Catching up with Somerville’s new, much-needed live performance venue and function space
On September 17, the Somerville Theatre reopened after a 17-month-long closure brought on by the pandemic. Customers of the 107-year-old theater, some who have been catching flicks there for years, walked into a completely madeover venue with an improved lobby and a glitzy new ballroom upstairs
“Out of the first ten people through the door, the first nine were regulars,” said the theater’s Creative Director Ian Judge. “They were all saying ‘hi’, ‘it’s so nice to see you again’, ‘the place looks great’. It was also nice to see that they had survived, frankly. It was all very touching.”
Judge, who’s worked at the theater for the past 19 years says business was slow at first, but is picking up after the release of some of this year’s most anticipated films. The release of the latest James Bond movie, No Time To Die and Dune, an adaptation of the 1965 science fiction novel of the same name has helped bring in more customers.
Other than taking COVID-related safety precautions, it seems the only thing that’s changed at the theater since the start of the pandemic is the opening of the Crystal Ballroom. Used as a former film screening space, the ballroom was completely transformed while the theater’s doors were closed and is now available for public use. Renovations have transformed the formerly dull space into a swanky ballroom complete with a performance stage, cushiony booths, a bar, and glittering chandeliers. These renovations include an expanded concession space and a refurbished lobby. The venue has already been booked through the year.
Creative Director Ian Judge says with minimal advertising, people have rented the room for private events, while the space is primarily used for public entertainment—comedy and burlesque shows, concerts. Judge says the structure’s acoustics and the historic reputation help attract performers.
One of the first performances in the new ballroom was Phoenix, an orchestral group aiming to bring classical music into more casual and accessible atmospheres. The band’s Executive Director Matthew Szymanski said they explored various spaces around Boston before landing on the Crystal Ballroom, and noted that the sound of the space swayed their decision.
“It’s a great room, acoustically,” Szymanski said. “The natural wood and vibe of the space just gave a really nice sound for us.”
Ari Salloway, frontman of the band Billy Wylder, said he group also chose to perform their first concert post-pandemic at the ballroom, calling the convenience of the venue being in the middle of Davis Square a plus.
Judge referred to the ballroom as “a very accessible art space” that fills the need for a performance venue in the area. In 2016, Johnny D’s, a music club across the street from Somerville Theatre, permanently closed, eliminating the only comparable spot in the square. Judge said the need for a live music space in the neighborhood inspired him to completely gut the old upstairs cinema.
The Crystal Ballroom isn’t just for fans of classical music. They’ve also held Savoy Nights, a vintage-inspired collection of live music and dancing. One installment in November highlighted the music of jazz pianist Jelly Roll Morton, with people of all ages dancing and singing.
Brookline residents David and Nancy have been dancing partners for over 40 years. Nancy said they’ve already planned their next visit to the ballroom, making it the couple’s fourth visit in the past three months. She also gushed about the renovations: “The floor is fantastic.”
Somerville resident Liz Pasekal said this is her first time at the Crystal Ballroom. She loved the details, especially the crystals hanging down from the ceiling. Pasekal also liked what the space brings to the area, and said that it makes her feel like she’s stepped back in time. “I love the swing dance and it’s nice to have a venue to do it.”
Sisters Lizi and Ruth George, who recently moved to Somerville, appreciated that the ballroom had additional features. “It has like a pit in the front,” Ruth said. “There’s some seating and a bar, pretty much everything you need.”
With the rise of streaming services and the general public’s hesitancy to spend time away from home following the pandemic, a lack of traffic for the Somerville Theatre and for theaters everywhere is inevitable. 23-year-old Somerville resident Caroline Pritt has been planning to attend a screening at the theater for a few weeks, but says it’s more convenient for her to watch a movie on Netflix. “I do miss that feeling of going into a space to see a story,“ said Pritt, who works at Davis Square KinderCare. “I guess I don’t feel totally unsafe about it. It’s just hard to get back into the habit.”
According to Adweek, 55% of consumers prefer to wait for movies to arrive on streaming services than see them in theaters. Although, a third of consumers did say they miss the larger screen experience.
While movies are still a priority for the theater, the success of the ballroom has helped leverage the cost of rebuilding the space and make up for the theater’s loss of income during the past year. “Because movie distribution has changed, we’re hedging our bets that a ballroom with a full bar and live events will take a bigger part of what we do and be a bigger driver of profits than, say, popcorn,” said Judge.
As the ballroom continues to get more exposure, Judge hopes both performers and the public see it as a place they look forward to spending their time as more events are held at the venue.
Salloway and his band are looking forward to their next show there. “It was a seminal moment,” he said. “We’re excited to play there again down the road.”
This article was produced in partnership with Professor Gino Canella’s grassroots journalism class at Emerson College. It is syndicated by the MassWire news service of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. If you want to see more reporting like this, make a contribution at givetobinj.org.