A Short History of the Somerville Theatre
The Somerville Theatre and the Hobbs Building it is a part of was built in 1914 by Joseph Hobbs and designed by the firm of Funk & Wilcox of Boston. Designed for stage shows, vaudeville, opera, and that new fad, motion pictures, the theatre was only one of the highlights of the Hobbs building, which also contained a basement café, bowling alley and billiards hall, ten storefronts on the ground floor, and the Hobbs Crystal Ballroom on the second floor. The second and third floors also contained office space for lease. In 1915, the Somerville Theatre Players began their stock company presentation of weekly play performances. Among the notable players who came up at the Somerville were Tallulah Bankhead, Kay Corbett, and Francis X. Bushman. Future film director Busby Berkeley (famous for "42nd Street" and other stylized musicals of the 1930's) directed many shows at the Somerville in the mid 1920's.
In 1926, the Hobbs family leased and subsequently sold the theatre to Arthur F. Viano, whose family built and owned other area theatres such as the Teele Square Theatre, the Broadway Theatre in East Somerville, and the Regent Theatre in Arlington. The Vianos continued with the stock theatre company until the harsh economics of the Depression forced them into a 'movies only' policy in 1932. Throughout the 30's, 40's, 50's and 60's, the Somerville remained a prime neighborhood movie house. In those days, new films would open at the downtown theatres like the RKO Keiths (now the Opera House) the Paramount, the Metropolitan (now the Wang Theatre) and the Loew's Orpheum (now a concert hall). After playing downtown, the pictures made their way, week by week, often two and three per week, to the neighborhood houses like the Somerville Theatre. Like all Viano Theatres, the Somerville was well known for fresh popcorn, and also for gimmicks like prize nights. These gift nights began in the depression and lasted at the Somerville until the 1970's (!!!). These were certain nights, usually weekdays, where dishware, appliances, and other merchandise was given away to entice patrons to attend the show. Gradually the Viano family came to operate the Capitol Theatre in Arlington as well, and by the 1970's, the Somerville, Capitol, Regent, and Broadway theatres were mainstays of local movie-going. The opening of the Sacks Assembly Square Cinema (now Loews) helped to kill the Broadway Theatre, and the Fresh Pond Drive-In became a multiplex, forcing the Cambridge-Somerville-Arlington neighborhood theatres to become strictly second run venues.
The Viano family leased the Somerville to Garen Daly in 1982, and he turned the theatre into a repertory house, running double features and daily changes, offering independent and offbeat fare in the days before video and DVD made it easy to track down such titles. Daly also brought back live performances to the stage for the first time since the 30's when he began programming concerts to complement the film programs. During this period, the Hobbs Building was purchased by Chatham Light Realty, whose owners, the Fraiman family, had previously bought and operated the Capitol Theatre in Arlington. When Garen Daly’s lease ended in 1989, the Fraimans decided to operate the Somerville themselves, closing the venue for a series of renovations. Some in the community were afraid the original theatre would be subdivided into smaller cinemas, and formed an activist group to prevent such an occurrence, but as the owners had never actually made that decision, the theater was preserved, and reopened in 1990, looking better than ever, and retaining its single screen charm.
Movie attendance, however, had dropped considerably, and a plan had to be devised to keep the theatre competitive. The remainder of the Hobbs Building, with the exception of a couple of storefronts and the theatre, had been abandoned since the early 80's, and this space proved to be the answer. In 1996, extensive renovations were begun. The bowling alleys in the basement and a portion of the first floor retail space were gutted to create modern bathrooms and two new auditoriums. Two more screens were built in the former ballroom space on the second floor. An elevator was installed, new windows and a bright stylish marquee were added, and the third and second floors became new and modern office space for lease. The theatre lobby was expanded by taking over an adjacent storefront, and new comfortable seats were installed in the orchestra seating of the original auditorium.
Today, operated by F.E.I. Theatres, the Somerville Theatre continues to entertain locals with five screens of first run films and regular music and stage performances. It struggles to compete with the giant chain theaters and the local non-profit art-houses, remaining, with its sister theatre, the Capitol, among the last of the neighborhood theatres that aren't a charity. It still offers an inexpensive ticket, lower food prices, fresher popcorn (with real butter if you want it), and a funky charm that bigger theaters cannot offer.