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Great news! In today’s (03/04/16) Boston Globe (p. B1) there is a feature story, entitled: “Emerson sees new life for Colonial Theatre”. Emerson College has decided to keep the Colonial intact as a performance space. It has also pledged to update the building’s support systems, such as: air conditioning. So, the Colonial’s future seems secure. I believe that all of the community pressure brought to bear (both internally and externally) made the difference to Emerson’s administration. One educator referred to, “…our collective responsibility as stewards of theatrical history.” It is unfortunate that more people do not share that view.
Here’s a copy of my letter to the editor of the LOWELL SUN:
January 16, 2016
EditorTHE LOWELL SUN
I have read with distress about the current use of the Crown Theater Building at 74 Middlesex Street. I’d like to suggest that the city consider enabling the Crown to return to its original use: a theater.
The Crown’s history is mentioned at the web site: Cinema Treasures. It was never much of a theater…small, architecturally undistinguished, very small stage space…but it was, after all, a performance space, something we are sorely lacking in Lowell.
Opened in 1914, the theater had 900 seats on the floor and in a small balcony. By the 1950’s it had morphed into The Allen Theater before it closed in the 1950’s. It is entirely possible that most of the original interior exists underneath, behind, and above new construction done during the re-purposing of the building (as was done with the Royal).
Lowell very much needs a catalyst in order to establish a lively night life and aim it toward the performing arts, not the drinking arts. As our city continues its impressive and remarkable re-birth, moving from an industrial to a service economy, a rescued Crown could have significant impact.
Currently, there are two kinds of performance space in Lowell: huge and small, ranging from the Tsongas Center and Auditorium to Liberty Hall which houses the Merrimack Rep. And, I think we’ll all admit that Merrimack Rep. is absolutely jammed into Liberty Hall…no room for a decent stage. They do the best they can with what they have, but imagine certain of their productions given the space of a larger venue, such as the Crown. For point of reference, the Colonial, the Shubert, and the Wilbur theaters in Boston all seat about 1,700, so the Crown’s 900 seats would provide a workable alternative to Lowell’s current venues.
A restored Crown would have a positive economic impact on Middlesex Street, the downtown, and all of Lowell and its suburbs. There are many studies on the Internet, but check out those of the Theater Historical Society of America, which show the kinds of businesses which flourish in the shadow of a working theater.
Generally, a theater like the Crown comes back on line when concerned citizens take action. After forming a non-profit corporation to raise funds, to buy and restore it, the Crown would become a performing arts center. Future productions would sustain it. The list of possible tenants is impressive.
It seems ironic that of more than 20 theaters in Lowell, both small and great (again, visit Cinema Treasures for a complete list), all we’ve got to show in 2016 is the remains of the Crown. But we should be thankful we have that much. Imagine what we could do.
The very real possibility that Emerson, an institution devoted to the preservation and advancement of the arts, is about to end forever the Colonial’s life as a legitimate theater is sure to generate a lot of protest. Thanks to frequent stories by reporter Malcolm Gay in THE BOSTON GLOBE, the public is slowly realizing that America’s most historically significant theater is about to go the way of the Boston Opera House in the 1950’s. At that time, another Boston university, Northeastern, actually tore down Eben Jordan’s beautiful theater to create a parking lot. While Emerson is not proposing to tear down the Colonial, they might as well. What they are proposing is ripping out the orchestra seats and turning the theater into a gigantic student cafeteria, resplendent with holes punched in the walls to improve access to the food and turning the stage into a black box theater!
People need to tune into this one before it’s too late. Surely in a great university city like Boston, some of our great minds can think of ways to preserve the Colonial for the purpose for which it was built in 1900: a beautiful legitimate theater.
I am so impressed with the work of Mr. Roy and Mr. Salters. They have done much to fill in a huge gap in Lowell’s rich theater history. Mr. Roy’s picture of the site of the Merrimack Square today was taken at the corner of Bridge Street and Paige Street (named for Cecil Paige who owned Paige’s in the Square, a downtown restaurant/bakery/soda parlor)…the parking garage structure is on Paige. The space between the garage and the reconstructed apartment building shown on Bridge Street is approximately the same as the space between the Merrimack Square Theater building and the original apartment building previously occupied by the Merrimack’s entrance and lobby as shown in Mr. Salter’s photo. In that same photo, to the right of the Merrimack’s entrance, is a one-story building with a Spanish-tiled roof. The rear remnants of that same small building, replete with Spanish tile, still exist a block away at the corner of Bridge and French Streets. That view gives a good idea of the positioning of the old Merrimack. Although I was never in the Merrimack, I do remember it being torn down and wondering, “Why?”.
