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Salem's Long History of Movie Houses

With the recent rescue of Cinema Salem by concerned patrons distressed at the thought of Salem without a moviehouse this is a good time to examine Salem's long-standing love affair with the movies.

The Arrival of the Entertainment Industry

In the late 1800s, Salem saw the rise of the entertainment industry, as vaudeville became a popular form of entertainment. 

Evolving from Burlesque shows, this family friendly variety type entertainment swept the country. Salem early on became a stop on the traveling circuit for entertainers and hosted some of the most popular entertainers of the day, from Sarah Bernhardt to George M. Cohen.

In 1901, the first Salem Theatre opened at 273 Essex St. In 1907, Julius Cahn opened the Empire Theatre on 283-287 Essex Street on the site of Mechanic Hall that was destroyed by fire in 1905.

Salem had the extremely popular Willows Amusement Park that had opened in 1880 which was a perfect venue for vaudeville shows. Frank Gorman owned an open air theater that hosted both vaudeville and live shows on the knoll opposite Fort Avenue. This site later held the tilt-a-whirl and roller coaster.

While vaudeville was popular, the new entertainment of moving pictures was rapidly gaining fans. Gorman’s open air theatre during summer evenings would often offer moving pictures in addition to their live shows.

John Koen, my grand-uncle, who ran a variety store near North Bridge, would hurry to the Willows to run the projector after his store closed. When the Willows season ended, Koen would provide movie services to clubs and organizations at various halls in the city.

So popular were these shows that after renting Odell Hall on a regular basis, he rented half a store at 74 Washington St. and opened the Kozy Moving Picture House, the ‘largest’ theatre in Salem with a capacity of 144 seats in 1908.

The Theatre Scene Explodes

Building on his success with the Kozy, Koen opened the Comique Theatre at 49 Washington Street with an even larger capacity of 226. Even with both theatres showing movies and providing vaudeville entertainment, the crowds continued to overflow.

John Koen then brought his brother William, my grandfather, who had been a city engineer, into the business. Together they enlarged the capacity of the Comique to 500 and added another Comique Theatre in Beverly. They next bought the Salem Theatre and began an ambitious project to build a large state of the art theatre in downtown Salem.

Amid much criticism for the scope of the project and expense in having a specially built Wurlitzer Hope-Jones Organ, they prevailed.

The Federal Theatre opened in March, 1913 and was an immediate success.

The Koen Brothers then purchased the Empire theatre which continued to offer a split bill of vaudeville and high class movies. They also purchased the Colonial Theatre in Haverhill as well as the City Theatre in Brockton.

The brothers bought the Colonial Theatre in Haverhill from their friend, Louis B. Mayer who would later ask William to be his partner in his California movie venture. William, suffering from the beginnings of a heart condition, declined. This condition eventually lead to his death in 1926 at the age of 48.

The Koen brothers were both very active in civic activities, assisting with a number of charitable activities and making their theaters an integral part of the fabric of Salem.

Most of the Koen theatres were sold off during the 1920s to various growing chains of theaters that sought control of large territories, making distribution easier.

In 1913 the Plaza Theater opened at 273 Essex Street. It burned in 1917 and was rebuilt. At this time there were six theaters within a small area that attracted large crowds from Salem as well as the surrounding towns, making Salem an entertainment hub for the North Shore,as well as fostering the growth of restaurants and other stores.

The Great Depression Takes its Toll

In the depths of the Depression, Salem could no longer support its seven theaters and so the number of theaters dwindled. The Federal Theatre was sold in 1936 and converted to an A& P Supermarket with a bowling alley in the basement. Many may remember that store that was the largest self-service A&P in Essex County.

The Salem Theater closed in 1936, as did the Empire. The Comique, after closing, later re-opened as the Rialto. The one bright spot for the movies during the 1930s was the construction and opening of the Paramount Theatre at 293 Essex Street.

Many still recall this elegant theater with its French Renaissance Architectural Style as the place to go.

The Paramount opened in April of 1930 with a seating capacity of almost 2,200 and was the theater of choice, hastening the demise of the older theaters. The Plaza stayed in business until the early 1950s, leaving the Paramount the last one standing until 1953, when a new air-conditioned, large screened Salem Theater opened on Essex Street.

In 1971 the Paramount became a victim of urban renewal when it was torn down to make way for The East India Mall and Parking garage.

The Salem Theater continued as the only theater in Salem until 1982, when Sack Corporation opened a theater in the East India Mall.

The Salem Theater lost clientele, as it struggled to attract patrons through dollar nights. It eventually closed in 1985. Sack, in the East India Mall, became a USA Cinema in 1985, then was bought by Loews in 1988. Loews closed the cinema in 1995, only to have it re-open as the independent Salem Flick later in the year. Salem Flick became part of the Patriot Cinema chain which closed the cinema in 2005.

Cinema Salem Reopens

In 2006, Cinema Salem, a locally owned independent theater opened with a different vision in the mall theater.

Instead of the usual fare found in the chain movie houses, Cinema Salem offered a different experience. While offering first run movies it also offers lesser known, art house movies as well as hosting a very popular film fest.

In addition to having a coffee shop and in-house art gallery, it is deeply involved in the community, hosting various charities, as well dedicating a portion of proceeds to local grants.

It is currently in the process of concluding a successful campaign to raise funds to convert the theater to digital projection. If it had not been successful, it would have very quickly been unable to offer movies since major releases are all being converted to a digital format.

Fortunately, Salem patrons have stepped up and saved the theater. Additional donations beyond the required goal of $60,000 will be used to further enhance the equipment in the theater.

This is truly great news for Salem, keeping alive its rich movie history and love of movie theaters.

Now if we could just raise enough to rebuild the Paramount!

William Legault December 27, 2012 at 03:19 PM
Nicely done as always Jerome. Especially enjoyed the references to the Koen family.
ROBERT RICE December 28, 2012 at 01:04 PM
Good article. I am sure I went to see movies at the Plaza with my aunt and uncle a few times. I was born 1955 so the theater had to be closed late 1950's or early 1960's not early 1950's. This was the theater a few buildings down from Salem theater not an empty lot?
ROBERT RICE December 28, 2012 at 01:06 PM
Error alert, Now an empty lot next to the tourist building.
Jerome Curley December 29, 2012 at 02:50 AM
According to Salem Library documents the Plaza closed in the mid-1950s which I should have written instead of early 1950s as I did. For recent history, I was surprised to see so many conflicting dates for when Salem theaters opened and closed. Sorry for not being more precise. I'm puzzled by your empty lot comment..is that referring to something or just your comment about what is there now?
Nelson Dionne December 29, 2012 at 08:49 PM
As I recall, it reopened circa 1958. I recall seeing "The Blob" there, among other 3rd rate movies. The balcony seats were at about a 60 degree angle ! And ofd course, the candy was overpriced at 25 cents, instead of selling the nickle 7/8 oz. bars all the local variety stores had. I think it may have finally closed about 1963 ( best guess ) Anyone remember Nick's on Loring Ave ( formerly Bella's ) ??
Suzie q March 29, 2013 at 05:35 PM
Ha ha this was fun..I remember the movies. on Essex That was about 1957...my sis and i would go on Sat...we felt like big shots! thanks fo rthe memories...

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