To many Wellesley residents, one of the most tragic events ever to strike the town was the closure of the Community Playhouse. For 65 years, the theater was the lifeblood of the community. It was where families brought their young children, teenagers went on their first dates, and adults enjoyed a night out. There’s not a place in town today that’s even remotely comparable. When I was growing up in Wellesley, years after the Playhouse’s 1987 closing, we used to bemoan the lack of nearby entertainment establishments. The only reasonable option was to rent a movie. Perhaps that’s why I’m deeply fascinated by the history of the Community Playhouse. I’d like to know what exactly I missed.
The viewing of motion pictures in Wellesley actually predates the 1922 erection of the Community Playhouse. In 1920, Roger Babson acquired movie projection equipment in order to show industrial films to Babson Institute students in the 250-seat auditorium of the new Babson Report’s Building (located east off Laurel Avenue). As a service to the community, Babson also offered to show feature films to local residents. Unsure of whether to allow this new form of entertainment within the community, the town formed a committee to examine this issue more closely. A Townsman editorial of May 7th, 1920 strongly defends the importance of making a well-thought-out decision: “Few public activities have a more far reaching influence on the fundamental well being of a community than a permanent motion picture show. Its effect penetrates, and modifies the character of the people, old as well as young, and touches the heart of most of the homes. It is a potent force for good or evil.”
After months of debate, the Wellesley Community Playhouse, Inc. was officially organized in September of 1920 and then incorporated in November as a joint-stock company that would be owned by hundreds of Wellesley resident shareholders. It held its grand opening at the Babson Report’s Building in February of 1921, but its occupancy there was brief. In March of 1922, the Community Playhouse took out a lease in the newly-completed Babson Society House, a social center for faculty and students of the Babson Institute, that was located at the east corner of Washington and Forest Streets. Designed by Benjamin Proctor Jr. (architect of dozens of buildings in Wellesley, including the Sprague Memorial Clock Tower and Kingsbury, Perrin, and Warren Elementary Schools), the Society House had a 540-seat theater, in addition to reading rooms, a social hall, and a cafeteria.
The first movie shown at the Community Playhouse’s new theater was Disraeli, a 1921 silent film starring George Arliss about the British prime minister and the purchase of the Suez Canal. Sounds riveting. I was hoping to include a clip, but the film has been lost to history (as were many of the early silent movies). I did, however, find an entire version of another movie shown at the Playhouse during its first week at its new location: Miss Lulu Bett. I’ve embedded the movie for those who are interested in taking a trip back in time to the earliest days of the Community Playhouse. I dare you to try to watch for more than five minutes — it’s not exactly Batman or Shrek. And remember, this movie was played without an organ, which wasn’t installed until a few months later to liven up the pictures. (The first “talkie” shown at the Playhouse was Rainbow Man in July of 1929.)
Although the Community Playhouse was met with great popularity, it operated at a substantial loss during its first two years. Facing possible closure, the Playhouse was saved when Roger Babson bought out the shareholders and took control of the company. In 1928, when the Babson Institute was well established on its current campus at the southern edge of town, he sold the company along with the theater to the longtime manager of the Playhouse, Denmark-native Adolph Bendslev. For the next 59 years, the Bendslev family operated the theater, which became a community treasure that everyone enjoyed.
Over the years, the Playhouse was also used for other events, including theatrical productions, dance shows, and operas. It was even the venue where then-Vice President Calvin Coolidge gave the keynote address at a business leadership conference run by the Babson Statistical Organization in August of 1922. (Coolidge even greeted and shook hands with five hundred schoolchildren, all waving little American flags, on the grounds of the Shaw School, which stood to the rear of the Playhouse until it was razed in 1926.)
The Community Playhouse ran without much trouble until 1986, when the executors of the trust that owned the theater since the death of Les Bendslev (Adolph’s son) announced that they were going to close the theater and develop the property. It had been determined that even though the theater, which was still operated by the Bendslev family, was profitable, commercial development of the property would yield a larger return (which was the executors’ fiduciary responsibility). Although the community was outraged and attempted the save the theater, the Playhouse closed in 1987. (The last movie shown was Children of a Lesser God.) The building, however, was saved from demolition and converted into retail space. Since 1988, the old Playhouse has housed several offices and stores, most notably a Bertucci’s restaurant. In addition, the Playhouse Square commercial building was erected on the rear of the property.
Despite the outcry over its closure, I’m not sure how much longer the Community Playhouse would have survived had it not closed in 1987. Many small and independent movie theaters shut down during the last few decades. And the ones that did survive are now facing a huge crisis. Over the last few years, the movie industry has been phasing out film in favor of digital cinematography and many of these small theaters don’t have the money necessary to convert to digital projection. Nevertheless, it would have been nice to have grown up in Wellesley with a movie theater a hop, skip, and a jump away from my house. Maybe then I could really appreciate the comments from so many longtime Wellesley residents who speak of the Community Playhouse with such fondness.
- Wellesley Townsman: 10 October 1919; 7 May 1920; 3 December 1920; 28 January 1921; 4 February 1921; 10 February 1922; 3 March 1922; 19 May 1922; 19 January 1923; 19 March 1926; 5 July 1929; 22 July 1938; 11 August 1939; 22 December 1939; 21 February 1963; 29 May 1975; 17 July 1986; 24 July 1986; 14 August 1986; 5 March 1987
- Abstract of the Certificates of Corporations Organized Under the General Laws of Massachusetts prepared by the Secretary of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (1920)
- wikipedia.org (for information on Disraeli)