WORCESTER, MA — Of the approximately 123 American cities with more than 200,000 residents, Worcester is the only one without its own cinema.
Residents of places like Hialeah, Florida (population: 223,109) and Amarillo, Texas (population: 200,393) all have access to a theater within their city limits. But the people of Worcester (population: 206,518) can’t see top nominees as ‘Belfast’ or big budget fare as the next one.”– whose production closed Main Street last summer – without traveling to Millbury, Marlborough, West Boylston or further.
We verified this unfortunate fact by cross-referencing Google Maps and Fandango with the list of US cities sorted by population, according to the 2020 census.
This week, construction crews began demolishing the carcass of the former Showcase cinema along Brooks Street in Greendale. The multiplex closed when the COVID-19 pandemic broke out two years ago, and the owners confirmed the permanent closure in June. Worcester’s last theater before was the Bijou, a short-lived independent theater at the Worcester Center Galleria. Le Bijou closed in 2004, a decade before the Galleria was demolished.
That doesn’t mean Worcester moviegoers are out of luck. There are residents showing films, but not (yet) in a traditional permanent cinema.
Andy Grigorov founded cinema-worcester in 2018 to show foreign, independent and cult films in a pop-up format.
“Our goal is to build enough support to have a physical location in the city,” he said.
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The pandemic has largely wiped out the project’s momentum, he said. Grigorov had to end in-person screenings after March 2020 (cinema-worcester held streaming events during the pandemic break). It only resumed screenings last summer, which were further disrupted this winter with omicron.
He looks to places like the Luna Theater in Lowell, a 100-seat cinema inside an old mill as an example for Worcester. But spaces like this are becoming increasingly difficult to find in a rapidly gentrifying city, he said.
“Financially, it would be difficult, like the real estate market, to buy a location,” he said. “I think the timing would be ideal.”
Worcester’s other main film resource is Cinema 320. Videographer Steve Sandberg founded the popup in the 1980s in a Clark University classroom. It ended there in 2018, but returned last fall to a newly renovated WCUW studio space along Main Street.
Cinema 320 is on winter hiatus, but will return this spring, Sandberg said. When asked why Worcester didn’t have its own little theater for less mainstream films – Cinema 320 often shows foreign films and documentaries – like other small towns, he surmised it was because of the city’s location in Boston. Worcester has not left that city’s cultural orbit far enough to support its own project, he said.
“The ease of getting to Boston from Worcester siphons off that innate energy,” he said.
The biggest nearby theater option is the Blackstone Valley 14 Cinema de Lux in Millbury – a relatively short drive down Route 146, but still not within the city limits.
The Elm Draft House cinema, also in Millbury, offers a far less corporate cinematic experience with a curated selection of second-run films (most recently the new “West Side Story” and “The French Dispatch) set in a 1930s, 300s era – seat theater – and tickets are only $6. The theater also serves wine and beer, and features comedy and sporting events.
Similarly, the West Boylston Cinema offers first-run movies, but at lower prices: $9 for adults, $6 for matinees, cheap nights, kids, and seniors. Holy Cross also hosts the Seelos film series twice a year. The fall series, which featured films ranging from ‘Parasite’ to ‘Wonder Woman: 1984’, was only open to Holy Cross students and staff, a change from the past when it was open to public.
When he’s not showing his own movies, Grigorov takes a road trip to the nonprofit Amherst Cinema or Boston-area theaters like The Brattle. Sandberg also travels to Boston for theater experience, but also occasionally to the independent Dedham Community Theater.
Even with the economic strengths and pull of Beantown, Sandberg and Grigorov were optimistic that Worcester could sustain its own theatre. Sandberg even alluded to a series of films that, in many ways, ushered in the era of megaplex blockbusters.
“You could say that Worcester lost a dinosaur [with the Showcase closure], a brontosaurus. But maybe we’ll gain some nimble little velociraptors: a smaller theater that provides the theatrical experience for people who want to seek it out,” he said.
Movies in Worcester
March 11 – “Flee”, playing in the Park View Room.
March 18 — 2022 Oscar-nominated animated shorts presented at the Park View Room.
September 19 to 24 — Documentary screenings of the Central Mass Jazz Festival.
Cinema 320 at Clark University
This article originally appeared on the Worcester Patch