Changing the subject, I have a challenge for Mr. Roy and/or Mr. Salters. I also remember being told by the oldtimers about a theater, named the Hathaway, which existed at 150 Middle Street in Lowell, a building now occupied by Rogers Pool. I wonder what they can find out about it. I suspect the Hathaway existed in the 1800’s, was probably one of Lowell’s first theaters, and was constucted in a style reminiscent of Ford’s Theater in Washington, D. C. The back of 150 Middle Street still backs on my old dentist’s office. The loading doors for the stage are quite evident. Although I’ve been in Roger’s, I’ve never explored it to see if there are any remnants of the Hathaway.
Let me reflect on the postings since my last comment back in December, 2009…
I remember the Strand first-hand quite well. To the left of the Strand’s entrance on Central Street was its office building which did straddle the canal. Originally 2 stories, it was ripped down to one story which was occupied by a higher end men’s shop: Martin’s. To the right of the strand were two buildings (a hair academy in the smaller building, and Talbot’s Clothing Store next to that and occupying the Central/ Warren Street corner). In a sense, the Strand had to be wrapped around those two buildings.
The Strand’s Central Street entrance was a log corridor stretching from Central Street to the theater itself. The theater’s lobby, a small affair perpendicular to the entry corridor, was tucked under the balcony and exited to Warren Street. At the Warrent Street exit, there was a small parking lot belonging to the theater which we frequently used.
With regards to the fate of the Strand…after it closed it lay vacant and vandalized (e. g. vandals had managed to tie a rope to the ceiling where the great chandalier had once hung and used it to swing back-and-forth Tarzan-style). Its only hope lay in its being adapted as a ballroom for the then abuilding Lowell Hilton, but that proved unfeasable economically, and the Strand was knocked down.
More great detective work by Mr. Roy…thanks!
First, Middlesex Supply: it was most assuredly where it is today back in 1951, and well before. By 1971 it did, in fact, undergo a major renovation, which will explain its greeatly altered appearance.
Second, there is no doubt in my mind that the 1929 shot of the Crown is the same building as the 1950 shot of the Allen, and is the same building which remains today. At first I was confused, but, if you strip away the facade of the 1929 Crown, what is left is the 1950 facade of the Allen, and that which remains today.
Third, I remain confused about how the Crown fit into the building which is there today. Did it fit entirely into that building (after all, it had only 800 seats), or was there another building involved (such as the rear of Middlesex Supply)? I wonder if the Lowell Historical Society could shed any light? I wonder if, at least, they might refer us to an old-timer who actually attended the Crown (I’m an old-timer who attended just about every other Lowell theater except the Crown/Allen!).
Kudos to James Roy for the definitive collection of Crown/Allen photos. It represents much appreciated work. I remember the 1950 shot of the Allen (nee Crown), because Middlesex Supply is to right and we knew the family who owned it. It’s easy to see that the old facade of the theater had been stipped off by 1950 (perhaps to “modernize” it?), thus giving us what we see today.
Looking at the aerial shot raises questions for me. It’s hard to believe that the theater (shown in the two interior shots) was actually encompassed in that building. Looking at the back alley shot, the back of the theater building seems to be much lower than the front elevation. Further, the building which looks as if it’s the actual auditorium portion of the theater, is actually the back of the old Middlesex supply and perpendicular the the Crown/Allen building. So, I wonder if the building we’re calling the Crown/Allen is actually the head house for an auditorium in the back half of the old Middlesex Supply. The right hand shot of the two building certainly suggests some difference in construction between the front half and the rear half of the old Middlesex Supply building.
Or, another thought: since the front of the theater is so much higher that the back, maybe the theater was reversed with the stage being at the front?
Another possibility is that, if the theater were encompassed entirely in one building, perhaps the stage house was torn down to a first story level. A close look at the brickwork in the alley photo indicates that may have been the case.
The best way to solve the riddle would be to speak with the building’s owners.
Great shots of the Crown…
It appears that the theater building is in tact. After reading Ron Salters' entry, I cannot believe that the Crown had much of a stage and the balcony was probably pretty small if it was accessed from the theater itself. It just may be that the “bones” of the old theater still exist and that the ornamentation has been pulled off, which would make a restoration at least possible. I’d love to speak with someone who knows more about the old place.
I’ve been a theater buff since I was a kid. As a native of Lowell, Mass., I prevailed upon any family member I could to take me to theaters in cities outside of Lowell. Lawrence, a smaller city than Lowell, was closest, and, so I did visit the Palace and the Warner when they were still running. The Palace was a theater one would expect to find in Boston…it was unusually fine for a city the size of Lawrence. It was bigger, more complicated, and more elaborate than anything we had in Lowell, or anthing else around. I rember it had a spacious lobby and a beautiful auditorium. Lawrence, like its sister city Lowell, failed to hang onto any vestige of its historic theaters. What a shame!
