Born by candlelight, it ended in fire. The Orson Welles Cinema, located in Cambridge, between Harvard and Central squares, is a lost treasure of the local theater scene. Its story unfolded in three acts and turned out a tragedy. But by the time it burned in 1986, the art-house complex — which opened its doors 50 years ago last month — had changed the course of moviehouse history, brought reggae to the masses, and set off ripples reaching from the jungle set of “Apocalypse Now” (1979) to the passenger seat of John Lennon’s Rolls-Royce.
“It was the first modern American house, 40 years ahead of its time,” says Garen Daly, a former manager at the Welles, now crowdfunding a documentary about it, “The Orson Welles Complex.”
The Welles did things differently. At varying stages during in its 17-year run, the art-house complex included three theaters, a bookstore, a film school, three bars, and a two-level restaurant. One of the first movie theaters to open ancillary businesses, the Welles saw itself as a radical one-stop shop for Boston’s film community.
“It was exciting, it was daring, and it was revolutionary in many aspects,” says Larry Jackson, who programmed and managed the Welles from 1971 to 1978. “There was a new spirit going on there, people trying things, breaking with norms.”
A young Jay Leno did stand-up at the restaurant. Van Morrison was a regular. Stephen King hung around the lobby, later writing the Welles into three of his novels, including “The Dead Zone.” Francis Ford Coppola came to lunch with astronomer Carl Sagan; Coppola was photographed wearing a Welles souvenir T-shirt in the Philippines, where making a Vietnam war epic nearly killed him. When Neil Young visited one night, he borrowed the scheduled performer’s guitar, treating astonished restaurant patrons to a 90-minute set.
“Things like that were spontaneously always happening,” says Jackson. “The Welles, in its heyday, was a place where people would congregate irrespective of what movie was playing. They knew they’d find something worthwhile.”
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It started with Dean Gitter. At Harvard, the folkie had met Ralph Hoagland — who’d previously cofounded Consumer Value Stores (CVS) — and convinced him to underwrite a business venture. Gitter bought out the Esquire, a single-screen theater located half a mile from Harvard Square. His big idea: to build a complex where inquisitive students could watch, discuss, and even learn how to make movies. It was to be a freewheeling forum for free-spirited thinkers.
“For that certain generation in America, cinema was the exciting art form that spoke to us in a way nothing else did,” says Jackson. “It provided new ideas and perspectives on what was happening at other places in the world with an immediacy that you couldn’t find anywhere else.”
As Gitter renovated the space, word spread of his planned moviehouse. On April 8, 1969, a parade greeted its opening. Bands and limos rolled through Harvard Square, hippies turning out with candles and sparklers.
The Welles sought to highlight American cinema as an art form. It was named for Orson Welles, the filmmaker staffers considered America’s greatest auteur. By that point, Welles was living in Europe in self-imposed exile from Hollywood. He sent a telegram granting permission to use his name.
The first movies shown were Luis Buñuel’s “Simon of the Desert” (1965) and Welles’s “The Immortal Story” (1968). “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” Don Siegel’s 1956 horror classic, followed at midnight.
In those early days, the theater was staffed by flower children, wary of any institution looking to turn a profit — including the Welles. After its restaurant opened that fall, employees making off with wine bottles became a problem.
One exception: house manager Tommy Lee Jones, then a Harvard undergraduate. When Jones sent employees out to buy paint, they returned with lots of purple and black. “It was the most bizarre culture,” the Oscar-winning actor and Texas native would later tell Jackson. “I couldn’t relate. We had to paint the lobby, and everyone there was a stone-tripping hippie. They were so out of it that I had to literally take them by the hand and show them how to paint a purple wall.”
The restaurant had long tables that seated 10; each table could order up to three dishes, served family-style. The idea was to make strangers interact.
“The first time I had dinner there, some suburbanites from Newton were on one end of the table,” recalls Jackson. “On the other end, there was this guy totally out of his mind, tripping. When the food was served, he threw up all over the table.”
Food was made fresh each day, and leftovers were put out on a buffet table later in the evening and sold as all-you-can-eat for 50 cents. Locals soon caught on. “The new dinner time in Cambridge became 10 o’clock,” says Jackson.
In its first 18 months or so, the Welles burned through $750,000 (about $5 million in 2019 dollars). By the summer of 1971, Hoagland had ended the partnership with Gitter. At the suggestion of Hoagland’s wife, Jackson was brought on. Six months later the theater was in the black.
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“We fit the time and place,” says Martha Pinson, an employee from 1973 to 1977. “The Welles was in touch with this thriving, intellectual culture there at our doorstep.”
