Art house cinema part of Boston’s scene again

By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / October 29, 2009

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Blue custom-sewn drapes have been installed alongside the new Super Glo white screen. Twelve Dolby Digital speakers ring the walls and, upstairs, a repurposed 35mm projector peers out the booth window. In the lobby, a recently constructed concession stand lies dormant, popcorn as yet unpopped.

All that’s missing is the audience, and that should change tomorrow, when the Stuart Street Playhouse reopens as a movie theater and Boston gets its first art house cinema in years. The venue’s initial offerings will be the Juliette Binoche drama “Paris’’ and the fashion documentary “The September Issue,’’ screening in alternating show times, followed in coming weeks by “Bright Star’’ and “Amreeka.’’

All four films have been playing in local theaters since last month, but the Stuart Street may eventually open new releases. “I want to make this into a first-run independent and foreign film theater,’’ says new proprietor David Bramante of the 435-seat space. “It’s Boston - we should have one.’’

We used to have much more than one. Well over a dozen movie houses of all kinds - including the Stuart Street’s original tenant, the Sack 57 twin screen - used to thrive within the city’s limits. Now there exist only two commercial picture palaces, both of them corporate googolplexes: The AMC Loews Boston Common with its 19 screens and the Regal Fenway Stadium with 13.

Institutions such as the Museum of Fine Arts, with its robust film program, and the New England Aquarium and Museum of Science, with their IMAX screens, fill some of the gaps. Still, Bostonians craving the latest indie feature or Oscar-nominated German film have for years had to travel to the Brattle or Kendall Square in Cambridge or the Coolidge Corner in Brookline to get their fix.

“It’s a shame that Boston of all places does not have an art house within the city limits,’’ says George Mansour, who has been booking movies into local and national nonchain houses for 45 of his 75 years. “Baltimore has an art house. Great Barrington has an art house. I applaud David for taking the plunge.’’

“It’s a brave, noble experiment,’’ agrees Connie White, who books films into the Coolidge Corner. White knows from her 14 years running the Brattle that managing a single-screen theater is a challenge in a universe of multiplexes. “You have the same costs but you only have one place where the revenue’s coming from, rather than several,’’ she explains. “And it’s hit and miss; sometimes you choose films that aren’t as popular as you thought.’’

On the other hand, the locals may be willing to watch anything: “I’ll be there Friday, and I’ll be there Saturday, because I want to see both movies,’’ Bramante says a woman from a neighborhood association recently told him. Tickets are $10, except for senior citizens on weekdays and during certain matinees when they are $2 less.

The Stuart Street is reopening in a radically different Boston than the one that saw it close. Says Mansour: “Upscale condos now surround the area. Bay Village is safer, the South End has been tremendously gentrified. I think it could be the time.’’

This is the niche that Bramante, who also owns and runs the West Newton Cinema and Belmont’s Studio Cinema, wants to fill: A haven for film lovers in Beacon Hill, the Back Bay, the resurgent South End, and other nearby neighborhoods. “I see this like the Lincoln Plaza in New York City,’’ he says, referring to the storied art house theater on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “The neighborhood feels the same.’’

Certainly the Stuart Street occupies a unique urban zone. The cinema is owned by the Radisson that towers above it - Bramante is running the theater under an open-ended operating agreement - and is tucked in at the top of the hotel’s entrance ramp. While invisible from the street, yellow signs and a marquee announce the Playhouse’s existence up and down Stuart and Charles streets.

The signage is so good, in fact, that Bramante doesn’t see any reason to change the name from that of the previous tenant: From 1996 until recently, the Stuart Street Playhouse was a 200-seat venue that staged live off-Broadway plays and musicals with varying degrees of success.

Originally, of course, it was the Sack Cinema 57, one of the last vestiges of Boston’s glorious movie-theater past. Named for the old 57 Restaurant that adjoined the theater off the hotel lobby, the Sack 57 opened in late 1971 and was perhaps the final jewel in local exhibition tycoon Ben Sack’s crown, a house that showed 70mm first-run engagements of “Grease,’’ “A Clockwork Orange,’’ the reserved-seat premiere of “Apocalypse Now,’’ and many others.

Alfred Hitchcock personally appeared at the Sack 57 in 1972 with the US premiere of his “Frenzy.’’ When “The Witches of Eastwick’’ filmed in the Boston area in 1986, cast members Jack Nicholson, Susan Sarandon, and Michelle Pfeiffer were escorted in after the lights went down to see “Aliens’’ with the plebeians.

Sack, who died at 92 in 2003, was a scrap metal dealer who legend has it won his first movie theater, the Beacon Hill, in a poker game in the 1940s. By the late ’60s, he owned eight of the 16 cinemas in the city, with names that film lovers with long memories can tick off like beads on a rosary: The Charles, the Gary, the Savoy, the Cheri, the Music Hall, the Pi Alley. Photos of their marquees now adorn the lobby of the revamped Stuart Street; in one, the Sack 57 advertises 1971’s “The Hospital’’ while the half-finished John Hancock Tower looms in the background.

During the late ’60s and early ’70s, Boston was also fast becoming an epicenter in the revival house boom, in which scruffy new movie theaters appealed to college and counterculture audiences with a mixture of Hollywood classics, sexually-tinged foreign films, and head-tripping new movies like “El Topo.’’ The phenomenon lasted until home video and rising rents killed it in the 1980s. Only the Brattle and the Coolidge Corner are left standing, and both have flickered near extinction over the years.

By the mid-1990s, the Sack 57 was showing B-level urban action films; its final offerings in May 1996 were “The Great White Hype’’ and “Original Gangstas.’’ With the theater’s reopening, the two lines of Boston movie exhibition history come together: the local mainstream chain and the adventurous art house.

Can David Bramante make it work? While he’s mum about future plans, he’s only operating half of the original Sack 57 under his agreement with the Radisson. The other half, a cavernous space that once seated 800 before getting converted to a golf school, now stands unused. Somewhere, Ben Sack is smelling opportunity and popcorn, and he’s smiling.

Ty Burr can be reached at

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