News Column

Can Cabot Street theater be saved?

May 17, 2013

YellowBrix

May 17--BEVERLY -- Whoever buys the Cabot Street Cinema Theatre will be taking on a big challenge, but local theater owners say the historic movie palace could remain a viable business under a creative new owner.

The fate of the downtown theater is now in question after Wednesday's announcement that it is up for sale. The current owners kept the theater operating for 37 years with a combination of movies and the popular Le Grand David and His Own Spectacular Magic Company show.

Without a magic show to fill the seats on weekends, a new owner will have to find creative ways to supplement the movie business.

"If it were 1920 or even 1950 it would be a no-brainer, but nowadays it's a much bigger challenge," CinemaSalem owner Paul Van Ness said. "But I feel people still love going to the movie theater, especially a place like that."

The theater's sale price is $1.35 million. The building also includes two street-level office spaces and retail or office spaces on the second floor.

The most marketable aspect of the building, of course, is the architectural splendor of the theater, which was built in 1920 in the grand style of the thousands of theaters that went up during the vaudeville era.

But many of those theaters have gone out of business or have been demolished, victims of competition from modern multiplexes.

"Most of those types of theaters are completely gone or have been split into eight little theaters," Van Ness said. "But once you do that, you kind of destroy the beauty of it."

Bill Hanney, the North Shore Music Theatre owner who also owns eight movie theaters in New England, said it's difficult for theaters with a single screen, like the Cabot, to compete.

"If you've got a first-run movie, they make you commit to playing it for three to four weeks," Hanney said. "Over 12 months you can only play 12 to 15 movies per year."

The Cabot will also have to be converted to digital projection technology, which Hanney said can cost from $70,000 to $100,000.

CinemaSalem raised money for its conversion through the crowd-funding website Kickstarter, and Van Ness said Cabot Cinema could likely do the same.

"I'm a believer that a theater like the Cabot could also go through a crowd-funding (process)," he said.

Hanney and Van Ness said the new owners would have to bring in other forms of entertainment, such as concerts, plays and comedy acts, to generate more revenue.

"It's a beautiful theater for doing alternative film content like independent movies and classic movies," Hanney said. "You have to really sit down and think about how you would program it."

If an owner does not come forward, Van Ness, who owns a business in Beverly, is hoping the community would rally to save it.

"Maybe the community's love for the place might allow it to become a nonprofit theater with this kind of broad-based, community support, where people could be doing lots of different things in there," he said. "It might need that kind of effort to keep it more or less what it is."

Complicating matters for the Cabot is the fact that its current owners own another historic theater nearby, the Larcom Theater on Wallis Street. The Larcom hosts shows, meetings and private functions and might start showing movies again, owner David Bull said.

Hanney said any prospective buyer of the Cabot would have to gain assurances that the Larcom would not directly compete.

"You can't both be competing for the same audience," he said.

As for the ultimate fear of many that the Cabot could be demolished, Hanney said, "That would be a crying shame, but it would not be the first time. Most of those old, beautiful theaters are gone. Nothing would surprise me."

Hanney has already saved one Beverly theater by buying the North Shore Music Theatre out of bankruptcy three years ago. Asked if he would consider buying the Cabot, he said, "I'd probably make the mistake of wanting to do that and then say, 'Why'd I do this?'"

Hanney, who is also president of the Theatre Owners of New England, said he would be willing to sit down and talk with people interested in preserving the theater, but would not "take the lead on that."

"I adore the older theaters and hate losing them," he said. "It's an asset that's so beautiful, if somebody could figure out what to do with it. It just would take some time."

Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or pleighton@salemnews.com.

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(c)2013 The Salem News (Beverly, Mass.)

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