Families drove in from the suburbs. College students all but camped out there. Movie buffs buzzed in the Welles’s lobby, lingering for hours at its restaurant. To make the lobby more inviting, Jackson repainted it a lighter gray and added unusual concessions, like yogurt. Along one wall ran a mural of Hollywood icons threaded together on a film reel; posters made by the Welles’s art department were mounted on barn siding.
Filmmakers Nicholas Ray and François Truffaut came to visit. Director Peter Bogdanovich and star Cybill Shepherd premiered “Daisy Miller” (1974) there. Accompanying them was Frank Marshall, who’d later produce “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981) and “The Sixth Sense” (1999). The Welles’s mastery of sound and image projection amazed him.
“I used to refer to it as the Golden Standard,” Marshall told the Globe in an e-mail.
A film school operated out of the basement. Lynda Bensky studied audio engineering there one summer. “It was so progressive and an example of how forward-thinking these people were, to think someone would even be interested to learn that,” says Bensky, now a Hollywood agent.
The program didn’t last, but evidence of its legacy resurfaced in unexpected places. In 1988, museum curators found a film reel under the passenger seat of John Lennon’s ’65 Panther V Rolls-Royce. Handwritten on the canister: “Phil Loomis. Orson Welles Film School.”
Another screen was added once the film school closed, bringing the Welles up to three. On a typical day, the first might play a political documentary, the second French New Wave, the third “Reefer Madness” (1936). “That one was often a sellout,” remarks Jackson.
In April 1973, the Welles played a Jamaican film, “The Harder They Come,” which had been quietly released in New York two months earlier by low-budget maven Roger Corman. “We couldn’t sit still, because the music was so amazing,” Jackson recalls. Playing up its soundtrack, he slotted the movie for six months, watching it become a local sensation. The film later shifted to midnight; it played at the Welles for six years.
That same year, Jackson sought what he now describes as “an audience with God,” Orson Welles himself. As the theater’s success mounted, it became clear that the telegram sent before its opening was not legally binding. Permission to use Welles’s name could have been withdrawn at any time. After explaining to the director’s assistant the need to draw up a contract, Jackson flew to Madrid and met him for lunch.
“I came in and said, ‘Orson, I’m so grateful you’d take the time to meet with us,’ ” recalls Jackson. “He put this dark expression on his face and said, ‘You may call me Mr. Welles.’ And I thought, ‘I just completely destroyed the relationship before I got to my seat.’ But then he laughed and said, ‘I’m just fooling with you. Sit down and call me Orson.’ ”
The rendezvous went so well that the director not only signed some paperwork but decided to hold the US premiere of his essay film “F for Fake” at the Welles, in 1977. In Boston, he received a hero’s welcome; the night before the screening, more than 2,000 braved a blizzard to catch his one-man show at Symphony Hall.
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“If you want a happy ending,” Welles once wrote in the pages of a script he never shot, “that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.” The story of the Orson Welles Cinema might end on a freeze-frame of its namesake in residence, basking in the glow of the marquee. Instead, even before a fire sealed its fate, the Welles had lost its spark.
Entrepreneurs Herb and Phil Meadow had bought the Hoaglands’ shares in the theater in 1976; they eventually clashed with Jackson, who left on bad terms less than a year after Welles’s visit. Under the brothers, the Welles became more corporate. Emphasis was placed on booking more mainstream fare. Purse-strings tightened. Coffee had been free at the Welles, part of its communal ethos; seeing a chance to make more money, the Meadows began charging for it, swapping out cream for half-and-half.
Phil Meadow speaks highly of Jackson, adding that Daly and long-time publicist J.D. Pollack were the Welles’s “heart and soul.” Personally, he was more concerned with cash flow. “I kept it alive,” says Meadow. “These people, to do their thing, had to be kids at heart,” he says.
Neither Jackson nor Daly veils his frustrations with the Meadows. “They didn’t see the vision,” says Daly. “And it was an expensive property, so they didn’t do the due diligence of trying to keep it up.”
One May afternoon in 1986, a popcorn maker caught fire. The blaze spread quickly to barn siding — so quickly it aroused suspicion. Sixty patrons were safely evacuated. Three 1985 releases had been showing: “Always, But Not Forever,” “Water,” and “Dreamchild.”
Later, some blamed faulty wiring. Catholics who’d protested the Welles six months earlier for screening Jean-Luc Godard’s controversial “Hail Mary” figured it was God’s wrath.
Whatever caused it, the Welles never reopened. The exact reasons for that undergird Daly’s planned documentary. But he says the theater’s influence can still be felt today, wherever movies play.
“The Welles created a community,” says Daly. “That’s the reason why it could sustain itself.
“Its same model, movie screens and restaurants tied with an umbilical cord, didn’t happen back then; it’s now in most upscale theaters,” he adds. “And the majority of art houses today engage the community on a very visceral level so that they can exist. That happened first, 50 years ago, at the Orson Welles.”