The Coolidge Corner Theatre: community, charleston chews and a cowboy hat

The Coolidge Corner Theatre that sits in the heart of the Brookline Village in Massachusetts. Photo Courtesy of Olga Khvan/Boston Magazine.

By Amisha Kumar

Boston University News Service

No uniform. No flashy screens. No giant escalators.

But a cinephile staff, hand-drawn menus and a velvet-floral-carpeted staircase can be found at the Coolidge Corner Theatre, along with a cowboy hat resting on a 1933 art deco water fountain and cyclically strobing LED lights.

Quirky details partly make the Coolidge Corner Theatre, a 90-year-old institution, so special to the community, but the local gem is going through an expansion and restoration project.

“It has more personality [than movie theater chains] and it feels better supporting a local business that has been here for so long,” said Saskia Martinez, a first-time visitor. Martinez described watching a movie at Coolidge as a quintessential Boston experience. 

The theatre plans to create an education and engagement center for community members to rent for events, film clubs and their youth education program. They are also introducing two additional screens. 

“We’re embarking on a very exciting new era. There’ll be sort of more Coolidge for everyone,” said Beth Gilligan, the deputy director of the theatre.

The theatre hosts multiple Boston film festivals, from the Boston Jewish Film Festival to CineFest Latino Boston. They also frequently partner with the local community, such as the Huntington Theatre Company and Secret Society of Black Creatives.

The “art deco movie palace,” originally built as a church, went through financial ups and downs in the 1980s because of the popularity of malls and the multiplex era of cinema. The business became so competitive that there were even plans to convert the theatre into a furniture store, said Gilligan.

The community did not let this happen.

People came together and formed a human chain around the building, said Gilligan. “Out of that effort was born the Coolidge Corner Theatre Foundation.” 

The theatre became a non-profit in 1989 and underwent renovation in the early 2000s because of the wear and tear from many decades, according to Gilligan. Yet Coolidge didn’t lose its charm. They restored the original details in the theater.

And it’s happening again.

Towards the left of the entrance, ahead of the people bathed in red light from the LED bar sign and flower-shaped ceiling lights, there was a random air vent slouching against the wall, a pillar with chipped paint and bites taken out of it and film reels huddled below a sign that reads:

“PARDON OUR APPEARANCE. Construction is underway as part of our expansion. For more information, go to campaign.coolidge.org.”

Visitors can also see the same sign on wooden panels lined with red tape and veiled in translucent construction sheets beside the screening room’s exit.

The metallic Barbie pink streamers, movie merchandise and the overwhelming decision to choose between a Charleston Chew or Sno-Caps in the lobby, which was repainted and recarpeted during the pandemic, are distracting enough to not double take at the construction.

At the beginning of the expansion effort, the foundation was talking to people and there was anxiety about the change, said Gilligan. 

“There is such an attachment to the current building that we felt ‘no, no, no’ you know that what we have is so special, and it’s so tied into the history of this community,” said Gilligan.

The theatre’s official website says they are “refreshing the space” and upgrading the technologies and electric systems.

“We wanted to just preserve what we have and keep that special warmth, that art deco feel, the art deco details, and there were some things that just needed sprucing up, like the carpet,” said Gilligan.

The iconic marquee isn’t going anywhere, and the people are excited.

The scent of salt and butter swelled into the lobby and the popping crescendoed almost like raindrops pattering against glass as the crowd populated the front door, trickling in for the 7:30 P.M. shows. 

“Coolidge Corner feels more like an experience beyond just seeing the film itself,” said Maggie Borgen, a Film and TV student at Boston University. 

Students find the theatre to be a pocket of culture in a big college town, making their time there a “core memory” in their college experiences.

Despite the changes and additions, Coolidge, at its core, seems to remain the same because the community has been a constant centric factor over the years.

“Our hope is for everybody to feel welcome here,” said Gilligan. “I think there’s also just something about the warmth. We have a terrific staff in the theatre. Everybody’s a cinephile. I think you just start to feel the personality and the love for the Coolidge, and its mission really just come through.”

Although there is no firm date, the expansion will be complete by the end of the year, according to Gilligan.

Two college freshmen are having their first date and an elderly group of friends are reuniting. Maybe it’s the staff’s “warmth,” or the “art deco feel,” or just the candy that bring them together, but how such different demographics can enjoy the same place is also what makes Coolidge one-of-a-kind; not just because they do not have a uniform or flashy screens or giant escalators.

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