A History of the Community Movie Theater in Roxbury, Massachusetts
Written by: Johnathan Kindall
Map and Photos by: Alexander Peña
A photograph hangs on the wall in a barbershop in Roslindale, Massachusetts. It’s black and white, aged and grainy, snuggly lodged in between a careful collection of other pictures and decades-old newspapers clippings. It displays The Rialto Theater, a staple of Roslindale Square, in its last months of operation during the winter of 1971.
The theater was part of the town’s central square as early as 1919. A police report from that year dealing with applications for city permits lists a “C.J. Gorman’s Amusement Enterprises,” approved to “hold exhibitions and vaudeville entertainments in Gorman’s Theatre located at 709 South Street.”
A city directory from 1925 lists the building again, this time under the name The Roslindale Theater, still under the ownership and management of the same Charles J. Gorman. Then, some time within the next ten years, the theater was renamed again to The Rialto.
The Rialto Barber Shop, where that photograph hangs proudly on the wall, has been in Roslindale Square for just as long. When Bob Aliano, 81, moved to Roslindale as a newborn with his parents in 1938, the barbershop stood right next to theater.
“I would wait in line to the movies right outside the barbershop window,” said Aliano. “I didn’t know then of course that I’d be working here.”
In 1959, using money loaned to him by his mother, Aliano became the owner and proprietor of the very barber shop he used to gaze through the window of. He went from paying 12 cents for a Saturday matinee to operating his own successful business right next door.
Aliano still works at the Rialto Barber Shop, 60 years later, cutting hair and shaving beards from 6:30 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. every weekday morning.
The barber shop and the theater share an interesting connection beyond just neighboring each other though; they used to be physically attached. At one point, a small passageway ran from the shop all the way to the wall of the theater next door.
Aliano is unsure of the purpose of this tunnel, having never used it himself. And with the theater gone and the barber shop’s tunnel entrance now sealed behind drywall, it’s likely that it’s true purpose may be never be known. However, it’s a small, curious piece of history for both buildings.
According to Aliano, after The Rialto closed its doors in 1971, the building was demolished a short time later. For a few years, the lot was used for parking until, in 1975, the Greater Roslindale Medical and Dental Center was built in its place. That building still stands today.
In the 80 years that Aliano has lived in Roslindale he’s seen it grow from a simple farming community of immigrants to a bustling Boston neighborhood. His own business has directly contributed to the growth and success of Roslindale Square. And from 1959 to 1971, he operated that business right next to one of the cultural hubs of that very square.
“I loved that theater. I went nearly every Saturday.”
All that’s left now is a handful of childhood memories and a faded photograph on the wall.
The story of The Rialto is far from an isolated account. During the first few decades of the twentieth century, movie theaters sprung up across America at an incredible rate. Some were repurposed fine arts venues, others were dedicated to cinema. Many, like The Rialto itself in its early days, featured both, alternating between showing movies and hosting vaudeville performers.
The golden age of Hollywood had brought about the golden age of the movie theater.
The scene was no different in Boston. In the 1920s, an “Amusements” section regularly ran in the Boston Globe, listing the various attractions available around the city and in its neighborhoods. This of course included movie listings.
On this day, Monday, December 30, 1929, there were thirty-eight active movie theaters in and around Boston.
This number does include areas like Cambridge and some far-flung suburbs, but it’s still, especially by today’s standards, astonishingly high. Movies houses were crammed into the city with an incredible density. And nowhere is this more apparent than in the neighborhood of Roxbury.
In 1929, there were at least five theaters already in Roxbury. Two of them, the Rivoli Theater and the Dudley Theater, are listed on the December 30 Amusements page. Both theaters were owned by the New England Theatres Operating Corporation (NETOCO) and both were located in Dudley Square.
NETOCO documentation also gives confirmation of two other theaters in the area at this time. A joint advertisement from the corporation and Paramount ran in the Globe on October 1, 1929. It lists the Shawmut Theater and the Warren Theater, alongside the Dudley and Rivoli, as theaters that would soon be screening “The New Show World Pictures” of Paramount.
The Shawmut theater was located at 263 Blue Hill Ave, further south than the Dudley Square theaters. The Warren Theater was located at 270 Warren St.
