The enduring legacy of the Cabot Street Theatre
Montserrat College of Art Prof. Gordon Arnold
It’s a time of transition for Beverly’s beloved Cabot Street Theatre Cinema. We don’t yet know the ultimate fate of the historic property, which is currently for sale. But whatever happens, its pivotal place in cultural history of the city is secure.
For nearly a century, area residents have known and loved it. Yet, the theater is more than a place of fond memories. The magnificent structure has played a major role in creating the vibrant cultural life of the city that continues today.
The theater opened in 1920 as the Ware Theatre. It was named after its founders, N. Harris Ware and D. Glover Ware. The brothers already operated the popular Larcom Theatre in Beverly, which opened in 1912 just a few blocks away. The early success of the Larcom suggested there would be a demand for a larger and grander facility. The brothers arranged financing and began construction of an opulent new theater on bustling Cabot Street, with an eye toward serving all of the city’s residents. The theater was built to accommodate both movies and stage performances and was truly multipurpose facility.
From the beginning, the theater was a place for the city to come together. While the luminaries of high society were among its earliest patrons, it was no stuffy institution. It drew a wide audience. The best seats were 30 cents (a price that included 3 cents tax), but a balcony seat could be purchased for as little as 20 cents. Children could attend matinees for as little as 11 cents.
In the early 1920s, America’s love affair with Hollywood was just starting. Ornate movie palaces were being built throughout the U.S. to meet the demand for sophisticated new venues. The Ware, with its elegant frescoes, grand fixtures and golden dome, amply met this need and drew widespread praise.
Though these were the days of “silent movies” (the sound era did not start until the late 1920s), movies were seldom seen without musical accompaniment. In fact, announcements for the gala premiere of the theater boasted of a “$50,000 Austin Pipe Organ.” In today’s dollars, this cost was the equivalent of well over half a million dollars.
In the Great Depression of the 1930s, the carefree spirit of the “Roaring Twenties” ended. The popularity of vaudeville waned, but going to the movies remained a staple in American life. The grand theater on Cabot Street became primarily a movie house and eventually changed owners.
Local movie theaters retained their popularity in the 1940s. By the 1950s, however, the popularity of television led to decreased movie attendance. Theaters everywhere suffered.
In addition to competition from television, there were the new realities of suburbia. Movie theaters followed stores and restaurants away from downtown areas to shiny new shopping centers at the outskirts of town. The Northshore Mall, which opened in the late 1950s, was one of earliest of these. In 1963, a multi-screen theater was constructed adjacent to the popular shopping destination. It was a glimpse of the future.
In the following years, customers were increasingly drawn to suburban shopping centers and to the theaters there, some with a dozen or more screens. The aging theater on Cabot Street, like similar venues, came to be seen as relics of a bygone era.
By the mid-1970s Beverly’s downtown theater, which had long since been acquired by the E.M. Loew’s chain and renamed the Cabot Cinema, fell on hard times. It showed mostly second-run films at reduced rates. Although it remained a local attraction that generated many fond memories, it suffered in the wake of changing consumer preferences and the economic crunch of that decade. Finally, Lowe’s decided to sell it.
A new ownership group, led by the late Cesareo Pelaez, acquired the property in 1977 and changed its name to Cabot Street Theatre Cinema. They then began to restore to the theatre to its former splendor.
Pelaez was Renaissance man. He was a college psychology professor and also a stage magician. Soon, in addition to restoring first-rate film programming, the Cabot began weekly stage shows featuring the Le Grand David and his own Spectacular Magic Company.
The live magic show gained national acclaim with its spectacle and old-world charm. The old theater regained its luster and was once again a source of pride for the city. With its rebirth, the reputation of the Cabot was assured for many years.
With Pelaez’s death in 2012 and the closing of the magic show, the future of the theater once again seemed uncertain. In 2013, the Cabot was put up for sale. The search for new owners continues today.
What will happen the Cabot Street Cinema Theatre remains an open question. Until new ownership is secured and plans are made, it’s difficult to predict whether the aging building will continue to be operated a theater for either film or stage.
As a theater for film, there are daunting challenges for any new owner. Hollywood studios are ending distribution of movies on film. Instead, most films will be available only in digital formats. This will require theaters to buy expensive digital projection equipment. Many independent theaters simply can’t afford that cost. It remains possible, of course, that visionary new owners could solve that problem.
Whatever the future of Beverly’s grand old theater, however, the cultural vibrancy that the Cabot helped bring to downtown Beverly a century ago will continue. A formal cultural district is being developed for the downtown area where the Cabot Street Cinema Theatre stands.
Montserrat College of Art, the city of Beverly and Beverly Main Streets, are leading the project. Their goal is to improve to the city’s “livability, civic engagement, and arts appreciation and support.” It’s a fitting development and a testament to the cultural tradition of Beverly that the Cabot Street Cinema Theatre helped create a century ago.
Gordon Arnold, Ph.D., is the author of several books about film and American society and is professor of liberal arts at Montserrat College of Art.
Above artwork: alumnus Jon Bolles ’12, oil on canvas “Cabot Cinema” (36”x48”)