30 N. Main Street,
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The Durfee Theatre, generally considered the finest in the city’s history, had its grand opening on August 29, 1929. It was a year and a half after the February, 1928 multi-block fire that destroyed much of central Fall River, including two theatres, the Rialto Theatre (formerly Savoy) and the Premier Theatre. This new theatre was built on the same land previously occupied by the Savoy/Rialto. Its builders were William Durfee, Sr. and Nathan Yarmins. It was owned by the Durfee family and leased to Yamins Theatrical Enterprises, Inc. The opening attraction was the Marx Brothers film “The Coconuts.”
The architectural scheme imitated the Alhambra Palace near Granada in Spain with its Moorish motifs. The colorful tiles in the lobby were imported from Seville. The foyer, with its sunken fish pool and and gleaming tapestries hung from metal rods, was a copy of the Alhambra courtyard. The foyer floor was of black and gold marble, Levanto marble, and pink Tennessee marble.
The stock market crashed a month after the theatre opened, but the place was very popular with local residents and was deemed “the theatre” in Fall River, the city’s class act. A spiffy usher corps escorted patrons to their seats. Stage shows and films were the mainstay at the time and when the theatre began to hit a slump during the worst of the depression, “dish night” was introduced for Wednesdays and Thursdays. For an extra admission supplement, folks could add to their complete dish set collection.
On December 7, 1941 the movie “Birth of the Blues” was interrupted and the manager requested all military personnel present to return to their bases. Noisemakers and paper hats stored for the 1942 New Year’s Eve show were thrown out because they were labeled “Made in Japan.”
The Durfee Theatre seated about 2,229 in the 1930’s, with 1,391 seats in the orchestra, 1,000 seats in the balcony and premium-priced loge. The loge could be reserved. The Durfee Theatre claimed to be the only theatre in the East, besides Radio City Music Hall, that offered some reserved seats each night. The theatre was also used for graduation ceremonies for Durfee High School and Bristol Community College.
In April of 1963, Edward W. Lider, executive director of Nathan Yamins Theatrical Enterprises, inaugurated a policy of Broadway shows at the Durfee Theatre, although movies continued to be shown up to its closing in 1971. Among the stage shows were “The Sound of Music”, “Man of La Mancha”, “Hello Dolly”, “Mame”, “Camelot”, “Fiddler on the Roof”. Busloads of patrons would come from as far away as Connecticut to see the performances at the Durfee Theatre. The last stage show was “1776”. The movie version of “The Sound of Music” played here in 1965 and set a local record at an uninterrupted 37 weeks. It was the longest-running, highest grossing, most attended presentation in the history of the theatre. An evening of nostalgia with silent film actress Lillian Gish took place on November 9, 1969, when the star presented some of her early silent films to the audience.
The very last bill at the Durfee Theatre was a Disney combo, “Scandalous John” and “Barefoot Executive” on September 7, 1971. There was an audience of 25 people. The operators did not renew their lease. The next day the projection and stage equipment were dismantled. The Durfee Theatre was a victim of economics and a trend that had produced the closing of many of the country’s theatres. It was also the victim of a lack of imagination and resolve, and one can envision in it today, had it survived, a carbon copy of the success of the Providence Performing Arts Center that evolved out of that city’s Loew’s State.
The Durfee Theatre was razed in September and October of 1973. A bank occupies the spot that once held Fall River’s greatest cinema/theatre treasure. The city now has none of its former movie palaces. An effort is being made now to restore the former Capitol Theatre, which has continued to exist in dormancy as a furniture store for several decades.
(Some observations synthesized from several articles in the Fall River Herald.)
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