Moviegoers Organize To Save a Theater

They value alternatives to what the chains offer. PRESERVATION

THE Boston area may soon lose one of its three remaining independent cinemas, the Coolidge Corner Moviehouse in neighboring Brookline. Like many other older theaters across the United States, including the Ambassador in St. Louis, the Union Square in New York, and the Fourth Avenue Theatre in Anchorage, Alaska, the Coolidge may fall victim to rising real estate values.

The Freed family, which owns the Coolidge building, found a purchase offer of $2.15 million hard to pass up and gave a developer an option last year. Justin Freed, who operated the Coolidge for over 10 years, describes the decision to sell as a difficult one.

``I love this business,'' Freed, reached by phone, told the Monitor, ``but we've been losing money for years, and the economics of the market have forced me out. Independents are completely frozen out of commercial films.''

Chain theaters have tightened their hold on the market, particularly since deregulation under the Reagan administration permitted studios to own their own movie houses again for the first time since an anti-trust ruling in 1948. The chains often sew up major releases. And today, even art films are sometimes hard for the independents to get, Freed notes, because the balance of power has shifted to the chains. ``It's a bad, bad thing that's happening, the homogenization of our culture,'' he says.

For some Brookline residents, however, the loss of the Coolidge isn't a foregone conclusion. They don't want to give up the foreign films, art films, and independent documentaries the cinema is known for, and they have mounted an effort to save the theater.

In a darkened aisle of the Coolidge, David Kleiler aims his flashlight at the art-deco ceiling, illuminating a deep-blue night sky with gold star patterns and maroon flames.

Mr. Kleiler, an avant-garde film exhibitor and former chairman of the Brookline Arts Council, is trying to raise $2.6 million to buy the theater and eventually renovate the stage to allow for live performances. Built as a Unitarian-Universalist church in 1906, the Coolidge was converted to a movie palace in 1933.

Local developer Jonathan Davis is one step ahead of Kleiler's group, however, having purchased the option to buy the Coolidge. Mr. Davis is asking the town's permission to gut the theater, making way for office and retail space.

But, as theater buff Erica Max, a Kleiler ally, puts it, ``Anything can be turned into a greater profit. We've got this great piece of land - the Boston Commons. Someone could build a multi-use facility there, but what happens to the quality of life?''

Kleiler and his group, the Coolidge Corner Theatre Foundation, say that an independent community theater is an important public asset, and there's evidence that others feel that way too. Preservation groups like Kleiler's have sprung up across the country. In 1978 a handful of managers of historic theaters decided they needed a way of exchanging ideas. The result was a Washington-based telephone network and nonprofit advocacy group called the League of Historic American Theaters. Today two staff members help a membership of over 400 theater groups obtain advice about conducting feasibility studies, writing grant applications, and raising funds.

One of the Coolidge Foundation's first steps was to join the league, and soon afterward it received a call from member Charles Cosler, one of the country's leading authorities on theater design. Mr. Cosler volunteered to fly in from New York for a free consultation and found the Kleiler group well-prepared. ``Unlike many groups, the Coolidge Foundation decided to do the architectural study first, before going to the bank,'' says Cosler.

About $100,000 has been raised for the Coolidge cause in pledges, public grants, cash donations, and in-kind services, says Kleiler. He and the foundation's financial manager, Ms. Max, are working to enlist a coalition of local banks to help them buy the theater. And through public pressure, a stay of demolition was imposed several months ago to give the town's Preservation Commission time to decide if the theater is historically significant. The stay is in place until Sept. 15.

Developer Davis, who describes himself as ``very active in historic preservation, finding new uses for old buildings where the prior uses have become outdated,'' says, ``If the theater group was able to raise the money to purchase the property, we would be happy to step aside. They have not demonstrated their ability to do so.''

But with a hefty dose of idealism, Kleiler seems determined. ``How many people,'' he says, ``have a chance to do something this important?''

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