... the good old days
Few individuals--if any--would dispute the importance of entertainment as a venue for determining the likes, values, interest and lifestyles of any and all segments of a given society. This is certainly true as it relates to the development of the motion picture and its effects on the people who quickly adopted it as their favorite form of entertainment.
The Silver Screen arrived in Melrose on November 11, 1912, just 16 years after the first public picture was shown on April 23, 1896 at the Koster and Beal's Music Hall in New York City. It was the same year that the Motion Picture Copyright Laws were passed to allow films to be deposited in the Library of Congress on film instead of unprojectable paper rolls.
The MELROSE MOTION PICTURE THEATER was located in the Lewis Building at 441-3 Main Street. Owned by Benjamin Harrison Green, the new showplace became one of more than 13,000 movie houses to be found throughout the United States. In response to the public demand and fascination with screen "stars", these theaters featured the latest releases of such luminaries as Florence Lawrence, Charlie Chaplin and "America's Sweetheart", Mary Pickford.
This was an era long before the relatively common practice of mass openings of films. Pictures at this time were purchased by zones. This meant that Melrose audiences would have to wait until a film had been shown--or refused--by Boston and Malden before it could be shown in this city. If a major star was featured in a new motion picture, the leasing theater was required to show the picture using synchronized musical accompaniment provided by the distributors (for an additional fee. of course). Motion pictures were shown everyday except Sunday and at evening screening some seats were reserved, and ushers were hired to maintain order and increase the feeling among the audience that a visit to the "movies" was a special event, indeed.
In the 1920's atmospheric houses became the rage among the public. These new theaters boasted crystal chandeliers, oriental rugs, original paintings, statuary and elegantly uniformed attendants--from doorman to ticket-taker to auxiliary help throughout the building. This meant that sound films were essential to a theater's success. The most common method of adding sound to a motion picture was piano, organ or orchestral accompaniment.
This must not be confused with "talking pictures," such as those exhibited by Leon Gaumont at the Paris Exposition of 1900. Those were achieved by combining a film projector with a phonograph. "Sound Films," on the other hand ranged from the use of pianos in the earliest store theaters and nickelodeon, to elaborate organs with a variety of sound effect equipment. The Melrose Theater belonged to this later classification. (It is interesting to note that quality rather then economy was the criteria for deciding on purchases for the showplace. In 1948 the original organ of the Melrose Theater was sold to the Most Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church of Wakefield.)
The magic of motion pictures showed a steady climb in popularity and by January, 1939 even the sacrosanct Massachusetts Blue Laws were forced to suffer defeat. In a city wide election, the voters of Melrose showed approval of Sunday movie screening. A license was issued by Mayor Perkins to Manager Harold F. Ward of the Melrose Theater to permit continuous performances starting at 1:30 on Sunday afternoons and continuing till closing. The impossible had finally occurred: Melrose citizens could enjoy films seven days a week without leaving their hometown.
Hollywood and motion pictures were more firmly established and more deeply rooted in the American consciousness, from early thirties to the end of World War II, than any other era in history. In a time of economic depression and international conflicts, motion pictures eased people's loneliness and offered temporary relief from life's anxieties for a very small price. When ticket sales fell off, theaters responded by offering promotional giveaways in the hopes of attracting new patrons. It was not unusual to see newspaper ads that shouted about "GIANT GIVEAWAYS"--free dishes (women only), double features, 3 short subjects and a newsreel. Such novelties, along with the adulation of film stars by the American public, updated technology, and the variety and quality of films available helped to establish the Golden Age of American film, lasting from the early 1930's to 1946.
Why did the Melrose Theater close? There is no simple answer to this question. From its inception the theater was exposed to a series of costly fires, some of which may have been caused by the highly flammable nature of the film used at that time. The first of these fires occurred on November 2, 1917 and resulted in extensive damages which kept the theater closed until August 12, 1918. A second minor fire took place on March 12, 1931, and kept the theater inoperable for nearly three months, not reopening until June of that year.
But these disasters were merely indicative of what was to follow. Motion pictures were such an integral part of American life that Hollywood could not fail to be affected by tremendous changes in society following World War II. An unbroken annual decline in ticket sales occurred from 1946-1962. Perhaps not by coincidence, 1962 was the year that television reached 90% of American homes. Suddenly the film industry found itself in competition with such corporate media giants as NBC, CBS, and ABC.
No longer did the majority of Americans see any need, or desire, to leave homes for their entertainment. Television was new and, best of all, free. The only price the viewer was forced to pay was sitting through endless commercials. Bear in mind however, that television did not kill motion pictures any more than it did radio listening. What it did do was to displace a key function of both media. Television replaced several of motion pictures major forms: the "B" films, short subjects, newsreels, and cartoons. The American public had gone from spending 23% of its total recreational dollars on film to less than 2%. If not completely gone, the magic of movies was in serious decline.
Change is the only constant in life and in the history of motion pictures in Melrose. Beginning with "Tar Paper Village" production company in the general area of where the City lines of Malden, Medford and Melrose meet, this low budget operation produced one or two independent films--not cheaply enough for a substantial profit, nor in sufficient volume to meet the demand for films that existed. Instead theaters everywhere--including the one in Melrose had to depend upon the same major production companies of Hollywood. When these faltered so did all theaters.
The magic of movies is still in existence as can be seen by today's high profits in the film industry. However its "Magic" has taken new forms in technological advances and spectacular special effects. As for the City of Melrose itself, any resident will agree: Here is a Magical Victorian City with roots in the past but with eyes firmly fixed on the present and the future.