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By Scott Roberto / September 20, 12:00 AM
A Peek at the Past: Coolidge Corner Theatre


One of the most beloved and well-known non-profit cinemas in the country, Brookline’s Coolidge Corner Theatre has endured since debuting in 1933. Its recent track record of popularity and success, however, wasn’t always the case over the course of its up-and-down history.

The edifice in which this temple to film is housed began its life as a church in 1906. In 1933, at the height of the Depression, an Art Deco-style, 1,500-seat movie house was carved out above the Beacon Universalist Church. First-run films starring all the biggest stars of the golden age of Hollywood graced the screen at the Coolidge for decades. Once suburban multiplexes started to dominate this category, however, the quaint auditorium was relegated to showing second-run features in the 1970s. 

The first hints of what the Coolidge would become began in 1977 when new owner Justin Freed began screening art-house films that couldn’t be found at the cineplex along with revivals of the classics. In addition, the space was divided into two movie halls in 1979, allowing for multiple showings. Special events featuring appearances by prominent filmmakers, writers and musicians also became common.

The advent of home video struck a new blow to the Coolidge, however, and it found itself on the brink of closure when Freed sold the theater to a developer in 1988. At that moment, a grass roots organization known as the Friends of the Coolidge persuaded the Brookline Historical Commission grant a stay of execution for the structure, allowing for the now non-profit next evolution of the Friends, the Coolidge Corner Theatre Foundation, to raise funds to buy back the theater. The effort seemed like it would fall short when a last-minute benefactor, Brookline realtor Harold Brown, stepped in and had his charitable foundation purchase the building and lease it back to the Coolidge Foundation. 

After a brief period of turmoil, new management stabilized the cinema’s finances, paving the way for the renaissance it has experienced in recent decades, including a renovation around the turn of the millennium that encompassed the addition of a new marquee and two small digital projection screening rooms. Expanded programs—among them the popular Science on Screen and After Midnite series—that continue to this day were also created, along with the annual Coolidge Award, which was inaugurated in 2004 and has been handed out to such luminaries as Meryl Streep, Jonathan Demme, Jane Fonda, Werner Herzog, Michael Douglas and Julianne Moore for crafting a consistently innovative and provocative body of film work. 

Film buffs looking for an excuse to visit this cinematic treasure need look no further than the GlobeDocs Film Festival, which returns October 2–6.

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