The Crown sits in an area of intense historical restoration, including a new parking garage across Middlesex Street. It would be interesting to get inside and see what is left of the old place. Since its the only candidate for restoration from among a dozen theaters which once existed, I wonder if there would be any government or private agency which possesses the vision, and resources, to restore the Crown. I should imagine it would be very well patronized in this city in which a major university is located. Imagine, too, the interest which re-naming the theater after its most illustrious movie star alumna, Bette Davis, might generate?
Dave C’s photo is a sad reminder of what the Strand looked like at the end. Previously, as Ron Salters stated, the Strand had a grand 2-story entrance with a triangular marquee and a beautiful ticket booth in the center. There was a two-story office building to the left of the entrance which belonged to the Strand. In time one story was trimmed off and Martin’s occupied the first floor retail space.
From windows in the rear of Martin’s, one could view the Hamilton Canal, which ran underneath, and to the right one could see the theater building itself (it is also visible in Dave C’s photo to the right rear). What actually shows in the photo is the back of the auditorium itself. The entrance and the auditorium were connected by a long, nicely decorated hall. At the end of the hall one would turn right into the theater lobby. There was a long-broken fountain on the left and a nice concession stand on the right. That lobby space was actually under the theater’s balcony (remember the Strand was an auditorium-style theater: the balcony was actually a continuation of the orchestra section, but steeper). As I’ve mentioned before, the theater suffered from decades of neglect…it was not a nice place…nor would it have been my choice of Lowell theaters to save.
The Crown was a haunt of Jack Kerouac and his pals. It was renamed “The Allen”, and closed under that name. I believe that the theatre building is relatively in tact, but has been converted to other uses. I, too, would like to know how much of the original details survive. It’s about the only extant Lowell theater that could possibly be restored. BUT, since it was always a second-run, neighborhood house, it was not particularly distinguished, and might not be worth the effort. Like many others, I lament the wholesale destruction of many magnificent theaters. The sad truth is that the bulk of theaters which once existed were quite undistinguished and not worth preserving. The Roxies of this country were few and far between even at the height of their popularity, and many still exist, although not enough for my tastes. Lowell, for example, was not able to hold onto even one of a dozen theatres which once existed. The two which remain in some form, the Royal and the Crown, are not properties one would want to bring back.
The ROYAL, or what’s left of it, is located in a building called The Husson Block diagonally across from the Pollard Library on Merrimack Street. It is located at the edge of a district called Little Canada and well-known to Jack Kerouac. It and the State, The Crown, the Capital, and the Palace, constituted the neighborhood theatres in Lowell. The theatre was owned by the Husson family. Years after it closed, a daughter…Nellie Husson, I believe, reminisced about travelling to Boston with her father to arrange for the second-run movies they would show. As was practice at the time, the bill was changed twice a week. The Royal had a square marquee with the name “Royal” in big block, red neon letters on three sides. Above the entrance were three floors of apartments. About all that can be said for the Royal is that it was an entertainment bargain. It was quite undistinguished.
The National Park people are hoping for a combination of retail (1st floor) and office space (upstairs). What remains of the Rialto is the head house (entrance only). The theatre itself was located in what was the train shed (i. e. the place where passenger trains were parked to load and unload passengers), which has been torn down. The Rialto was always a second-run, second-class theatre.
Take a look at my posting on 12/14/05…the Strand was a wreck which had been closed for years. A hotel does indeed sit on part of the area occupied by the Strand. The incorporation of the old theater into the new hotel proved cost ineffective: the Strand was simply too far gone. BUT, have no regrets, despite all that has been posted the Strand was a good, but not great, theater. Whoever designed the Lowell Strand, also designed the Strand in Dorchester (Boston). That venue turned out a lot better. The Lowell Opera House (Gates) and R. K. O. Keith’s were far superior to the Strand.
Jack Kerouac was not a regular at Keith’s. Because of his economic situation, Kerouac would see films with his buddies at second-run houses, such as The Capital on Middlesex Street, or The Royal on Merrimack Street. But, that’s OK…he probably had more fun! The shows, especially on Saturdays, were cheap and aimed at kids. He was known to have emmulated some of the super heroes and cowboy stars.
My first recollections of the Strand were in the 1950’s. Even in those days there was significant plaster damage in the ceiling top left of the proscenium. While the Strand was built as a movie palace, it did have a full stage house and orchestra pit. And even though it was the largest theater in Lowell, it was not a particularly good looking theater…just big…like a warehouse. It was a stadium style theater with the vast balcony actually a rear extension of the orchestra. The unimpressive lobby, reached by a very long entry way from Central Street, was tucked underneath the balcony. Naturally, I was sorry to see it go…there was talk in the 1970’s of incorporating the old Strand into the construction of the then-new Lowell Hilton (now the Doubletree). The Strand would have somehow served as the ballroom to the new hotel. But such was not the case, and the Strand came down. If I could have saved any theater in Lowell, it would have been the Opera House (which ended its days as the State), or R. K. O. Keith’s, but not the Strand.