Boston-Hollywood connection: Personalities

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Architect Clarence H. Blackall 

Modern Theatre architect Clarence H. Blackall (1857-1942) was known for his hundreds of theaters, but he also designed one of Bostons’s first skyscrapers and the city’s first steel-frame structure, the nine-story Carter Winthrop Building at 7 Water St.

Blackall also designed 17 theaters in and around Boston. The Colonial Theater -- the oldest surviving Boston theater, dating from 1900; the Metropolitan Theatre, now the Wang Theatre for the Performing Arts; the Wilbur Theatre, Tremont Temple; and the Modern Theatre remain.

“It has been estimated that ten performances with every seat occupied would require an aggregate theater attendance equal to the entire population of the city [of Boston]. These figures ... illustrate the tremendous expansion of theater construction.” 

--Clarence H. Blackall, The American Architect, March 31, 1915


Wallace C. Sabine

Harvard physicist and architectural sound pioneer Wallace C. Sabine (1868-1919), known for his work at Boston’s Symphony Hall, designed the acoustics for the Modern Theatre. 


Thomas Edison stamp


An early film camera developed by Thomas Edison, whose invention of the Kinetoscope and the Vitascope led to the first silent motion pictures.   

Thomas Edison (1847-1931) invented the Kinetoscope and the Vitascope, which led to the first silent motion pictures.

While these innovations took place in New Jersey around 1889, one can argue that the groundwork was laid years before in Boston. In 1868, Edison was working with other young “techies,” experimenting with the transmission of crude vocal sounds and images. He also attended lectures at the school that was to become the Massachusetts Institute of Technology during his 17 months in Boston.


Louis B. Mayer and actress Joan Crawford in Hollywood

Louis B. Mayer (1884-1957) always will be associated with the studio era in Hollywood, but this movie mogul got his start in Massachusetts.

The Ukrainian immigrant in 1907 converted an old Haverhill burlesque house into a theater showing “high-class films ... the home of refined amusement."  He went on to create a major New England theater chain.

After earning a small fortune as the exclusive New England distributor of Birth of a Nation, Mayer made his first film, Virtuous Wives, and was soon off to Hollywood. There he would lead the future Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio. 

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When others were calling the marriage of sound and film a gimmick, Modern Theatre owner Jacob Lourie (1874-1940) decided to invest in the new technology that would prove the death knell for silent films. He installed the Vitaphone system, which synchronized music and sound effects with the motion picture.

Soon thereafter came the release of the first “talkie,” and Lourie was the first in Boston to show The Jazz Singer, which incorporated spoken dialogue into the film.

With the advent of talking pictures, the movie industry moved into the mainstream of American entertainment. The decline of vaudeville houses in the vicinity of the Modern soon followed. When these theaters began showing films in an effort to stay competitive, it hurt the Modern Theatre, so Lourie countered by showing two films to their one.

With the invention of the double feature came the need for a larger volume of films, and Hollywood studios complied by creating a slew of low-budget movies These B movies also engaged up-and-coming directors and provided work to actors on the way up the ladder to stardom -- or on the way back down.

“Boston is now the background for the production of moving pictures, and a thriller is now being made in and around the Blue Hill district.” 

-- The Moving Picture World, March 1914

Boston-Hollywood connection: Personalities