Celebrating the legacies of Southern New England’s independent movie theaters.By Jessica Laniewski
Buying a ticket for a movie shown inside a landmark theater means more than just seeing the latest blockbuster. Southern New England’s short but elite list of independent theaters and drive-ins represents decades’ worth of history as well as a refreshing nonconformist spirit—most screen hard-to-find indies, foreign films and documentaries and even organize creative programming geared towards engaging the local community.
Unlike cookie-cutter chain theaters, the following movie houses mix it up with intoxicating combinations of historic architecture, Old Hollywood glamour, in-house cafés and bars and even live performances and readings. They manage to make going to a movie, not just watching one, the main event.
You can’t talk about theaters that have stood the test of time without mentioning the Wellfleet Drive-in. First built in 1957, the drive-in has entertained generations of locals and summer visitors alike. While some things have changed—it debuted Barco digital projection in 2013—other things remain the same, including the retro sign, a fixture on Route 6. Listening through your car’s FM stereo sound system is an option, but some parking spots still offer original 1950s mono speakers. And seeing a double feature for under $10 per ticket is a great bargain. Open May through the weekend after Labor Day.
51 State Highway, Wellfleet, MA • 508-349-7176;
In 1915, Captain A. H. Bearse purchased a house on Main Street, Chatham, with the intention of developing a first-class opera and motion picture house. As a result, the Orpheum Theater opened in June 1916 with 400 seats and operated for another 72 years as Chatham’s first and only movie house. However, it ceased operations in 1987, and the town mourned a lost but not forgotten treasure.
Thanks to grassroots efforts, the nonprofit Chatham Orpheum Theater Inc. was formed in 2011 and completed the first step of its restoration mission, buying back the historic building, in April 2012. Now restored and modernized, the Chatham Orpheum Theater re-opened in July 2013, offering traditional concessions, a full-service lobby café and two screens with 3-D capability. It features first-runs, art house and independent productions and documentaries, including locally produced films.
637 Main Street, Chatham, MA • 508-945-4900;
The Cape Cinema in Dennis dates back to June 1930, when it was masterminded by Raymond Moore (who successfully launched the Cape Playhouse three years earlier) as a “new miniature talking picture theater deluxe.” Outside, the theater’s colonial exterior was modeled after the Congregational Church in Centerville; inside, its Art Deco auditorium houses 300 black-lacquered armchairs and a show-stopping vaulted ceiling covered in a 6,400-square-foot mural by controversial American artist Rockwell Kent. Besides independent and international films, the Cape Cinema also presents high-definition performances by The Metropolitan Opera from New York and National Theatre Live from London.
35 Hope Lane, Dennis, MA • 508-385-2503;
Just a ferry ride away, the family-owned Starlight Theatre & Café on Nantucket (formerly known as the Gaslight Theatre) is one of the few under-100-seat theaters remaining in the country. With 90 seats and a single screen, it’s an intimate space complemented by a full-service bar and café. Thanks to generous community support, Starlight recently converted to digital projection and remodeled its interior. And every summer like clockwork, the theater’s covered pergola transforms into a hot spot for people-watching and live music.
1 N. Union Street, Nantucket, MA • 508-228-4479;
Originally known as The Toy and one of Providence’s first neighborhood theaters, the Avon Cinema, built in 1915, was first used for live performances by the Toy Theatre company. After a renovation in the 1930s turned it back into a theater for motion pictures, not much has changed. The exterior remains very much as it was in 1938 and the interior screams Old Hollywood with velvet seats, a matching velvet curtain flanking the screen and an ornate ceiling in the lobby. Besides its storied ambience, the Avon is known for an eclectic mix of cinema, from Oscar-nominated first-runs and older masterpieces to independent and foreign films.
260 Thayer Street, Providence, RI • 401-421-0020;
Providence’s Cable Car Cinema & Café began as a dilapidated truck garage before owner Raymond Bilodeau converted it into a cinema with a box office and concession stand designed to be operated by only one person. In 2008, ownership changed and the space was massively renovated using local artists and artisans. Besides an offbeat and intriguing selection of art house and international films, the Cable Car is perhaps best known for its love seats and floor-to-ceiling wall murals. Its café offers both indoor and outdoor seating and is a low-key East Side hangout, movie or not.
204 South Main Street, Providence, RI • 401-272-3970;
First built in 1834 as the Zion Episcopal Church, Newport’s Jane Pickens Theater & Event Center transitioned into a theater in 1919 and was first known as The Strand. In 1974, it was renamed in honor of Jane Pickens, an iconic singer/musician and a fixture of Newport society. Today the movie house presents first-runs, documentaries and classic films as well as a variety of special events.
Touro Street, Newport, RI • 401-846-5474;
The Coolidge Corner Theatre very nearly did not exist: it took the people of Brookline 16 years before allowing the transformation of a former church into an Art Deco “movie palace” in 1933. Since 1988, Coolidge Corner has operated as a nonprofit with the mission of “building a vital community through film culture” by presenting the finest international, documentary, animated and independent film selections. Now 2,800 members strong, the organization also presents a variety of intriguing programming, including daytime kids’ shows, internationally renowned ballet performances and, for insomniacs, the “@fter Midnite” series of cult films and events starting at 11:59 p.m.
290 Harvard Street, Brookline, MA • 617-734-2500;