In 1876, four years after the Great Boston Fire destroyed the nearby business district, Architect Levi Newcomb designed the original building on the Modern Theatre site in the High Victorian Gothic style.
It housed showrooms and warehouse space for the Dobson Brothers, the largest carpet manufacturers in the United States.
Conversion to movie house
In 1913, when motion pictures began moving from makeshift nickelodeons to theaters, the Dobson Building was converted into the Modern, the first Boston theater designed specifically to show films.
Admission was 15 cents, and musical accompaniment was provided on an Estey Organ designed specifically for use in the theater.
Clarence Blackall was the architect for the Modern Theatre conversion. His firm also designed 13 other theaters in Boston, including the surviving Colonial, Wilbur and Metropolitan, now known as the Wang Center for the Performing Arts.
In 1928, the Modern Theatre premiered The Jazz Singer, the first Boston showing of a “talkie.”
It later introduced the double feature in an effort to compete with newer theaters showing movies and vaudeville together.
The Modern Theatre was included on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979 as part of the Washington Street Theatre District. In 1995 it was designated a Boston Landmark.
It was used as a theater of some kind continuously until the 1980s, when it fell out of use.
The intervening years took their toll on the structure, and the interior was considered beyond repair when Suffolk University stepped in to save the historic facade and redevelop the site for student housing, a gallery, and a performance space.
Entrepreneur Linked Boston & Hollywood
The Modern Theatre opened on June 25, 1914, with owner Jacob Lourie (1874-1940) at the helm. The first film shown was The Only Son, featuring Thomas W. Ross.
Lourie was a genial man with a keen business sense, and his marketing ideas would reverberate from Boston to Hollywood.
When others were calling the marriage of sound and film a gimmick, Lourie decided to invest in new technology that would be the end to silent films. He installed the Vitaphone system, which synchronized music and sound effects with the motion picture.
A 1927 ad proclaimed:
Beginning Sat., May 21 – First Permanent Boston Installation at Popular Prices of
THE REVOLUTIONARY SENSATION IN CINEMA EXPOSITION!
First Vitaphone Program John Barrymore in “Don Juan”
Soon thereafter came the release of the first “talkie,” and once again Lourie was the first in Boston to show the groundbreaking movie. The Jazz Singer took the innovation of the Vitaphone one step further, using it to incorporate spoken dialogue into the film.
With the advent of talking pictures, the movie industry moved into the mainstream of American entertainment. The decline of vaudeville houses in the vicinity of the Modern soon followed.
The double feature
When other theaters began showing films in an effort to stay competitive, Lourie continued to adapt by showing two films for the price of one.
With the invention of the double feature came the need for a larger volume of films, and Hollywood studios complied by creating a slew of low-budget movies. These B movies also engaged up-and-coming directors and provided work for actors on the way up the ladder to stardom.
Lourie built a theater empire as owner of New England Theatres Operating Company, or NETOCO, which at its height operated 35 theaters. He paired the Modern Theatre with the Beacon, and the two movie houses showed the same films, with the reels being transported from one venue to the other by streetcar between showings.