When the Somerville Theatre opened more than a century ago, it brought spectacle to Davis Square. Offering vaudeville, stage plays, and opera, the auditorium would soon be home to several productions by the future film director Busby Berkeley, the king of elaborate choreography.
Some spectacle is set to return to the neighborhood this month, as the theater unveils a new live music venue in the Crystal Ballroom, on the Hobbs Building’s second floor. The ballroom has a soft opening this weekend, followed by shows with the experimental hip-hop group Injury Reserve on Tuesday and the Boston-based desert blues band Billy Wylder on Oct. 15.
Beginning in the 1930s, when the Great Depression ravaged box office receipts for live entertainment, the Somerville Theatre has served primarily as a neighborhood movie house. Where dance bands once filled the Crystal Ballroom with sound, by the time the Fraiman family took over the building in 1990, the only sound in the ballroom was the cooing of the pigeons that had taken advantage of its disrepair.
The Fraimans carved up the ballroom space into two small movie theaters. They ordered up more renovations in the building’s basement, which once housed a bowling alley. For two decades, the Somerville Theatre was a multiplex, with five screens in all.
But then the pandemic confirmed what movie-theater owners across the country already knew: The distribution model for new movies is changing, fast. With so many streaming options at our fingertips, audiences at the movies are the ones now dwindling.
“So we figured we’d hedge our bets,” says Ian Judge, who is the creative director for the Somerville Theatre and another Fraiman property, the Capitol Theatre in Arlington. He proposed a restoration of the Crystal Ballroom to its original state as a live venue. The work began in January.
Judge grew up just down the street, frequenting the theater, and he still lives in the area. He’s a movie guy first and foremost: While studying film history at New Hampshire’s Keene State College, he drove down every weekend to work as an usher at the old Harvard Square Theatre.
“Gas was 89 cents,” he recalls.
In 2002 his mother spotted a help wanted ad in the Globe for the general manager’s position at the Somerville Theatre. He got the job, he says, “and it became my life’s work.”
Over the years, the Somerville Theatre has enjoyed success with live events in its main auditorium, including an intimate U2 show in 2009 and a memorably gonzo 1989 appearance by the writer Hunter S. Thompson. In 2003, Bruce Springsteen played two acoustic benefits for Double Take, a photography and literary magazine then occupying office space in the Hobbs Building. Concerts will continue to be booked in the auditorium, alongside its new sister venue.
Various local promoters will present shows in the ballroom, Judge says. Global Arts Live is bringing the songwriter Amythyst Kiah to the stage on Oct. 29; Crossroads Presents, which books the Paradise and the Brighton Music Hall, has the Nashville band the Wild Feathers on Nov. 19. Judge says he is also discussing partnerships with the Wilbur Theatre’s Bill Blumenreich and JJ Gonson, the “legendary fairy godmother” of the local scene.
“It’s kind of like the promoter equivalent of the gig economy,” he says.
Maure Aronson, who founded the the agency now known as Global Arts Live in the early ‘90s, says he’s eager for the Crystal Ballroom to open. He presented some of his first shows, such as the South African choral group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, at the Somerville Theatre.
He first toured the ballroom in its dilapidated state in the early ‘90s. “I’ve got history with this place,” he says.
In reviving the Crystal Ballroom, the Fraimans “haven’t spared any expense,” Aronson says. In fact, he thinks it could turn out to be “the best room of its size in the greater Boston area.”
The ballroom stage sits at the far end of the room, toward the back of the building. There’s a big open bar and a spacious dance floor with chandeliers hanging overhead. The space where the Double Take desks once sat now features a built-in corner banquette overlooking the theater entrance.
“It’s the best view of Davis Square,” Judge says.
Standing-room capacity for the ballroom is 516. Configured for cabaret seating, it will hold 234. With the recent closures of nearby venues such as Oberon and Gonson’s ONCE Somerville, Judge is hoping the new venue will fill some of the void.
The Cambridge Symphony Orchestra plans to use the space for weekly rehearsals, Judge says, and he’ll bring back one of the ballroom’s original functions with a swing dance night on Tuesdays in November and December.
And he’s looking forward to scheduling into the new year, when more touring artists are set to hit the road.
“Next spring looks insane,” he says.
Plenty of last-minute work remains. He’s still awaiting the arrival of the drapes he ordered, for instance.
But on the eve of opening night, the Somerville Theatre’s latest bet could be poised to pay off. With a last word on what it takes to survive in the current entertainment business, Judge quotes a line from a favorite movie, “The Shawshank Redemption.”
“You’ve got to get busy living,” he says, “or get busy dying.”
E-mail James Sullivan at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.
For more details on the Crystal Ballroom and upcoming shows, go to www.crystalballroomboston.com