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Restored Modern Theater Finally Opens Its Doors

By Sarah Mattero
On November 5, 2010

Lower Washington Street is once again the center of Boston nightlife with the anticipated unveiling of Suffolk University's restoration of the Modern Theatre late this week. In a two-day celebration of it's opening, Mayor Thomas M. Menino joined the Suffolk community on Thursday night for the official ribbon cutting, and tours were provided all day on Friday for anyone who wanted to see the renovated masterpiece.

With all the hype surrounding the theatre itself, many students expected a large theater to rival the mammoth Paramount Center owned by Emerson College. Instead, attendees were introduced to a intimate, 185-seat jewel box theater.

"The theater seems small, but I'm sure that the performances here will have a great impact," said Ken Martin, a professor who went to Modern's opening with his photojournalism class to capture this event on film.

The Modern originally opened in 1914 and was the first theater in Boston specifically designed for showing movies and was famously known for having the first sound projection machine. But as time progressed, shows at the Modern slowed and the Downtown Crossing area soon became known as the Combat Zone. Throughout the 1960s, many theaters in the district either closed or fell into disrepair during this tumultuous time. The Modern was put on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979, but didn't officially close for good until 1981.

Almost 30 years later, Suffolk obtained the rights to redevelop the building but on one condition, that the university keep the original façade of the building. The theater itself was in such ruin that the façade had to be kept in storage while the old building was demolished and rebuilt. The façade, made of white Vermont marble and sandstone cost $1.5 million alone to restore.

About $41 million was spent on the restoration of the building, which is LEED certified in Suffolk's effort to create a sustainable campus environment. The new building has a clean and contemporary feel to its design with large windows looking into a stark white lobby and a black iron staircase wrapping upwards from the door. Original photographs and small salvaged pieces from the original theater adorn the walls on both floors of the lobby.

The lobby also doubles as a small exhibit area, the first one showing artifacts of the original theater, vintage photographs of the building, movie posters and images of Hollywood stars once featured there. The exhibit area is said to also feature works from NESAD and Theater department students.

As one enters the actual theater they see a limited number of seats in front of the stage, but this is actually one of the unique designs of the Modern where there are actually five different arrangements in the theater that will change depending on the performance being held. Each time you enter the theater you will never know what arrangement you will get, but in all instances you will be face to face with the talented actors on stage.

The interior to the theater was drawn to resemble the original stage designs. Suffolk hired John Lee Beatty, a Tony-award winning theater scene painter and designer, to create the design for the stage based on the original colors and themes from the previous theater.

For the tours held all day on Friday, guests were led through a back door and down into the basement where small skits were performed by members of the theater department. As one followed colored markers on the floor, you were put right into a scene from various decades in time.

In 1929, two young men (Josh Fetner and Andrew Scheinthal) nervously paced around with a movie reel for "The Jazz Singer," anticipating a show for the night. In 1939, we heard two voices, one of a magician (Adam Santaniello) talking to a young woman, but the viewer soon discovered that the only person he was talking to was actually himself.

As we moved to 1967, two young girls (Arissara Chounchaisit and Kacie Kirkpatrick) were primping themselves in the bathroom, all dolled up in heavy make-up, wigs and fishnets discussing their lives and hopeful futures during the dangerous times of the Combat Zone.

Almost ten years later in 1978, we met a frustrated couple (Ryan O'Connor and Kim Smith) preparing for an audition at the theater. Finally, we reached 2010, where a young man (Kevin Hadfield) was trying to convince a love interest (Erin Schrutt) to see a show at the Modern with him where a chorus broke out in song to "Meet Me at the Modern, Marie" finishing the tour of the theater.

"I think the Modern got a great amount of publicity," said actor Adam Santaniello, "I thought it went extremely well, a lot of people came through to see us perform."

The Modern Theatre is focusing on three themes in its beginning stages – Performance, Cinema, and Conversation – and has many shows already booked throughout its first opening month. With Suffolk behind the refurbishment of this historic gem, it is guaranteed that the Theater District will once again be alive with the glitz and glamour that it became famous for.

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