Chatham Orpheum Theater Celebrates Its Centennial

By: Tim Wood

Topics: History , Benefits , Film

The Chatham Orpheum Theater shortly after it opened, in either 1915 or 1916. FILE PHOTO

CHATHAM – The Chatham Orpheum Theater will mark its 100th anniversary Sunday at its annual “A Summer's Evening” fundraiser.

The exact date of the theater's opening is uncertain; even the year is a bit of a question. There's evidence that it may have opened in 1915, after Captain A.H. Bearse bought Lowella F. Smith's home on Main Street and built a “first-class” theater with a seating capacity of 400 and “electric lights and fan and pure air ventilation.”

But it may also have been June 1916, although in both cases no specific opening date is known.

“We have some old programs,” said John “Kim” Doggett, president of the non-profit theater's board of trustees. “But the dates are unclear.”

What is clear is that in the three years since the Orpheum reopened, it has become, for many, an indispensable part of the community. It's exceeded all attendance projections and was even the number one theater in the country this winter showing “The Finest Hours,” though not surprisingly since the Coast Guard rescue adventure film was partially filmed here.

For the first official week of summer, the Orpheum has brought “The Finest Hours” back by popular demand, said theater Executive Director Kevin McLain, showing alongside what has become a summer staple for the Main Street theater, “Jaws.” For the rest of the summer, the theater will continue its mix of first-run, art house and independent films that McLain said has helped foster a multi-generational arts community in Chatham.

Because the Orpheum is both independent and nonprofit, “we kind of get to play in the best of both worlds,” he said. “We didn't bring the theater back just to show 'Finding Dory,'” he adds, meaning no disrespect to the memory-challenged blue tang fish who swam across the theater's screens for the past few weeks.

It was five years ago that the community first rallied around the idea of bringing movies back to Chatham's Main Street. A confluence of events made the historic building available, and a groundswell of support helped accomplish the practical steps necessary to purchase, renovate and reopen the building as a movie theater.

“Ninety-nine percent of the community participated in some level in making this happen,” said Naomi Turner, the first president of the Orpheum board of trustees and a leader in the effort to restore the theater.

Originally built to show silent movies, the Orpheum, as it was originally known, was for years managed by Harry Bearse. Ads and programs in the archives of the Atwood House Museum show that the theater screened the top movies of the day, though now many are obscure and long forgotten. Some classics showed there, however, including Lon Chaney's “Phantom of the Opera” and Charlie Chaplin's “The Gold Rush.”

Ads from the 1920s show films rotating every few days and admission prices of 35 cents for adults, 25 cents for kids under 12. Matinees were 25 cents for adults and 10 cents for kids.

The theater went through several owners in its early years, and in 1929 converted to sound. “Gold Diggers of Broadway” appears to have been the first talkie shown. In 1930 the theater was sold again and the name changed to The Chatham Theater. Occasionally live shows were performed. A 1938 news item announces the appearance of Mal MacNeil's Texas Trailers and their “tuneful swinging songs and music.” Chatham High School graduations were held at the theater until the Crowell Road School was built in the early 1960s, and it was also the site of town meetings. The annual town meeting was being held at the theater the night of the Pendleton rescue portrayed in “The Finest Hours.”

Eventually the theater was acquired by national chain Interstate Theaters. While originally operating year round, the theater at some point cut back to seasonal; in the 1960s it sometimes opened during the winter on weekends.

In 1985 Interstate built a multi-plex theater in East Harwich and closed the downtown movie houses it owned in several Cape towns, including Chatham. It sold the property to Chatham Development Trust, with a 25-year deed restriction prohibiting the commercial screening of films on the property. This seemed like the end of movies on Main Street.

To his credit, new owner Ronald Rudnick renovated the space, uncovering the original stage and tin ceiling, and it became a live theater venue. In the summer of 1988, top national music acts played Chatham, including Ray Charles and Ben Vereen. A live theater company, the Ad Hoc Theater and Wild West Show, took over the space after that, ending its run in 1989. As a live venue, the theater just couldn't sustain itself.

