cabot in 1977 and the Larcom, another vintage Beverly theater, eight years later. Le Grand David ended its historic run in 2012, after Pelaez’s death at age 79.
In the spirit of the magic show, the Cabot 100 celebration will beam in more than a dozen artists from various locations around the country. Each performer will contribute two or three songs; most have headlined the Cabot in recent years. (Taylor, who can fill Fenway Park, was approached by a friend of the Cabot, Soward says. “He was very gracious. He said yes immediately.”)
The night will close with Cole leading a virtual ensemble performance of a universally beloved song, the identification of which is a closely guarded secret. Jon Butcher, the veteran rocker who has headlined the Cabot several times since its reopening, is serving as music director for the finale.
“The song embodies the spirit we hope we’re going into in 2021,” says Butcher, leaning into the surprise.
Butcher, who lives in Gloucester, says he has appreciated each time he has appeared at the Cabot. “The most special part of the day is walking in when there’s nobody there, and the crew is just beginning to set up. You can sense all that has happened there before you. You can almost smell it.”
The songwriter Martin Sexton, who got his start by busking in Boston subway stations, pre-recorded his performance for the anniversary event onstage at the theater, which was empty other than the camera and sound crews.
“Where the audience would have been, they put some cool blue lights,” Sexton says. “To me, that represented the hope of the future — that human beings will be in the audience shoulder to shoulder once again.”
Like Butcher and Cole, Sexton says he can feel the energy in the old building.
“I’ve always been a bit of a history buff. I feel like I’m carrying on the tradition of vaudeville, traveling from town to town.” His own grandfather performed at local gatherings in Syracuse, N.Y., where Sexton grew up. The singer now travels with his grandfather’s Gibson tenor banjo, which dates to the 1920s.
“I sort of feel like I’m living his dream,” he says.
For Cole, the heritage embodied by the dwindling number of places like the Cabot isn’t limited to the physical space.
“When cities lose their theaters, the music dries up,” she says. “When a theater is maintained, it’s profound what it does for the whole community.” It contributes to the local economy, she agrees, “but it also provides a consciousness that is healing to a community. The town operates at a higher vibration.”
Years before coming to the Cabot, Soward worked on the stage crew at one of the country’s oldest theaters, the Orpheum in Boston. At the time, he was studying music production and engineering at Berklee.
He too sees the Cabot’s mission as much more than mere property management. A theater like the Cabot, he says, “is such an important part of our humanity.
“And we’re living in a world right now that desperately needs it.”
Email James Sullivan at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.
LIGHTS. CAMERA. CABOT 100 CELEBRATION
Scheduled performers include James Taylor, Martin Sexton, Grace Potter, Rodriguez, John Hiatt, Raul Malo, Chris Thile, Fantastic Negrito, Hot Tuna, Jon Butcher, Paula Cole, and Rosanne Cash. RSVP at www.thecabot.org