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During the pandemic, the theatre has undergone a complete renovation of its facilities

(Somerville Wire) – The Somerville Theatre, which closed because of the pandemic in March 2020, has taken advantage of its time offline make some productive changes—the space is undergoing renovations and is also getting a Crystal Ballroom. The lobby is being refurbished—with its floors being completely rebuilt with new tiles—and the concession and merchandise area has been relocated and combined with the movie box office. The new ballroom will be intended for use as a live performance venue (for music and comedy acts, for example) and as a private gathering center, potentially for weddings and special events.

The theatre was built in 1914 by Joseph Hobbs and was originally intended for stage shows, vaudeville, opera, and even motion pictures. The building did once have a space known as the Hobbs Crystal Ballroom, which opened with the rest of the theater eons back. The new ballroom, opening this fall, will be able to host 500 people, and designers have aimed to preserve the theatre’s historic character.

“When the building was built, the ballroom was absolutely part of the building—it was called the Hobbs Crystal Ballroom,” said Manager and Creative Director Ian Judge. “At that time, it had the antiquated fire codes of 110 years ago. It would hold 700 people, and it was a very basic, decorated ballroom, with a big flat floor. There were lots of dances, banquets, and things like that there. By the time the 1980s rolled around … it was pretty much defunct as a public space. …They built the cinemas there in the 1990s … For us, it seemed like a natural fit for a number of reasons. One, now that Johnny D’s is gone, there’s not a complete lack of music… but there’s a missing piece to the entertainment scene in Davis Square. While it’s a little bit bigger than Johnny D’s, it’s going to bring the same kind of acts to the area.” He added, “Pertaining to the pandemic and movie going, I don’t think movies are going away, but there will be less of them. So for us, it was like, live entertainment is a turn on, since the first days when men sat around a fire telling each other stories. [With] live entertainment, there will always be a place for that.”

The feeling of the Crystal Ballroom will be “majestic,” said Judge, with beautiful, arched windows along Dover Street offering natural light and with the ability to have their shades lowered and draperies closed. There will be a stage big enough for the average band, a green room for artists, and in-house light and sound. The ballroom will have its own set of restrooms, a coat check, and a bar. With several chandeliers, the place is meant to look classic without being stuffy, outfitted to be modern while gesturing towards the past. Architect Diane Lim said that through details and storylines, the team wanted to keep up with the existing features, while adding something new to them. There will be an Art Deco influence, she said.

“It had a lot of hidden details,” said Lim. “For example, in the ceiling, we applied crown moldings, and that was buried in the flat drop ceiling before. We’re putting those things back. But as far as what’s on the walls, light fixtures and so on, we don’t necessarily have a good trace of them, but we try to mimic as much as we can. We’re going to have seatings in the bar that are upholstered, kind of an old-fashioned gathering space with the music. Obviously, scale-wise, it’s not as intimate as a speakeasy or anything like that, but there’s some spirit [of that] …”

Many local film enthusiasts are excited about the energy that the Crystal Ballroom could bring to Davis Square. Daniel M. Kimmel, a movie critic and Somerville resident, said that the theater serves as an “anchor” in the neighborhood and that as an independent cinema, it is highly unique, “a throwback to a different time.” Ron Newman, who was a member of the now disbanded group Friends in Support of the Somerville Theatre, said that the pandemic has changed the way that people view movies and that the new addition of the ballroom will be a welcome change.

“The pandemic basically drove everybody out of movie theaters, and I think people are slow to return to them,” said Newman. He added, “I think it has probably done permanent damage to the exhibition industry. Once people have gotten used to streaming movies at home, it’s going to be hard to bring them back into movie theaters. This all started with television in the 1950s and then VCRs and CD and DVD rentals in the 80s and 90s, and then streaming. Every one of these things has cut into the audience for going to an indoor movie theater. I think it’s going to take a lot of creativity to bring people back into movie theaters. We need more than superhero blockbuster movies. We also need the small movies, and we need the revivals. The people who are best in the position to do that are not the big chains but the small, independent theaters, like the Somerville and the Capitol.”

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Shira Laucharoen is assistant director of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and assistant editor and staff reporter of the Somerville Wire.

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