The Legendary Past And Uncertain Future Of The Harvard Square Theatre
Will the iconic venue ever return to its rock roots as has been rumored?
When I first discovered the Harvard Square Theatre on a lunch break from work, it felt like I had realized its potential all on my own. Although boarded up and broken down, the venue’s unassuming exterior sparked my curiosity.
I was working as an event host on Palmer Street for the 2022 pop-up exhibition, the Art of Banksy. I was in the rare and somewhat disturbing mood of believing that I can do anything. And at the time, what I really wanted to do was open a nightclub.
I was keen on finding the perfect location for this imaginary destination. As I rounded the corner and a building cast a shadow on an otherwise sunny Church Street, I looked up and realized I was standing underneath a weathered marquee. Just below it was a painted sign that read “Harvard Square Theatre,” along with some bolted up, graffitied entrances.
This was it. The perfect location. I thought, How could it be closed?
At the time, I didn’t know anything about the building at 10 Church St.
The Harvard Square Theatre, originally the University Theatre which opened in 1926, is an unforgettable staple of Harvard Square: it operated as a cinema and arts venue up until its final closure in 2012.
University Theatre was built under the ownership of Charles A. Newhall in 1925, with plans for vaudeville performances on a large, singular stage with room for a full orchestra and seats for 2,000 guests.
Although there are no known photographs of the original interior, the University Theatre building was inspired by a Florecian Renaissance-era Palazzo called Davangatti Palace, according to Cambridge Historical Commission (CHC) records. In 1961, under Newhall’s ownership, the venue was renamed the Harvard Square Theatre. One former patron recalled in an online forum: “I loved that huge theatre in the ’70s and ’80s. Huge, rambling, the balcony always closed for safety reasons, and the haunted second floor women’s bathroom, such good memories!”
Almost a century old, the building has changed ownership on several occasions. It was in 1982, after Newhall’s death, that the title was transferred to the Cambridge Common Real Estate Trust, and the original entrance at 1424 Mass Ave was moved to the spot on 10 Church St., according to CHC records.
At the height of the 1970s rock era in Cambridge, plenty of legends passed through the Harvard Square Theatre, including Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, the Clash, Iggy Pop, and David Bowie. When a 25-year-old Bruce Springsteen opened for Bonnie Raitt there in 1974, it turned out to be a historic performance.
The theater was also notably home to an epic 28-year long tradition of the Rocky Horror Picture Show midnight screenings, which ran right up through the 2012 closure.
When AMC Loews closed the Harvard Square Theatre in 2012, the building was bought by local developer and businessman Richard Friedman. Friedman then sold the building to its current owner, Morningside.
The present ownership group, headed by historic Harvard University donor and billionaire investor Gerald Chan, are reportedly envisioning the shuttered space as a “music and art venue” once again, according to September 2022 coverage by GBH News. This new, unofficial vision differs from initial 2017 plans for a multi-use office and retail complex with a movie theater attached. When I read this news, I thought of my nightclub pipedream, and about the parcel’s iconic rock past.
I imagined the Harvard Square Theatre in its prime. Showgoers huddled together underneath the illuminated marquee, chattering in lines or drifting out into a chill Cambridge winter night, while snowfall muffled footsteps and gave everyone snow-angel hair. Inside, though, it was much louder …
On Feb. 16, 1979, the Clash arrived in Cambridge to perform at the theater for the groundbreaking British punk rock band’s fifth-ever US tour date. They’d been touring Europe since ’76.
Joe Strummer and company opened the set with a tongue-in-cheek rendition of “I’m So Bored With the USA,” while a multitude of international flags waved above stage, recalls long-time Boston showgoer Bob Colby. That performance also happened to be Boston Globe journalist James Sullivan’s first time seeing the Clash live. He’s called it “maybe the most exhilarating experience of my rock ‘n’ roll life.”
Jim Stewart, who is presently director of the nearby First Church Shelter in Cambridge, described the Harvard Square Theatre as having an electric presence, recalling how he felt “like history was somehow pointed in a positive and exciting direction” back in its day.
“Boy, were we wrong?” Stewart chuckled. “But at least there was a couple of years when the Clash were around that it seemed like another world was possible.”
The ’70s had the theater popping off with rising stars and established rock outfits alike. Iggy Pop performed there on March 16, 1977—with David Bowie on piano! Bob Colby, who now resides in Arizona, recalls Bowie dressing inconspicuously, “definitely trying to keep the attention on Iggy.” This wasn’t too hard a task considering Pop was performing shirtless, as the iconic star often did, while Bowie sat behind the keys wearing a plain, collared flannel.
A few years prior, on May 9, 1974, Bruce Springsteen opened for Bonnie Raitt for a one-night, two-show run. A few days later, rock critic Jon Landau famously wrote in Boston’s the Real Paper, “Last Thursday, at the Harvard Square Theatre, I saw my rock’n’roll past flash before my eyes. And I saw something else: I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen. And on a night when I needed to feel young, he made me feel like I was hearing music for the very first time.”
