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Updated: June 10, 2024 From the Editor

From the Editor: Small town theater nostalgia

When I was growing up in a small city in Ohio, one of the main community gathering places was a single-screen movie theater on the city’s main street. With its ever-changing marquee and settled amid a few blocks of downtown commerce full of owner-operator small businesses, that theater was a fixture of my early childhood. I saw countless movies and the occasional concert there.

WBJ editor Brad Kane at his desk
WBJ Editor Brad Kane

Even after a more modern multiplex cinema opened in the city’s shopping mall, that downtown theater seemed to hold its own, eventually adding a second movie screen. However, at some point in the 30 years since I left that hometown, the movie business fell by the wayside. Still, the building and the marquee remain to this day. A church occupies the space now, and it even hosts free community movie nights.

I certainly understand the nostalgia Central Massachusetts community officials are trying to hold onto as places like Clinton, Fitchburg, and Worcester attempt to turn century-old downtown theaters into economic development projects, as Staff Writer Eric Casey details in his cover story “Final act?” Despite the renovation costs, which can run into the millions of dollars, keeping these old theaters viable and in use has a certain appeal, as reminders of an era where downtowns were commercial centers and community gathering places. Those marquees, updated weekly, can attract residents’ and visitors’ attention, sparking the imagination over what lies inside.

Of course, the economics behind these efforts are more likely to lean toward more efficient uses of real estate, calling for the theaters to be demolished and replaced with something more modern. The renovation of the Fitchburg Theatre by Fitchburg State University has been a painstakingly slow process; the good-natured attempts to bring the Olympia Theatre in Worcester back from the dead might never get off the ground; and The Strand Theatre in Clinton has been closed for nearly four years.

Still, such renovation projects – however realistic or far-fetched – are worthy efforts. The architecture, atmosphere, nostalgia, and impact of these old theaters can’t be replicated if they are ever torn down for good. Fewer and fewer communities even have such facilities anymore, and the ones remaining need to be preserved.

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