You don’t need to be a fan of art house and independent films to know that Coolidge Corner in Brookline would be a conventional albeit upscale commercial district without its movie theater. The Coolidge Corner Theatre provides street buzz, artistic heft, and a strong fun quotient in the heart of Harvard Street. And if not for the vision of local movie buffs and town activists more than two decades ago, the Art Deco theater that first opened in 1933 would likely have been transformed into a cluster of forgettable boutiques.
The movie house was on the ropes back in the late 1980s when longtime owner/operator Justin Freed concluded he could no longer compete with rising video sales and competition from other art houses. A Newton developer, Jonathan Davis, stepped in with a plan to purchase and redevelop the site for commercial and office use. Demolition was on the table. In normal times, elected officials in this preservation-minded town might have been expected to mount a “Save the Coolidge” campaign. But the theater’s hard times coincided with escalating public frustration over a steep rise in residential property taxes linked to the town’s longtime policy of rent control. A chance to widen the town’s commercial tax base by redeveloping the theater proved too seductive for many town leaders to resist.
The theater did go dark for a time. But it reopened 25 years ago today under the management of the nonprofit Coolidge Corner Theatre Foundation. In the annals of Greater Boston activism, saving a theater might not rank with earlier efforts to block the construction of a multi-lane highway through Roxbury or even more recent vigils to save threatened churches. But the rescue of the Coolidge Corner Theatre is a pure example of people coming together to save an institution that gave shared meaning to their lives, right down to the donation boxes spread around town that evoked a scene from Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Today’s community activists and preservationists still have plenty to learn from the foundation’s script.
The core group resembled a resident acting company where each member had a specific role. David Kleiler, an independent film expert and founding member of the Brookline Arts Council, was the front man. Kleiler had good contacts in the press — notably former Boston Globe critic Jay Carr — and knew his way around Brookline Town Hall. Brookline resident Nat Green, who served as the first chairman of the foundation, brought urban development experience to the fight. Bill Schechter, a history teacher with a flair for the dramatic, organized supporters to link hands and form a giant, protective ring around the theater. And John Bok, one of Boston’s savviest and most civic-minded attorneys, provided pro bono legal help.
A decision by the Brookline Historical Commission to halt demolition for one year and several Carr-inspired stories in the Globe breathed life into the foundation. Still, by the fall of 1989, it had become clear that the nascent foundation would not be able to raise the $2.6 million needed to buy the property from developer Davis, a decent guy who didn’t relish the role of the heavy. Behind the scenes, Kleiler reached out to Boston real estate mogul Harold Brown, who became the unlikely hero in this story. Just a few years earlier, Brown had pleaded guilty to bribing a building inspector. Brown, who knew a good deal when he saw one, seized on the opportunity to redeem the Coolidge Corner Theatre — along with his own reputation — by purchasing the property and leasing it back to the nonprofit foundation for 99 years.
By the mid-1990s, Kleiler and the founders had largely yielded control to a new board and management team with more financial experience. But it was the original group who best grasped the movie house as a social institution, established the human networks needed to keep it alive, and foresaw the economic importance of the theater to nearby restaurants, shops, and an independent bookstore.
On Monday evening, Globe film critic Ty Burr will be at the Coolidge Corner Theatre to introduce a tribute screening of Woody Allen’s “Hannah and Her Sisters” in memory of Jay Carr, who died in May. Burr grew up watching sci-fi and horror movies at the movie house. He now describes the theater, which hopes to add a fifth screen, as the “jewel of the Boston indie scene.”
This movie house had been measured for a death shroud until its supporters changed the ending. Now it’s shining bright.Lawrence Harmon can be reached at email@example.com.