The other theater that was certainly present this early in time was the Roxbury Theater, located at 2170 Washington Ave. Built in 1910, it’s likely that it was the very first in the area.
The most striking thing about these five theaters is not the seemingly high number of them, but, rather, their proximity to each other. Not a single one of the theaters is more than two miles from another.
All of them featured only a single screen, as the advent of the multiplex was still decades away. This, in part, accounts for the vast number. Variety is essential. If the Rivoli was playing the same movie for two weeks, then one need only step over to the Dudley for something different.
However, despite only being capable of showing a single film at a time, these theaters were enormous.
The Dudley Theater sat one thousand forty-eight people. The Shawmut? Even more, coming in at one thousand four hundred and one seats. The Warren had one thousand three hundred and twenty-eight. Even the Roxbury, the smallest of these five theaters, featured more than five hundred seats.
Much of the specific information on these theaters comes from a single source: A Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer theater report conducted in the early 1940s.
In 1941, MGM sent out employees to photograph, document and report on any and all theaters that the company owned. These surveyors would travel to a location, take a picture of the theater, and take down all pertinent information. This included the address, the current condition of the theater, the year the theater was built, how many seats it had, rival theaters in the area, whether or not the theater had a balcony (oftentimes resigned to "colored" only) and how many MGM products were playing in its halls.
All this information would be taken down on a small card, with the picture at the top.
For theaters like The Rivoli and The Dudley, these cards help expand upon information that can be found elsewhere. For other theaters though, this report is some of the only documentation available.
The MGM report resulted in the documentation of over six hundred theaters across New England. In 1948, after the war, the Supreme Court broke apart the film industry's monopolies, and MGM could no longer own theaters. Such a widespread report would never be conducted again, and these cards, used in their time as a way to keep track of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s profits, are now a vital part of preserving the history of these local theaters that may have only existed for a short number of years.
The MGM cards confirm that, by 1941, there were at least nine theaters in Roxbury, all in about the same two-mile radius as twelve years prior. In addition to the five already mentioned above, there are cards for The Criterion Theater (1120 Columbus St), The Egleston Square Cinema (3091 Washington St), The Humboldt Theater (147 Humboldt Ave) and The Ideal Theater (unknown address on Dudley St).
An interactive map of all the theaters. Click on each entry for MGM card info and before and after pictures.
Leland Clarke, a Boston University Professor and expert in Roxbury history, is very familiar with these cards and reports. When his father passed away in 2000, Clarke found a scrapbook full of old documents, articles and historical photographs from across the city, some dating back as far back as the early 1800s.
The find inspired Clarke, and he began to research and collect historical objects tied to the history of Boston and its surrounding neighborhoods. Nineteen years later, Clarke’s collection includes more than 2,000 artifacts and objects. Among them are digital copies of these MGM cards.
Clarke himself is from the Roxbury area, and he frequented some of these theaters himself in the late 50s and early 60s. He personally remembers visiting The Ideal Theater but, according to Clarke, the most popular theater in that time was The Rivoli.
“Dudley Square, where The Rivoli was located, was the hub of the community,” said Clarke. “The orange line was there, the buses were there, the stores were there. It was this central location.”
However, Clarke said that when he was visiting these theaters, almost twenty years after the MGM report was conducted, many of them had drastically declined in quality.
“In 1941 the Rivoli is said to be in ‘fair’ condition,” said Clarke. “By the time I was there, it was worse. It was falling apart and just wasn’t being kept up. These movie theaters that were once these wonderful institutions quickly started falling by the wayside.”
And so, as many of these theaters stopped making as much money, their owners stopped investing in the upkeep. The movie theaters that once lined the streets began to spiral into disrepair.
Information about many of these theaters grows more and more scarce as the years push on, particularly as it applies to any documents and articles. Many of them died with a whimper, with no fanfare or grand closing ceremony to speak of.
The rest of these theaters’ stories must instead be told that those who remember them. Those who, like Bob Aliano in Roslindale, made these places a part of their weekly life. And who better to tell the story of a community theater than the community itself?
Mae Ella Peeples is a Roxbury resident who was a child in the early 1950s. Her theater of choice was the Roxbury Theater. For a nine cent admission price, Peeples was treated to cartoons, previews for upcoming movies, and two feature length films every Saturday afternoon.