Further renovations converted the theater into three retail spaces, and CVS moved into the Main Street level. This seemed like the end to the building as a theater.

But one person's controversy is another person's opportunity. In 2011, after much wrangling, residents and town officials convinced the owners of the former A&P on Queen Anne Road to include space for the Chatham Village Market with a new building for CVS at the site. The downtown CVS closed; at the same time, that multi-plex in East Harwich also shut down (it is now the Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School). A group of residents, including Turner, saw that opportunity.

The group first met that September and “chugged along for a couple of months,” she said, before going public in November. She'd always wanted to see movies back on Main Street, and was inspired by a cinema in Key West, Fla., where she saw movies several times a week in the winter. When she finally summoned the courage to meet with Rudnick, he at first said the building wasn't for sale. Eventually, on a handshake, he agreed to take it off the market for six months to give the newly formed group a chance to raise the money to purchase it.

“It all just started to happen,” Turner said. For the next two and a half years, “it was just crazy, full on, 24/7,” she said.

The following April, the newly formed nonprofit penned a deal to buy the property for $1.35 million. In the intervening months, they'd raised the first $500,000 of the eventual $2 million-plus contributed by some 4,000 donors, ranging from $5 to hundreds of thousands of dollars. A community preservation grant from the town helped preserve the historic exterior of the theater. The group also obtained a construction loan from the Cape Cod Five Cents Savings Bank to implement plans to renovate the former retail space into two theaters – one seating about 140 and a smaller screening room with 35 seats. The original plans drawn by the late Ned Collins formed the basis of the new Orpheum, with interior tweaks by architect Doug Gensner, whose firm is the largest theater designer in the country. Jane Harris headed up the building committee, and in July 2013, the new Chatham Orpheum Theater opened its doors.

Financially, the theater has been able to hold its own, said Doggett and McLain. Construction debt was consolidated in a 40-year USDA $1.2 million loan, which has now been paid down to $800,000. The theater also started an endowment fund and is currently engaged in a “Century Celebration Campaign” in its centennial year with the aim of raising enough to retire the USDA loan and save future interest payments.

The theater has worked to serve as many elements of the community as it can identify, said McLain. Films highlighting famous museums throughout the world shown in the off-season have been big hits, astounding the theater's film booker by selling out on weekday mornings. Last summer's rainy-day matinees have been replaced this season with a different kids movie showing daily at 9:30 a.m.

“We identify who our audience is and give them what they want,” McLain said. Even the theater's lobby cafe has undergone changes in response to the demands of patrons. After being operated by Vers Restaurant and then the Corner Store, the theater is now running the cafe itself, under the direction of board member Paul Zuest, former Chatham Bars Inn general manager, and is launching a whole new menu for the summer.

McLain said he's proud of the fact that the theater started with three full-time employees and now employs 20 people both full and part-time, 12 of them year-round. There are also some 50 volunteers. Doggett said the theater will have about $1 million in revenue this year.

“None of that happened without a lot of luck and a lot of people working very hard,” he said.

The theater fulfilled everything she had imagined, said Turner. She said she's most proud of the fact that its brought life to Main Street in the winter. “That is always something that I envisioned. Yes it's going to be great in the summer, but really the vision was to change people's lives in Chatham in the winter,” she said.

What's in store for the theater's next 100 years? In the coming months, the theater will be partnering with other nonprofits, such as the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, on fundraisers, and will also be showcasing a local filmmaker in the small theater and continuing its sensory film series. They'll also experiment with different films, stretching in ways that only an independent theater can.

“People want that experience,” McLain said. “Having restored a 100-year-old theater is just the icing on the cake.”


“A Summer Evening”

Chatham Orpheum 100th Birthday Celebrations

Sunday, July 10, at the Wequassett Resort

$175 per person

Tickets available at the theater or at