Monday, January 31, 2011

The Hanover Theatre vs. Showcase Cinema Downtown

I'm about to plagarize myself here. I've been writing a number of blogs, but haven't been able to finish any of them. However, I wrote a blog entry on my MySpace page nearly two years ago that I'm now going to pass off as a "new" blog here. If you read this one on MySpace, I apologize. However, if you weren't a friend of mine on MySpace then I feel this is a story worth repeating. A couple of weeks ago I was telling the story to a friend and decided that it would be a blog worth re-blogging. Hope you agree.

By the way, this is a story about a building in downtown Worcester, Massachusetts which started its life as a performance venue, was turned into a movie cinema and is now once again a live performance venue. The story mainly focuses on the period between its movie theater period and its return to glory years after closing down. And, this story was written in April of 2009. Anyway, here it is...

The Hanover Theatre for the Performing Arts opened to much fanfare in downtown Worcester in the spring of 2008. It had a very successful first year of operations, bringing many quality shows and thousands of people to watch them in what had previously been a deteriorating, long-closed theater. The building originally opened in the early 1900s. It was renovated and expanded into the Loew's Poli Palace (one of those great old "movie palaces") in the 1920s. In 1967 National Amusements bought the place, remodeled it into a multi-screen movie theater and re-named it Showcase Cinema. They opened the much bigger Worcester Showcase North theater in the 1990s and eventually closed the downtown location in 1998. It remained empty until the grand plans for its current life as the Hanover Theatre were revealed a couple years ago. At the time, it seemed a bit like it might end up being yet another pipe dream for bringing life back to downtown Worcester. National Amusements had been unwilling to sell the building to anyone who wanted to use it as a movie theater--which would thus provide them with competition. After building the Showcase North cinemas National Amusements began methodically closing all the other movie theaters they owned in Worcester (which was pretty much ALL of the theaters in Worcester) to force anyone wanting to see a first-run movie in the city to go to their new (less-than-convenient) location in a mostly industrial area on the northern edge of the city. The Hanover Theatre would be a live performance venue though, which was enough to convince National Amusements to finally sell. Through a big fundraising project, and much help from the Hanover Insurance company (hence the name), they somehow managed to raise the 31 million dollars or so needed for the renovation. A big part of this renovation was re-converting the space from a multi-screen cinema back into the single stage performance area that it originally was meant to be. After about ten years of lying closed and empty (the last three or four of that time being renovated) the Hanover Theatre finally brought the old building back to life.

I only knew the building as the National Amusements cinema for most of my life, and probably wouldn't believe it had been built in 1904 if someone had told me. The remodeling had a distinctly late-60s look to it and I pretty much assumed that was when the building had been built. They somehow managed to carve the huge performance hall into four or five seperate movie theaters. Most of them had the feel of any 1970s/80s movie theater...except for the big one upstairs. This was one impressive space. It was larger than the others, and the screen was in the area that was originally the stage. Most impressive (and out-of-place) was the giant, ornate chandelier that hung from the ceiling. To be honest, it was pretty ingenious how they managed to take the original space and turn it into two big movie cinemas one on top of the other (on two floors obviously). The other screens were in much smaller spaces that were somehow shoe-horned into the leftover areas of the old building. I imagine that this was probably a very common way to reuse the old movie palaces once TV and cable started to take the place of the big night out at the movies. Revenue could be increased by having four (or more) screens showing four (or more) movies at the same time, rather than one marquee title that had to pull in all the money. I suppose that this was sort of the birth of the age of megaplexes that we're living in now. 12, 14, 16 and even more screens are now regularly put into most of the cinemas that are built today.

Whatever the reasons for the changes, and however good or bad they were, the multi-screen Showcase Cinema was what I knew the building as for most of my life. I saw many movies there including "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home", "Cape Fear", "Tremors", "Maximum Overdrive" and, yes, "Who's That Girl".
So, why am I writing all this information about the history of the Hanover Theatre that could be found pretty easily by searching the internet or the theater's own website (
see above)? Well I wanted to share a personal account of just how different a visit to the theater is today to what it was like ten years ago. I wasn't able to take in an actual show during the theater's first season until last November when my wife and I saw "Movin' Out" there. It was a great show, and it was difficult to think that this was the same building that I had seen so many movies in all those years ago. The only other time I had been in the renovated space was when they had an open house just a few days before the first shows started. It was a chance to look around and see not only all the work that went into transforming this place into something that looked like it had been transported right out of the early 1900s, but also to try to compare it to what I remebered and try to visualize just how extensive the changes were. There were staircases that were still in the same place. You had the feeling of the big upstairs cinema when you sat in the seats upstairs (the balcony)--only now there was a complete first floor of seats below you, in what had previously been a separate theater, looking at the same stage rather than their own screen downstairs. All-in-all I'd have to say that it seemed like 31 million dollars well spent on bringing a classic old space back to life rather than knocking it down to make some sterile new place that had no history.

Okay, so here's the personal story to illustrate how different these these differences were. That February 2008 visit to the Hanover Theatre's open house made me realize that it had been about ten years since I had last visited the old place. In a few days, men in tuxedos and women in lavish gowns would sip champagne and celebrate the grand opening of the Hanover in style. But the closing of the Showcase Cinemas ten years earlier had looked much different. By the late 1990s National Amusements had turned the cinema into a "Bargain" theater, where they'd show second-run fare. The new movies would open at the main Showcase North location and then eventually be sent to the downtown location to die. The prices were right (kind of like an all-day matinee), but the movies were a bit out-of-date and the clientele they drew in was nothing like what would be showing up on opening night for the Hanover Theatre.
The last time I had visited was in early 1998 to see Al Pacino and Keanu Reeves in "The Devil's Advocate". I hadn't been to the theater in a while and didn't realize how far it had fallen from grace. It didn't look like any money was put into keeping it clean or maintained. The theaters were dingy and the whole place had a semi-deserted, creepy feel about it. Apparently it wasn't so much a place that people went to to see movies any more as it was a place for certain elements of society to hang out. Why do I say this? Well, my biggest memory from that night wasn't "The Devil's Advocate" itself (a movie that I do like), but instead was something I heard behind me as the movie spooled out. The film was being shown in one of the small, narrow, hallway-like theaters on the first floor (to the right of the bigger-screen theater in the center of the space). There were only two or three other people at the 9:00 (or so) show I went to--and none of them seemed too interested in what was happening on the screen. About halfway through I heard a quiet crash from a few rows behind me. It sounded like glass--but not like a bottle or something like that. It was the sound of very thin, brittle glass breaking. This was followed by the quiet but anguished cry of "Oh man, that's fucked up... That's fucked up!". Apparently a patron was enjoying his crack pipe rather than the usual movie fare of popcorn, soda and Milk Duds. This dropping of the pipe was apparently a devastating blow to this individual, as well as a sign to me that I probably wouldn't be visiting the Showcase Cinemas anymore (at least not alone, and not for a late-night movie during the week). That became a moot point when the place closed down a few weeks later.
Almost exactly ten years later the hoi-polloi of Worcester (if there is any such thing) was arriving at the opening of the Hanover Theatre for the Performing Arts in their finest to celebrate and see Bernadette Peters open the grand space once more. From crack pipes to champagne...what a difference a decade can make!