Peeples saw her first horror film, The Beast from 20 Thousand Fathoms, at The Roxbury Theater. However, getting into a horror film as a child was no small task.
“At six o’clock no young children were allowed in the theatre without an adult,” Peeples said. “So, we would go into the bathroom and wait for an adult to walk out then go sit beside that adult so the ushers would think we were together.”
The plan worked without fail.
“When we got into the theater and the lights went out we would regroup with our friends.”
One of the things that Peeples mentions is that, in her day, it was never about the actual movie as much as it was about going to the movies with one’s friends.
“We never knew ahead of time what we were going to see,” she said.
Sylvia Simmons, who also grew up in the area around the same time, shared a similar sentiment.
“We weren’t very discriminatory about the movies we were seeing,” Simmons said. “They were there, it was a place to meet our friends, and we went. It was always more about coming together with your friends than it was the movie that was playing.”
Simmons, like Professor Clarke, was a frequent patron of The Rivoli Theater at Dudley Square.
She remembers the design of the interior in particular. The Rivoli had a balcony, as the MGM card confirms, but Simmons memories involve the colors. She recalls an art-deco design, with lots of beige and cream paints throughout the lobby.
For some, it wasn’t the movies or the theaters themselves that stuck in their mind, but the people who worked there.
Elliot Francis was a regular at the Franklin Park Theater in Dorchester when he was young. This theater was not quite inside the Roxbury zoning, but it is one that many members of the community seem to remember.
Francis remembers the manager of that theater all these years later.
“There was a cigar chomping, curmudgeonly guy named Charlie who would turn off the movie, turn on the lights and yell at us kids to quiet down every time we made too much noise reacting to the movie,” Francis said.
Many of these theaters faded into obscurity leaving almost no paper trail. But the memories that they left in the heads of those who frequented them somehow haven’t faded, even seventy years after the fact.
Currently, the only movie theater effectively serving south Boston is the AMC South Bay Center east of Dudley Square. Not a single theater that operated in the first half of the twentieth century still functions in the area.
All of the original buildings in Roxbury have been demolished save for one--The Warren Theater. It sat abandoned and vacant through the 1960s, and, although there was public interest in re-opening it as a theater, it was instead turned into a church. The interior remained largely the same.
The building that housed Franklin Park Theater in Dorchester also still stands. It too is now a church.
None of the other original buildings still stand. Unused parking lots and boarded-up buildings now occupy the spaces in which these cultural hubs of entertainment once stood.
However, it’s not as if the disappearance of the community theater in Roxbury is an isolated incident. Yes, the density of them was particularly high in this area, but these theaters disappeared all across America, all around the same time.
Many things contributed to the decline of the local theater, but the two biggest were multiplexes and television. Screens were suddenly more present than ever before. Not only was there entertainment now in the home, but when one theater could play eight movies at once, eight theaters playing one movie each suddenly became absolutely unviable.
Some theaters survived the onslaught. Even in Boston, locations like The Brattle in Cambridge carry on the legacy of these old cinemas. But they are, unfortunately, the exceptions.
And, while the loss of these theaters is natural and rational, it still stings. There’s something somber in the fact that an area that was clearly so rich in the history of American cinema has nothing to show for it in the modern day.
Lisa Simmons serves as the director of The Roxbury International Film Festival, one of the largest independent film festivals in all of New England. The festival, in its 21st year, currently screens their films out of the MFA, Hibernian Hall, and the Haley House Bakery. They have no access to a theater.
Simmons said that a historic, community theater would be priceless to have for her festival. In fact, she wants to make one herself.
“My dream is to take one of these buildings and transform it into a theater,” she said. “It would at least give us a place and a space to do something.”
But until someone like Simmons can effectively do such a thing, her vision will remain just a dream.
If any one of these theater had survived it could be a part of the thriving arts scene that now blossoms out of South Boston. Instead, they now exist only in the memories of those who visited them decades ago. And, unfortunately, the number of people who carry that history with them is slowly dwindling.
“It’s hard to find a lot of information about some of these places,” said Bob Aliano, as he cashed out a customer while continuing to reminisce on The Rialto. “There’s not many of us left.”