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The news that Harvard Square’s only mainstream movie theater will close in early July was met with sadness by Cambridge residents and Harvard students this week.
In the wake of the announcement that the AMC cinema chain will shutter the theater, community members recalled the theater’s history, from its 1920s beginning to its 28-year tradition of midnight showings of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” The showings are organized by the Full Body Cast, a rotating group of actors that perform along with the screening of the film.
Students especially decried the loss of the cinema because of its convenient location, just across the street from the Yard.
“My friends and I really hate going into Boston to see movies,” said Henry B. Regan ’15, a Cambridge resident who estimated that he went to the theater two or three times a month. “It’s going to be tough to see movies during the school year.”
According to Sarah L. Burks, a preservation planner for the Cambridge Historical Commission, the theater was built in 1925 as the University Theater. In its original incarnation, the theater was a single-screen cinema with a stage and balcony. Numerous stage plays and musical groups performed at the theater; according to a 1986 Boston Globe article, the venue hosted Bob Dylan, the Clash, Bonnie Raitt, Tom Waits, Hall and Oates, and Bruce Springsteen.
Burks said that major architectural changes took place in 1982, when the marquee moved from Mass. Ave. to Church Street. The single screening room was divided in two.
Ned R. Hinkle, creative director at the Brattle Theater in Harvard Square, said that the number of screens increased to five when Loews purchased the theater in the late 1980s.
“They started playing more Hollywood movies,” Hinkle said. “I used to go to the Harvard Square when I was in high school and see these amazing double features. It was somewhat similar to the Brattle, but its focus was more on cult films.”
Cambridge resident Remy R. Prevost, a Harvard Law School library employee, said that he was disheartened to learn that the Full Body Cast’s longtime midnight showings of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” would have to find a new location.
“That’s an established thing,” Prevost said. “I was born and raised here, and I remember going there in high school in 1989 just to see what it was all about.”
Originally, the FBC's midnight showings were at the Exeter Street Theater in Boston. In 1984, when that cinema closed, the Full Body Cast moved the ritual screenings to Harvard Square.
During the screenings, FBC members provide an energetic interpretation of the onscreen action. Viewers are treated to bawdy skits, sarcastic commentary on the dialogue, and shouted instructions for performing the “Time Warp,” the film's signature dance.
Those who have not attended a midnight screening before are labelled as “Rocky Horror virgins.” Before the show begins, they will be labelled with a “V” drawn in lipstick and brought to the front of the auditorium to have their virginity symbolically taken.
FBC member Arthur F. Laurie, who has been performing with the group since its Exeter Street Theater days, said that he was struck by the beauty of the Harvard Square Theater when the FBC moved there.
“Eventually it just became one of the places you went to in Harvard Square, like the Coop or the [Out of Town news],” Laurie said.
Current FBC director Alex H. Savitsky praised the Cambridge residents who have made the cast feel at home for 28 years.
“Occasionally, we’ll have a complaint from a parent whose kid snuck out to see the show,” Savitsky said. “But it’s been a very positive community.”
The show was popular with Harvard students.
“I loved the enthusiasm of the audience and the performers,” said Ari M. Albanese ’15, who attended the show with a group of other Harvard students. “Everyone was dressed up and singing along and just really enjoying themselves. I had a great time.”
According to Savitsky, Full Body Cast staged two shows a week until 1997, when they switched to a weekly performance. Over 28 years, that would mean that approximately 2,100 showings took place at the theater.
For co-director Gary A. Greenbaum, this rigorous schedule distinguishes Full Body Cast. “This is the only Rocky cast that has been performing consistently in the same theater,” he said. “Others put on a show once a month or so, but this is the only show that did it once a week.”
Greenbaum and Laurie both said that the Halloween weekend shows are among their favorites.
“We do three shows with an expanded pre-show before the show,” Laurie said. “Those are always awesome, and those are always full house. You can wait all year for that and always be satisfied.”
Despite the loss of the venue, the cast has no plans to end the performances and is currently scouting for a new location.
“We’ve always been in contact with other theaters for just such an occasion,” Greenbaum said.
Hinkle said that for those in the theater business, the writing has been on the wall for the Harvard Square theater for quite some time.
“It’s been rumored on and off for a long time that it would be closing,” he said. “Anyone who’s been there recently has seen it was neglected by AMC.”
Laurie sounded a somber note of farewell. “I’m sad to see it go,” he said. “Even though this theater closed and we will hopefully get another theater, [the dynamic] is lost forever. And that’s sad.”
At the Brattle Theater, an artsier cinema which was not direct competition to the AMC theater, Hinkle was sympathetic rather than triumphant at the closing of a peer.
“'Disappointment' is the best word,” he said. “Any time a movie theater closes is a tragedy.”
—Staff writer Petey E. Menz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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