The West Newton Cinema opened in in 1937, offering Boston area families some respite from the turmoil of the times. The cinema has since become a local icon. But now it’s in danger of becoming a local memory.
There’s a local grassroots effort underway to prevent that.
Last year, the property on which the cinema sits was sold, sending the popular local movie theater toward the annals of history. But the buyer, Mark Development, included a clause stipulating that if a nonprofit was to be formed intent on buying the cinema to preserve it, the new owner would sell it to them.
The price tag is at $5.6 million, and there’s a deadline of late August 2024.
“I think Mark Development also sees the great that would come to our community and to the West Newton village if we could figure out how to transform it into something bigger and better that can really serve our whole community,” Elizabeth Hellig of West Newton said.
And so the West Newton Cinema Foundation—a group of everyday people working to save the iconic local theater—was born. Heilig serves on the foundation’s board, which has attracted new members from all over the city.
When Heilig says the board wants something “bigger and better,” she’s quick to note that still means keeping the cinema.
“The vision is to continue to show films, because it is known and loved because of its films,” Heilig said. “And of the community members who have reached out to us, I would say the vast majority of them want to continue to see movies there.”
But for the facility to prosper and thrive, Heilig said, the board wants to expand it to also serve a community arts event space.
“Our business model, if you will, will be to have a functioning, vibrant cinema where we still get the Hollywood blockbusters, but we also get all sorts of exciting foreign and domestic independent movies that you really can’t see anywhere else,” Heilig said. “Film festivals, author events, screenwriter workshops—there’s a lot of possibility there.”
Heilig pointed to Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline, with its similar backstory, as an inspiration.
Coolidge Corner Theater is a nonprofit cinema and cultural center that shows a variety of films and hosts classes and seminars as well. A real estate developer bought it in the 1980s and leased it to a nonprofit that raised enough money to create the local film and art hub it is today.
“It will be a work-in-progress for several years, but we think we can create something similar in West Newton,” Heilig said.
In addition to showing films, the plan is for the theater lobby and upstairs balcony to double as occasional event spaces for craft fairs, private parties, art exhibits and more.
“If you look very closely, there is still a lot of art deco detail that is in the lobby and upstairs, tucked away here and there, in the corners,” Heilig said. “It would be wonderful to bring that back and have it be showcased.”
With hundreds of seats in the cinema’s two theaters, Heilig would also like to work with local performing arts groups to see how West Newton Cinema can fit their needs.
Heilig wouldn’t say how much money the foundation has raised so far, but she did say they got off to a slow start and have a long way to go to get to $5.6 million.
But they’ve been building momentum and doing outreach, and they’ll have a table at the Newton Harvest Fair on Oct. 15.
Heilig hopes people will consider that once a local landmark is gone, it’s gone forever. And the clock is ticking on the West Newton Cinema.
“If we want to save it, we have to act now,” Heilig said. “This is the moment. We’re doing this for you.”
For more information or to donate, visit West Newton Cinema Foundation website.