Scouted: Somerville Theatre Centennial


By Martha Spizziri

Photos courtesy of The Somerville Theatre and Martha Spizziri

The Somerville Theatre’s 100th anniversary celebration is serving up 100 days of movies from the theater’s founding through to the present day. There will also be some special live acts to honor the theater’s history as a music hall. Performers include Angelique Kidjo on Feb. 23 and the Carolina Chocolate Drops on March 29. It will all lead up to a big event, a special screening of the “Wizard of Oz” on the anniversary date, May 11 (more on that below).

Recent photo, but the Somerville Theatre looked the same in its heyday...  Courtesy of Somerville Theatre.

Recent photo, but the Somerville Theatre looked the same in its heyday. Courtesy of Somerville Theatre.

The series launched January 31 with three silent movies featuring Mary Pickford. Among them was the short “Their First Misunderstanding,” from 1911, which was thought to be lost until a contractor came across a copy in a New Hampshire barn a few years ago. The Library of Congress paid for the film to be restored; the Somerville Theatre screening was only the third showing of the restoration. And it was probably only the third time the movie’s been seen by an audience, period, since the 1930s.

That’s according to film historian and writer Christel Schmidt, editor of the book Mary Pickford: Queen of the Movies. She was on hand at the Somerville to introduce the Pickford films. New Hampshire composer Jeff Rapsis provided live music for those and two other silent classics shown on opening weekend, “Way Down East,” a 1920 movie starring Lillian Gish, and “Wings,” a 1927 film with Clara Bow.Mary Pickford Book Cover Web

“Wings” is notable in film history as the first movie ever to win a Best Picture Oscar. In fact, it was the only silent Best Picture ever until “The Artist” came along in 2011. Wings got the Oscar largely because of its spectacular aerial footage, which would have stunned audiences in 1927, and is pretty spectacular even today. And especially when you find out, as Jeff Rapsis revealed in the introduction, that the actors had to learn to fly the World War I biplanes for their roles. The planes were already rickety antiques by the time the movie was made, and the actors had to fly them while operating fuselage-mounted cameras – and trying to act at the same time.

“I definitely wanted to embrace the history of cinema as well as the history of the theater, because they really parallel each other,” notes theater manager Ian Judge. Each movie will feature a short introduction by Judge or another movie buff, and shorts will screen before some of the main features.

All the movies in the series will be shown as 35 mm prints, which are much more vivid and display much richer color than digital. “Thirty-five millimeter film remains the gold standard for a hundred years’ worth of cinema,” says Rapsis. “I’m just thrilled that there’s a theater like the Somerville that continues to feel it’s worth keeping that experience alive.”

 The theater in full color, Photo by Martha Spizziri

The theater in full color, Photo by Martha Spizziri

Movie highlights

If deciding which of the 60-plus movies to see seems overwhelming, let Judge and Rapsis help you. Here are the movies they single out:

Jeff Rapsis:

“Duck Soup” and “A Night at the Opera” (Feb. 21 double feature). “If you have never seen a Marx Brothers film with an audience, it’s one of the great experiences of life on Earth. You feel good about life when you get caught up in that contagious audience laughter that happens in the movie theater.” Before making their movies, the Marx Brothers would tour around the country and perfect certain scenes on the stage until they played well in front of an audience. They even paced the bits to allow time for the laughs. “A lot of care was taken into making it a great audience experience, and that’s why it’s really important to see these films with a large group of people. The bigger the audience the better,” Rapsis says.
“Touch of Evil” (March 12), the 1958 crime thriller directed by Orson Welles. “People know Orson Welles and Citizen Kane, of course, but that one … it just blew me away.”

“The Godfather” and “The Godfather, Part II,” the April 10 double feature. “So much care was put into those images and the cinematography, and to see them on the big screen the way they’re going to show them in Somerville, they’re to die for. I can’t wait to come and see those.”

“E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” and “Gandhi” (a double feature on Saturday, April 19.) “They’re both from the early ‘80s, and maybe that’s the connection, but what a pairing of films! It’s like some kind of Asian fusion cuisine. You don’t expect to see those two together, and it should be a lot of fun, to see them on the big screen like that.”

Ian Judge:

“Camille” and “Amelie.” “A really interesting double feature. You’ve got “Camille,” which is the Greta Garbo, typical old-school Hollywood romance. Then you’ve got “Amelie,” which is the modern, foreign-language version, not of the same story, but, they’re both romantic movies for different reasons.”

“Duck Soup” and “A Night at the Opera.” “The exciting thing is, the Marx Brothers came from vaudeville, so it almost brings that element to the stage. Vaudeville was very predominant here through the early ’30s.”
“A Face in the Crowd” (playing March 15 with “On the Waterfront”) and “A Thousand Clowns” (April 5, with “To Kill a Mockingbird”). “They’re great movies that don’t get played a lot.” “A Face in the Crowd” shows a side of Andy Griffith that might shock you if you know him only from his TV shows. unnamed

“Viva Las Vegas” and “Elvis: That’s the Way It Is.” Judge chose those films as a nod to Somerville’s past. “If you talk to people who grew up around here in the ’50s and ’60s, Elvis movies were huge.”

The Grand Finale

The final screening, “The Wizard of Oz,” will be a multimedia extravaganza. A full orchestra will provide live music and there will be three vaudeville-style variety acts.The theater is encouraging people to get dressed up in formal wear for the event. And Judge invites locals to audition their variety acts — singing, dancing, comedy, novelty or similar acts that are suitable for all audiences. Auditions will be held in March. Keep an eye on the Somerville Theatre website for details.

Tickets for the anniversary films, including “The Wizard of Oz,” are $10 per showing. (The $10 admission includes both movies when double features are shown.) You can buy them up to two weeks in advance of each show from the theater’s website or at the box office. If you’re ambitious, you can buy a Centennial Pass that lets you into all the movies in the series for $300. (Live performances are separately priced.) See the full schedule of movies and performances.

The look back at film history doesn’t end May 11. After the 100-day celebration is over, the theater will resume its regular monthly silent-movie series. The films will feature live musical accompaniment and introductions by Jeff Rapsis. Films and dates to be announced.