Restaurants, arcades, specialty bars, art galleries – what’s missing?
A movie theater, perhaps, but not just any movie theater – the United Theater of downtown Westerly. The previously defunct theater and now re-energized nonprofit promises to become an arts and cultural center in the coming years and help further revitalize and transform our town into a destination for more than just our fabulous beaches.
If you’re not already familiar with the theater, its situated between the Twisted Vine and the Artist’s Cooperative Gallery of Westerly and has a long but somewhat hazy history. The board and employees have been attempting to glean what they can from old news clippings and personal accounts, but Public Relations manager Tony Nunes says it’s been difficult to piece together meaningful historical moments from these tidbits.
What they do know for sure is that the theater originally opened in 1926 as one of several venues for vaudeville performances downtown, and included a built-in organ in the basement. Downtown Westerly was undoubtedly a hub of vaudevillian entertainment with so many theaters open at one time, and but it was the United Theater that hosted the Will Mastin Trio during this era, featuring the talents of a very young Sammy Davis Jr.
As silent movies fell by the wayside and became “talkies” a few years later, the theater focused more on screening feature films, eventually switching to this medium of entertainment exclusively. Every major movie played from the late 20s on, including the original Star Wars in 1977, which played on the theater’s only screen for an entire year straight and still brought in money the whole time.
Unfortunately, competition with another theater which opened on Granite Street in the late 1970s proved to be too much for the United Theater, eventually shutting its doors in 1986. Besides being the location of a couple of Farmers Market events, the space has remained largely untouched since its closing.
The revival of the United Theater has been in the works for years. The Westerly Land Trust purchased the building in 2003 as part of its Urban Initiative, and the State Cultural Bond Initiative approved in 2014 helped to secure funds towards its restoration, with the United Theater establishing itself as a non-profit the following year.
Since then, the organization has made a mark on the community by screening movies in the park for the last few summers and putting together other wonderful local events to bring the community together in appreciation for the arts. Remarkably, with only two weeks of publicity, the United Theater managed to draw a thousand people in to Westerly Park for its own folk festival last summer. Plans are already in the works for an even bigger event this year, happening Saturday, July 1st from noon to 9pm and including several exciting headliners.
Select events have also been happening at the theater in its current state for some time now, including a screening of James and the Giant Peach last weekend, hosted by United but put together by local libraries.
However, the space definitely needs new lighting, heating, and air conditioning, and these improvements and general construction are slated to begin later this summer, with the aim of a grand opening in late 2018 or early 2019.
The space will include a space for live performances, a cinema with movies playing every night, an education center in partnership with the Rhode Island Philharmonic, and a legacy theater. The latter will serve as a museum of the theater’s history, showcasing several of the original, refurbished chairs and a novelty scale, and will be available for private meetings and screenings of smaller films.
Beyond the exciting Folk Festival and movies in the park, the organization will be launching a capitol campaign later this year, with a public component and public events. The website is currently undergoing a major overhaul, with the mock-ups of the marquee proclaiming Simon and Garfunkel’s reunion tour, which is not a promise of an actual performance, but rather a nod to the caliber of events the theater aims to bring in. Mr. Nunes explains,
“Our goal is to bring big acts to a small area and provide an immersive experience, so people can come and learn about art and interact with the artists who made it. We want high quality entertainment and education, accessible for everyone.”
Sounds like the final piece of the puzzle is about to fall into place. See you at the movies!