Movie House of Worship: Boston’s Brattle Theatre

By  · Published on March 17th, 2013

“Movie Houses of Worship” is a regular feature spotlighting our favorite movie theaters around the world, those that are like temples of cinema catering to the most religious-like film geeks. This week, we highlight one of Beantown’s best in honor of St. Patrick’s Day. If you’d like to suggest or submit a place you regularly worship at the altar of cinema, please email our weekend editor.

The Brattle Theatre

Location: 40 Brattle St. Harvard Square, Cambridge, MA

Opened: January 27, 1890, as a theater for the Cambridge Social Union. In 1953, the Brattle became a rear-projection movie house started by future Janus Films founders Bryant Haliday and Cyrus Harvey Jr.

No. of screens: 1

Current first-run titles: The ABCs of Death. A preview of Upstream Color is screening on Tuesday ahead of next month’s official engagement of the film.

Repertory programming: Full repertory programs are scheduled regularly. Currently they have “The Lubitsch Touch,” with this week’s titles including The Shop Around the Corner(today), Trouble in Paradise, Angel, Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife and Design for Living. This weekend they also screened a new print of Ninotchka. Coming up next weekend is a special engagement of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Next month they’ve got “Muppet Madness,” which includes sing-a-longs in addition to the better Muppet movies and Henson favorites like Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal.

Special Events: Almost daily there is some sort of special event. My personal favorite, although I’ve never been there to attend it, is The DocYard, a seasonal documentary series held every other Monday. The next film they’re showing is Jamie Meltzer’s The Informant, on March 25. The Brattle also constantly hosts festivals, such as this month’s WAM! (Women, Action & the Media) Boston Film Festival and the Boston Underground Film Festival. In a couple weeks, their annual Schlock Around the Clock begins. Other regular special events include a bi-weekly experimental film series, stand-up comedy shows (the Women in Comedy Festival is held this week) and readings/author events presented by the Harvard Book Store. In a month they’re screening Buster Keaton shorts, which I’d be first in line for if I lived in the area.

Why I worship here: To be honest, I’ve only been to the Brattle once, more than a decade ago. I can’t quite recall the exact film I saw – I think it was something Keaton – but I can picture everything else about my trip to this landmark cinema, the venture into Harvard Square, getting a bit lost, sitting in the auditorium, which felt historic and scholarly more than comfortable. To a degree, I was almost more there to see the place than any film there, though fortunately I was able to enjoy both. I continue to worship from a far given my love for the people who run The DocYard and what they’re doing for nonfiction film lovers, plus my usual support for landmark cinemas that are clearly about movies, new and old, of all kinds, and exhibiting them for and with true cinephiles.

Recent screening thing of note: Like I said, I haven’t been there in a long time, so I have no recent screening to share (I invite you to do so below, however). But I do want to acknowledge and congratulate – in part because we’re all talking about Kickstarter this week – the Brattle’s recent crowdfunding success. Their Kickstarter campaign was to raise $140,000 for an upgrade for digital projection capability (they’re still rear-projecting 35mm, too, but as we know that’s harder to come by) and for a new HVAC system for the comfort of the audience. That ended two weeks ago with an overshot of almost $10,000. Hopefully other theaters that might be in trouble but have a lot of fans will follow their lead if need be.

Devotion to the concessions: They’ve got the usual popcorn and candy stuff (they just added button candy, which seems really silly to me but maybe it’s popular), as well as wine and local craft beers and locally brewed soda.

Last word: As both a movie lover and movie theater tourist, it doesn’t get much better or more interesting than The Brattle Theatre, which has not only been around longer than most cinemas (even if it wasn’t a cinema for more than half a century) but has also been significant to film history and distribution. Early on Haliday and Harvey presented the American premiere of Eisenstein’s thought-lost Ivan the Terrible Part II, for example. Unrelated to film exhibition, the Brattle has also hosted performances by Paul Robeson, Jessica Tandy and Zero Mostel. You can read a nice piece from 1990 on the Brattle’s first 100 years. Although I won’t be around to see it, I’m hoping there’s another on the first 200 years in 2090.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.