People can’t seem to say enough good things about the “Brat.” The Brattle Theatre is a Harvard Square icon that has been showing foreign, independent, and classic films for more than 50 years. Its history is full of alterations, innovations, and renovations, when combined, add up to a delightful independent movie theatre in an era of over-priced, over-commercialized, Hollywood glitz and glam. With several ownership and mission changes during its lifetime, the Brattle has several stories to tell. To start at the beginning means going all the way back to1871.
As a “means of social and intellectual improvement”, the Cambridge Social Union (CSU) was formed after the Civil War to offer a free reading room and library to the public. In 1889 the CSU purchased a lot on Brattle Street for $9,000, and hired the architectural firm of Longfellow, Alden, and Harlow to build a hall for dramatic entertainment. The CSU celebrated the completion of their new Brattle Hall on January 27, 1890.
With the building completed, entertainers were needed, and in 1891 the Cambridge Social Dramatic Club (CSDC) was created to perform on Saturday nights. They did to rave reviews and continued in their role for the next 40 years. In addition to its Saturday night performances, Brattle Hall was used by a number of tenants for events such as ballet school, a police gymnasium, and social dances known as “Brattle Halls,” which encouraged the gentlemen of Harvard to meet the young women of Cambridge. The Harvard Dramatic Club was another group which performed in Brattle Hall, though controversy erupted in 1928 when their production of the political drama Fiesta, which premiered at the Brattle, was banned by Cambridge Mayor Nichols for being, “extremely objectionable.” Fighting against censorship would be important to the Brattle again in later years.
After the stock market crash and depression that followed many people could no longer afford leisurely activities such as a night at the theatre, and the Brattle faced some lean years. In 1938, the CSU ceased being a social agency, leading to the creation of the Cambridge Center for Adult Education (CCAE), which consolidated residence in the William Brattle House right next door. Various theatre groups rented out the space next door in the Hall for their performances; the most famous of this time was a production of Othello starring Paul Robeson, one of the prime tagets of FBI investigations during the McCarthy Era persecutions.
In 1946, Harvard undergraduate Jerome Kilty placed an ad out in the Harvard Crimson looking for fellow actors and veterans who would be interested in forming an acting group that was less exclusive and restrictive than the Harvard dramatic societies. Together with the 70-odd responses he received, the group formed the Veterans’ Theatre Workshop (VTW). This group, financially lead by Thayer Frye Hersey, went on the purchase Brattle Hall two years later from the CCAE for $80,000. Mostly former-VTW members would make up the Brattle Theatre Company (BTC) which would run Brattle Hall for a number of years.
Bryant Haliday, himself an actor and founding member of the BTC, purchased Brattle Hall from Hersey for $148,000, in 1949 and partnered with Cyrus Harvey Jr. Though not overtly intent on attracting stars to their stage, Brattle Hall witnessed performances by Zero Mostel, Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, and Cyril Ritchard in the early 1950s. The reviews were good, but the money was not. Cy Harvey, though, had recently spent time in Paris, and thought he knew the answer to ensure the Brattle’s success. In 1953, the Brattle Theatre shifted away from live-action plays and became a movie theatre. They installed a “Translux” rear-screen projection system from a cruise ship, which is today, perhaps the last of its kind still in use. The Brattle Theatre’s debut film was German film The Captain from Kopenick.
With the early success of their foreign film showings, Haliday and Harvey founded Janus Films to distribute foreign films nationwide. That same year, 1955, censorship laws again came into question for the Brattle, when the Massachusetts Public Safety Commissioner tried to stop the Sunday showing of the film Miss Julie saying that it “would disturb the peace of the Lord’s Day.” Ultimately, the movie was allowed and, the Massachusetts Supreme Court lifted the 1908 laws.
Despite this win for the Brattle, movie houses in the mid-50s suffered enormously. Approximately six thousand theatres closed during a three-year period. In an effort to increase profits, the Brattle began screening Humphrey Bogart films during the week of Harvard University’s final exams. The ensuing “Bogie cult” created an annual tradition out of the practice and led to the creation of Bogart-themed bars and nightclubs in Harvard Square, including the restaurant Casablanca, which still operates to this day in the Brattle Hall building, and the Blue Parrot on Mount Auburn Street, that was a popular hang out through the 1960s.
The Brattle stood proud as an icon in Harvard Square for decades and witnessed several important milestones. There was the1958 American premiere of the Eisenstein film Ivan the Terrible, Part II, thought to have been destroyed by Stalin. Then there was the 1961 takeover of University Theatre and its reopening as Harvard Square Cinema. The same year, Brattle owner Cy Harvey accepted the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film on behalf of Ingmar Bergman for his movie The Virgin Spring. Janus films was sold in 1966, and Haliday sold his share in the business. Harvey remained until 1978, when Brattle Associates purchased Brattle Hall. 1982 saw the introduction of the theatre’s first concession stand, though financial struggles continued and the theatre was forced to briefly shut down in 1986.
The start of 1987 marked the start of new ownership for the Brattle as well as a new energy to save the theatre. Operated under Running Arts, the Brattle Theatre began a new philosophy, with each day focused on one film genre or director, as well as a renewed dedication to the showing of foreign films. To mark the hall’s centennial, a restoration was begun in 1990 to return the hall to its 1907 façade. This restructuring altered the inside of the structure as well. When the complex was reopened in 1991, of the many small shops and eateries within the Hall only Algiers, the Brattle Theatre, and Casablanca remained.
The Brattle Film Foundation, a non-profit led by Ned Hinkle and Ivy Moylan, took over the Brattle in 2001. They worked closely with the previous owners, who had won more than 40 awards from the Boston Society of Film Critics, to ensure a smooth transition. Continuing to embrace changes, such as the introduction of the sale of beer and wine in 2009, and striving to create the best experience possible, the new management has been able to maintain the theatre’s spirit and crowds. As a mark of their success, audiences continue to leave rave reviews. It’s a small theatre in the world of multiplex, stadium-seating theatres, but that is what makes the Brattle worth visiting. It’s not a typical experience, and it may even be a better one. Visiting the Brattle Theatre continues to be the real, community-building experience that it has been for every Halloween showing of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, every Valentine’s Day showing of Casablanca, and the annual Bugs Bunny Film Festival. It’s a true Harvard Square gem, which we all hope will continue to shine brightly in the Square for many more years to come.
As prepared by:
Gavin W. Kleespies, Executive Director Cambridge Historical Society.
Katie MacDonald, Intern Cambridge Historical Society.