History of Screening Room 09/19/13


    History never lies easily. Theaters come and go. In Colonial times in Newburyport there were rows of alehouses that served as the theaters of their day. Back then the water wasn’t always safe to drink. That’s how apple cider came to be consumed in large quantities. That’s where the general public went for entertainments, men, women and children, the society at large would pack the alehouses  for  what today we would call “face time.”

    As the water became more potable and alcohol was seen as the scourge of the masses alehouses lost their luster. More proper theaters came to be in vogue. Restaurants were self-defined as not mere alehouses but respites for relief. 

    Fast forward a few centuries and vaudeville was born. Theaters were grand palaces where singing, tapping, comedy and music were to be found. The mass of society flocked to these places to find what was seldom called “art.” Theaters were in fact often seen as a waste of time, a plague on proper behavior, orchestrated by denizens of immorality.  Performance art was no art at all.

    Slowly theatrical work began to be viewed more charitably, later as art-in-person. Yet vaudeville had its decline as the new medium of moving pictures captured the public’s fancy. There was a new force let loose called “electricity.” With electricity came movies. Movies were mechanical, reproducible and so much easier to present. The era of vaudeville died and the movie age was born.

 Newburyport had its own string of movie palaces. The Sovereign Bank on Port Plaza, Talbots on Green Street and the Vanguard/Fuel Health Club on the corner of Titcomb and Merrimac Streets were all giant movie houses. Then came a tiny operation called the Screening Room.

    As theaters were often suspect as bringing immorality to the public so the Screening Room’s future founders were abjectly rebuffed in their first attempts to start a film program. The first effort to open an art film series at the Tax Payers Hall on Plum Island was met by a citizen’s petition to deny the enterprise a license.

    The founders blame themselves for not communicating correctly. Words used included “art” and “adult.” The good folk of the Island heard the word “porno” in their minds. The would-be theatrical impressarios really meant that the films they were suggesting would be of mature quality. Again, the word “mature” set off alarms.

    There ensued a raucous town meeting at Town Hall in Newbury, Spring of 1977 where the petition of denial was presented and no words of explanation were accepted. The effort  was shown the door, emphatically.

    Little did anyone realize that the presenters  were sincere. Little did anyone realize that porno was soon enough to creep into their homes in the dark of technological night. In the early 80s the VCR and video was introduced. Porno became a home-based industry. “Dirty” movie theaters, the fear of the populace, disappeared. Yet the scourge of porno exploded. It just went home where it infects us all at the touch of a remote.

    Next on the list of ridiculous ideas was a first film series  opening July 4 of all dates in 1977 at the old DAV Hall near the State Street traffic circle. That’s now a manufacturing facility of some kind. There we ran a double bill with a short subject and a live performance. It was way too long and flopped miserably.

    Undaunted the wannabe theater founders rented a dilapidated Greyhound bus garage on Harris Street and applied for a zoning variance to open a movie house. The variance and assorted licenses were granted but the money wasn’t there. Two years went by and nothing happened. The situation seemed quixotic at best but doomed to fail.

    Yet possessed of resilience or just plain stubbornness these movie freaks carried on. An angel of sorts was found in the now-defunct YMCA Civic Center. That YMCA was unusual in that it had predated the YMCA organization. It was one of the last remaining original Ys in the country. It opened as part of the original Y movement, before the Y became an organization. As such it operated independently of the national Y entity. As such it could host a movie series without permission from anybody.

    So began a series that prospered for two years, running over 500 screenings of films foreign and domestic and a full slate of children’s programs.  That gave credence and creditability to the opening of a real art house movie theater that came to be known as the Screening Room.

    The year after the Screening Room opened the YMCA burned down. It later became the new addition to the Newburyport Public Library.

    Today the Screening Room is often casually referred to as an “institution.” Bear in mind the DAV Hall, the YMCA and the old Greyhound Bus station were all once thought to be institutions, all in living memory, all far mightier and substantial operations than the storefront  theater. Yet all gone today.

    Technology today represents a new hurdle to continued operations. It has been widely reported that all movie theaters must soon install digital projection equipment. The very word “film” is soon to become a generic term, a quaint relic of language like “dialing the phone. “ 

While this is true that digital projection is an absolute necessity, it is also so that the very same technological leaps that keep people at home to watch movies will impact on attendance no matter what equipment is used.

    The future of small theatres and cinemas in smaller communities is dependent on guerrilla thinking. The American revolutionaries of 1776 were guerilla fighters. They wouldn’t face the  well-armed, professional British Red Coats directly. That would have led them to slaughter. Instead they hid in brambles, hit and ran, disappeared into the night, never showed their faces.

    So the small entertainment field needs to be agile. The occasional larger title, the niche markets, puppet shows, small concerts, meetings, classes, interesting foods, all can contribute to a growing concern.

    Will the day come in the next century when people are so blasé about images on screens, holographs, the ability of the tone deaf to project perfect pitch, the weak to garner great strength, the old to perform as young, genetic advances making us all seem super human?  So super that super becomes ordinary and not particularly interesting? 

Will that be the point where, as in the days of the Colonial alehouse and the vaudevillian stage the average citizen will want to get out of the house and enjoy entertainment with other people?  If there were a way to see that, then maybe places like the Screening Room would be common, packed with, dare I say it, people?