Modern Theatre

440 Westminster Street,
Providence, RI 02903

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Modern Theatre

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The Modern Theatre opened on February 7, 1916. It was only a short distance up Westminster Street, as you move away from the downtown area, just beyond Empire Street. The first Empire Theatre had been located at the precise juncture of Empire Street and Westminster Street but had been demolished, less that a year before the Modern Theatre was built, to extend Empire Street. In a way this theatre was a replacement for the demolished Empire Theatre.

Roger Brett wrote in “Temples of Illusion” that there was nothing modern about the Modern’s quasi-Baroque interior and that it was on the wrong side of the newly created Empire Street and never had the luck it deserved. It was built along the same plan of the Union Theatre (Fays) and Emery Theatre (Carlton) by Charles
and B. Thomas Potter. Initially the policy was vaudeville and travelling vaudeville shows and they were generally low in quality. Then it converted to movies of the more sensational type. For a time the theatre was taken over by the Emery Brothers, who had built the Majestic Theatre and Emery Theatre (Carlton).

From 1935 the Modern Theatre was also known as the Modern Theatre of Fine Arts and for a time ran “classy” foreign films, including a number of Yiddish-language movies and as such became R.I.’s very first art house, at least three years before the East Side’s Avon Theatre opened. In 1937, Associated Theatres took over control of the Modern Theatre and it was renamed the (Westminster) Playhouse. During that decade theatrical road shows were brought in. These were sporadic and alternated with second run movies. This lasted throughout the 1940’s and early-1950’s when the theatre had a minor period as a second run house and an art house again before shutting down and eventually being torn down in November of 1957.

The portion of Westminster Street that the Modern Theatre was built on no longer exists but was converted decades ago to a walkway with steps. Going up that walkway today from Empire Street, one can imagine the Modern’s location just a few yards up on the left. The walkway leads from Empire Street to the large plaza in front of the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul and the rear of the diocesan auditorium building. Upper Westminster Street then continues from the front of that auditorium on Service Road No. 8, over Route 95 near where the Capitol Theatre used to be, all the way to Olneyville Square.

Contributed by Gerald A. DeLuca

Recent comments (view all 24 comments)

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on July 4, 2010 at 7:36 am

Small fire at the Playhouse. Item in Boxoffice magazine, April 27, 1940:

“Fire in the booth of the Playhouse resulted in the loss of only two reels of film.”

[Note: nitrate film stock, the standard of the time, was highly flammable.]

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on January 12, 2011 at 5:19 am

In an unusual bit of programming in February 1921, Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid was booked simultaneously in five downtown Providence theatres: the Strand, the Emery, the Modern, Fays, and the Rialto. Occasionally some highly anticipated movies might play in two downtown theatres, but never five! It seems to have run only one week, in an era when that was pretty much the norm, with films running a single week downtown, then moving to second run theatres and outlying houses. Each of these theatres accompanied this feature with short subjects or live Vaudeville acts.

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on January 17, 2011 at 4:22 am

This theatre was part of the September 1923 6th Paramount Week. In this advertisement from the (Providence) Evening Tribune, September 1, 1923, we see a fascinating list of Rhode Island area theatres, many long-gone and long-forgoten, or even unheard of, as well as what they were showing during that week. CLICK HERE and move text to see all theatres.

RickB
RickB on January 17, 2011 at 6:07 am

I counted 28 theaters and at least as many features in that Paramount Week ad. At the top of the page, a city councilman wants “proper trolley car service” back on Broadway instead of buses. Radio is the newest technology, Babe Ruth is the king of baseball, Ford is still selling Model Ts by the millions…a different world.

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on January 17, 2011 at 4:24 pm

In September 1920, this theatre was part of the celebration of the 3rd annual Paramount Week. CLICK HERE for all participating RI area theatres and the titles of the films shown.

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on January 20, 2011 at 10:56 am

In September 1922 this theatre was part of Rhode Island’s Paramount Week. Click to see the ad in Providence News, September 1, 1922, which contains a list of all participating theatres as well as the films shown that week.

PART ONE OF AD
PART TWO OF AD

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on January 21, 2011 at 6:37 am

Offering at the Modern in 1922.

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on February 28, 2011 at 4:16 am

Low-quality images of the Westminster Playhouse in 1957, not long before it was demolished in November of that year:
Outside and inside.

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on June 24, 2011 at 3:49 pm

In Providence News, July 22, 1924, there appeared a full-page column by columnist “Sally.” In “Seeing the Shops With Sally” she discusses a day in the city of Providence, places to shop, things to do…and much more. Yesterday, she writes, after buying some candy at the Arcade, she headed to a movie program at the Modern. Her words:

“There is nothing like a good picture to break the monotony of a week’s housework. Consequently the Modern Theatre is the selected place for the one day vacation. "Sally stole a few hours from her work yesterday and went to see the picture ‘Recoil,’ that is playing there now. This Rex Beach production is entertaining to the extreme and when shown with the comedies ‘Wedding Showers’ and ‘Powder Marks,’ it makes a very interesting bill.”

For the complete article, with lots of nostalgic material on the city of Providence and other places in Rhode Island, go to this DIRECT LINK to the entire page.

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