Landau’s writing contributed to Springsteen’s catapulting into stardom, and this powerful review is quoted on his Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee page, and was referenced in his acceptance speech. And after years of co-producing and managing for Springsteen, Landau was himself inducted into the hall in 2020 for his work as a journalist.
All things considered, Denise Jillson, executive director of the Harvard Square Business Association, said, “I can’t speak for Bruce, of course, but I do believe there is a special place in his heart for Harvard Square … and for the theater.”
Since the theater’s final closure, Cambridge community members have expressed interest in its reopening. In 2017, three years after Chan bought the building in August 2014, there was a change.org petition by the group OurHarvardSq to “Bring Back the Harvard Square Theatre and Keep the Spirit of Harvard Square Alive!” It got 194 signatures.
That same year, Chan’s ownership group, Morningside, announced the plans for rebuilding the theater into a retail-office complex.
Morningside, a private equity and venture capital investment group, is largely focused on investments in the biotechnology sphere and other technology sectors. Gerald Chan, the company’s founder and CEO, has a special affinity for Harvard Square and Harvard University, his alma mater, and Morningside has a stated interest in the preservation of buildings in and around the area. In 2014, Harvard announced that the Chan family and the Morningside Foundation would donate the largest gift in the history of the University: $350 million to the Harvard School of Public Health, now renamed the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in honor of the benefactor.
In 2019, the Harvard Square Theatre building at 10 Church St. was approved-in-principle by the Cambridge Historical Commission for demolition and construction of the hybrid retail-office-movie theater space. Charles Sullivan, executive director of the Cambridge Historical Commission, explained that meant that, in order to begin construction, the ownership group had to apply for a separate special permit from the Cambridge Planning Board that would allow a digital, LED facade to be constructed on the building’s exterior. Although there was some pushback from the Cambridge community about introducing LED lights to Harvard Square, a public presentation of Morningside’s new plans quelled some of the concern. But then the COVID pandemic hit, and the project never went before the Planning Board.
As of now, the aforementioned building permit issued by the Cambridge Historical Commission has expired, and a new proposal must be made. In February, Charles Sullivan confirmed that the CHC had not received a new building application for 10 Church St. from the current owners. Morningside could not be reached for comment.
With the project stalled for years, there has been talk of eminent domain. Cambridge City Councilor Quinton Zondervan said that such a drastic move is unlikely to happen in this scenario, which he compares to the case of Central Square’s Vail Court building. “It’s compelling to me to use [the Harvard Square Theatre] as an arts space, but it’s harder to justify that politically,” the councilor noted.
For now, the vision of creating a music and arts venue is just that, a vision—or maybe even just a rumor, though one that started with the people who can ultimately move the needle.
Regarding that stated vision of the developers, Councilor Zondervan said, “I think that’d be wonderful. I don’t think we need another movie theater [as was formerly proposed as part of a mixed-use development]. So I think that would be a great use of this space.”
Jim Stewart, the director of the First Church Shelter, is also in support of a music venue. “I’m surprised it’s taken so long for people to recognize and exploit the opportunity to create that kind of venue,” he said.
Sullivan added, “The Cambridge Historical Commission is intrigued by the project. We are eager to see something happen [with the space] for the benefit of the Harvard Square community and merchants.”
“The Harvard Square Business Association would love to see the building developed because it will make a difference to the pedestrian experience on Church Street,” Jillson said. “It does make a difference to the businesses on Church Street when almost an entire block from the heart—from Mass Ave down to Palmer Street—is almost completely blank.”
Stewart noted how Harvard Square has become vastly gentrified since the ’70s.
“There were four or five different places that working people and struggling students could get a decent meal in the square back when I first moved into the area, back in the late-’70s and ’80s,” he said. “It’s bewildering to me that a place that was definitely working-class and students-friendly when I got here is now a consumer theme park—not really an organic community.”
Stewart would love to see a music and arts venue revived at the site of the old theater, but he believes that the best version of such a project would be one that is independently operated. Such a venue, he said, would not have a “disruptive or degrading” influence on the surrounding neighborhood.
“Anything that could bring in a younger, more working class, middle class, lower-middle class crowd, I think will really create some vitality there,” Stewart said, noting that the Sinclair, an active concert venue right around the corner, has not been detrimental to the neighborhood.
Other community members think the space would be best utilized as community housing. Though in one case, 10 years ago, actor and Cambridge native Casey Affleck spoke out in support of a movie theater reopening there. Meanwhile, music enthusiasts want a stage and sound system, while city officials and nearby businesses perhaps just want something, anything active there.
The Harvard Square Theatre’s 100th birthday is in 2026. Everyone seems to hope there will be movement before then, in any direction.
As I think about a time when show tickets were four dollars a pop and rock icons traversed the Cambridge clubs, I get the feeling that the spirit of the Harvard Square Theatre will live on, regardless of what comes next.