Lowell Since '45

The Strand: Five Decades of Entertainment

The Strand: Five Decades of Entertainment

For even a mid-sized city like Lowell, there was a time when literally a dozen or more profitable theaters served as “Saturday afternoon babysitters” to the city’s children and brought out big crowds of theatergoing adults every night. Indeed, for readers of a certain age, the names of some of these old Lowell movie houses – the Victory, Merrimack Square, RKO Keith’s, the Capitol, the Rialto, the Crown, the Royal, and perhaps most notably, the Strand – will recall a time before the rise of television when downtown theaters in Lowell, and most cities across the northeast, were community gathering spots like no other.

In the 1910s, many of these Lowell theaters were constructed to house vaudeville. Movies were still silent, short and grainy – shown in the ground level nickelodeons of the early 20th Century. But Lowell was a respected stop on the performing circuit and magnificent, decorative theaters were built for these vaudeville stars. The theater that would hang on the longest was built in 1917 and was known as the Strand.

Like all of the theaters built by the Strand company in this region, it was a grand affair, seating nearly 2,000 on a single floor. Described as a “paragon of beauty and comfort” by Moving Picture World, The Strand opened for business on October 1, 1917. Its features were ornate – large French mirrors along both sides of a 100-foot foyer, a proscenium column arch tinted with pale buff, gold-lead covered Corinthian columns and a central dome featuring Romanesque designs centered by an enormous chandelier.  

The Lowell Sun, holding nothing back, told readers that “Amid a blaze of glory and electric lights and wonderful decorations, exquisite music and happy addresses, and finally an enthusiastic audience which permeated not only the structure itself but even the streets without, the Strand theater opened last evening.” Run-on sentences notwithstanding, The Strand was a big deal. First-nighters began gathering almost three hours before the show and soon an unruly line extended in both directions along Central Street as a handful of police officers attempted to keep order. As the main entrance became clogged, those attempting to gain entry snuck around to the Warren Street doors to bust in. According to the Sun, manager James Carroll turned away more than a thousand would-be patrons.

At 8:15, conductor and Lowell local boy, Arthur J. Martel took the stage and guided his orchestra through a rendition of “Over There,” kickstarting what would be more than five decades of entertainment at the Strand. The variety (even randomness?) of the acts that evening speaks to the vaudeville approach then in vogue.  The orchestra played various “popular numbers,” patriotic songs and the Star-Spangled Banner, followed by a speech by the mayor. Next, a screen came down to present the Strand Revue of Current Events. Then it was on to a couple numbers by a baritone singer, a short documentary on Chinese life, two soprano numbers by Miss Margaret Millea Henry, a comedy sketch, an organ piece, and finally a full three-act play, “The Bar Sinister.” It seems 1917 audiences had both broader taste and longer attention spans.

The Strand and nearby competitors would play a key role in city life. For years, at 11 O’clock in the evening, Sun Square was jammed as thousands of people from the Strand, the Merrimack and Keith’s would let out, sending locals scrambling for buses heading back to the neighborhoods. On Saturdays in the 1940s and ‘50s, downtown was swarmed with kids on their way to catch Mickey Mouse cartoons and Tarzan movies – and giving mom a break.

But the dominance of the theaters would not last. There were many reasons why the theaters collapsed – certainly the decline of Downtown Lowell played a big part. But here’s a key statistic:  In 1950, 9% of Americans owned a television. By 1959, over 80% of Americans had at least one TV in the house. And while the three network choices of the 1970s seem rather limited these days, as Charles Sanipas explained in the Lowell Sun in 1973: “The truth of the matter is there is a picture show, free, in every home now. And in color, in most of the homes. A color TV set is a dream come true. It gives you the world. There was a time when we considered ourselves lucky to see a Paramount newsreel of events that took place two weeks ago. Now Walter Cronkite, John Chancellor and Smith & Reasoner give you the picture news of the day right in front of you.”  While one wonders what Sanipas would think of a modern Twitter feed, it’s also clear why the days of a medium-sized city supporting a dozen downtown theaters was over.

In many cities around the nation a kind of progression down the cultural food chain followed, as theaters downgraded from plays and shows to Hollywood cinema, to B movies and revivals and in a few unfortunate cases, to showing X-rated pornography in their waning days. That never quite happened in Lowell but by the 1960s, the great names of the Lowell theaters had become auto showrooms, bowling alleys, parking lots and diners.

The Strand itself hung on the longest. It showed films until 1973 and there were discussions and negotiations for years before demolition finally came in 1983. There were many proposals for how the building could survive and many of them were sound. It seemed like there had to be enough of an audience for at least one Lowell performing arts house and why not keep the Strand, the biggest and best of them all. Reading some these attempts to save the Strand in the early ‘80s, one might think back to the words of Mayor James E. O’Donnell on opening night in 1917, when he said that city had the good fortune of having such a magnificent theater but that it was “very deserving of it.” Unfortunately, it does not seem that enough local powerbrokers of the 1980s felt Lowell deserved the Strand then too.

Photo taken by James V. Roy

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