We’ve all seen that bright neon marquee located across from the Citibank and Otto’s restaurant in Coolidge Corner that looks like an artifact from another era. Well, such an artifact has found its place in a Netflix-obsessed, technologically fast-paced culture. The Coolidge Corner Theatre—aptly called the “Coolidge”—is the independent, nonprofit movie theater on Harvard and Green Street. The Coolidge is still alive and well after 82 years in operation.
Once a dazzling Art Deco house in the 1930s and 1940s, where one could have an elegant movie-going experience and enjoy the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Shirley Temple, and the Marx Brothers on the big screen for just 33 cents, the Coolidge is Brookline’s most cherished cultural landmark. It is widely recognized across the United States for its unique history, its annual Coolidge Award, and its tradition of cult and avant-garde screenings, which play late into the night. The Coolidge still plays many favorite classics and independent films that you won’t find in a typical movie theater. Its very existence today is a testament to the lasting appeal art films have in an increasingly kitsch-infused TV and movie culture.
“Right now the Coolidge is on very solid ground,” says Chobee Hoy, board member and former chairperson of the Coolidge Corner Theater Foundation, the nonprofit organization now running the theater. “In fact, we’re in the process of starting a fundraising campaign to add another theater upstairs.”
But the Coolidge has a long history of financial woes that is in itself something of a story you might find in the movies. According to Susan Quinn’s 2009 history of the theater, Only at the Coolidge, its economic troubles began around the mid-1970s, as single-screen movie houses, like the Coolidge, were being replaced by multiplexes, which were rapidly expanding across the United States at the time.
Under the direction of film buff and programmer Justin Freed, the Coolidge entered a creative phase that lasted until about the late 1980s. Freed’s movie taste drew in large crowds as he helped to bring back many of Buster Keaton’s comedies, classic films starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and many documentaries and animated films by independent filmmakers. However, it wouldn’t last, as VCR sales and competition for art films hurt profits. Freed sold the property to Newton developer Jonathan Davis in 1988, a year that proved to be significant in the theater’s long history.
It was in 1988 that a community-wide effort to save the Coolidge from certain death had begun to coalesce. Many prominent Brookline residents—all of whom described in Quinn’s booklet—banded together under the direction of David Kleiler, a cineaste and a film professor at Babson College, who was at the helm of the “Save the Coolidge” movement. This eclectic gathering of activists, architects, critics, and film enthusiasts came together before the Brookline Historical Commission to give their emotional appeal.
“We simply wouldn’t take no for an answer,” Hoy recalls. “The Coolidge was pivotal to the town of Brookline. So many people loved the theater — not just here, but elsewhere in the United States. You could be in San Diego, California, and if you mention you’re from Brookline to someone, chances are they’ll have heard of the Coolidge.”
Rousing testimony from the group prompted a sympathetic ruling from the Commission, who decided that the Coolidge was historically significant to the town of Brookline. The Coolidge Corner Theater Foundation was conceived in 1989, and fundraising began immediately.
“A lot of smart people rolled up their sleeves and went to work,” says Hoy. “The theater itself needed a lot of repairs, and we had to raise a lot of money. There was lots of love and goodwill, but we were still in a difficult situation financially.”
As things began to look grim for the Coolidge, Kleiler reached out to real estate magnate Harold Brown, who agreed to purchase the property, and lease it back to the foundation for 99 years.
“Brown’s backing was critical,” says Hoy. “He came in on his white horse to save us. Otherwise, the Coolidge would have been made into a shopping center of some sort.”
Hoy was then the chair of the board and the community liaison. “The board at the time had lots of goodwill, good brains, and community support,” he says. We had some brilliant people helping us at the time, including Connie White and Marianna Lampke, who were pivotal in reinvigorating the program, and working with the distributors.”
Connie and Marianna, then co-owners of the highly acclaimed Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, helped to bring art and independent films to the Coolidge, and still program for the theater today.
Many others offered to help reinvigorate the Coolidge throughout the 1990s, including Elizabeth Taylor-Mead, who is a producing partner and founder of Metropolis Pictures, and Clinton McClung, who became well known for beginning the tradition of “midnites”—the slew of after-hours screenings popular among hardcore film goers.
“Many of the repairs were attended to and our finances stabilized,” says Hoy. “Our leadership now is very strong and knowledgeable, and I think many people understood, as we do now, that the Coolidge was absolutely pivotal to the health of Brookline as a whole.”
As the leadership changed hands in recent years, there was more financial stability. Joe Zina, who took over as executive director in 1999, revived the Art Deco theme that had since faded. Zina also replaced the tattered marquee sign outside and erected a new, multi-colored one with neon lights that illumines the street at night. In 2004 the Coolidge gave away its first “Coolidge Award” to an acclaimed film artist, and since has awarded Meryl Streep, Thelma Schoonmaker, Viggo Mortensen and Jane Fonda with the prestigious honor.
In November 2013 Katherine Tallman became the foundation’s executive director, and heads the operation today. Some significant changes have come to the theater to the delight of film enthusiasts, including the addition of beer and wine to the concession menu. The expansion proposed in 2013, which seeks to add another full-sized movie house, is well under way today.
One thing about Coolidge’s history is that it has brought a community together to preserve a historical landmark for current and future theater goers.
“The whole experience is just beautiful, physically and emotionally, and their films are fantastic,” says Hoy. “Once you start going, you won’t stop.”
BrooklineHub.com now offers Coolidge Corner Theater Movie Times!