440 Westminster Street,
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The Modern Theatre opened on February 7, 1916 with “Too Much Mustard” on stage and on the screen Edmund Breeze in “The Lure of Heart’s Desire”, Weber & Fields in “The Worst of Friends” & Helen Ware in “Cross Currents”. 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 than 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.
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