The Cape’s First Movie Theater: Idle Hour

Idle Hour Theatre shortly after opening.

Going to the movies has been a part of life for generations. On Cape Cod there are theaters both large and small dotted all over the landscape. There is even still a drive-in located in Wellfleet. Movie theaters are common these days but it was not always that way. A little over a century ago the very first motion picture theater made its debut on Cape Cod. Long before cinema multiplexes, 3-D, IMAX, stadium seating, digital sound, and even before drive-ins, a simple movie house moved in on Main Street in Hyannis. It was the Idle Hour Theatre and its footprint still exists today.

On Main Street in Hyannis today a vacant lot sits next to Jack’s Drum Shop. A little over a century ago it was filled by the presence of the first Cape movie theater called Idle Hour. The motion picture industry was still in its infancy when the first theatre was built in Los Angeles in 1902. The industry and the theatre both grew in popularity as films and buildings to showcase them sprung up all across the United States. In 1911 one would arrive on Cape Cod.

A 500-seat theatre named Idle Hour would be built on the Backus Estate just west of the Ocean Street/Main Street intersection. It was owned by Matthew Cushing a native of Middleboro who had experience in the motion picture industry. The first mentioned show was a picture show, not a motion picture show, called ‘Buffalo Jones and His Animals’ which was a Saturday matinee in May 1911. It would be commonplace for Idle Hour to stray from featuring motion pictures due to the fact that the industry was still in its relative infancy and actual films were still at a premium. To maintain a fairly full schedule the theatre would routinely loan out his theatre to hold recitals, political rallies, photo-plays, and other forms of entertainment during its early days.

Idle Hour would be revamped and reopened in August 1912 with much fanfare. The grand reopening took place on August 2nd and consisted of a pair of showings of the picture ‘Coming of Columbus,’ both sold out. Matthew Cushing was celebrated with a song written by Clara Hallett and given a loving cup by Henry Ellis on behalf of everyone while Cushing’s father, well known Judge Hon. Matthew H. Cushing, looked on.

The vacant lot on Main Street once occupied by Idle Hour/Center Theatre.

The theatre would become a staple of the community throughout the 1910’s and 1920’s including a visit from Harry Houdini in 1918. Main Street Hyannis, though still much quieter than today, was beginning to come into its own partly due to the success of Idle Hour. Cushing was known to be very giving in the community, especially toward military veterans, and he built up a tremendous reputation for himself and Idle Hour.

With his theatre a terrific success Cushing decided it was time for him to move on. As 1914 began he would lease Idle Hour to Benjamin Baxter and return to Middleboro. There he would take over the Lyric Theatre in March 1914 before opening Cozy Theatre playhouse in Marion in May 1917. Though he would frequently visit the Cape after officially selling Idle Hour to Baxter in 1916, Cushing would live in Marion until his death in 1925.

Idle Hour would remain a popular fixture on Main Street into the 1930’s thanks to Baxter and Manager Fitzgerald who would be brought aboard during the early 1920’s to oversee the day-to-day operations. This included a revolutionary idea known as ‘air conditioning’ which was brought to the theatre in 1926. Fitzgerald would take over the theatre and continue its success before he was made an offer he couldn’t refuse.

In 1937 Interstate Theatres Inc. would purchase Idle Hour and three other local movie houses. Harold Maloney would run the Hyannis location and changes would soon follow. First off was an enlarging of the theatre, allowing its seating capacity to increase to 740. The grand rebranding also included a name change. Idle Hour would be no more. The name was changed to Center Theatre thanks to a contest held by local newspapers along with Interstate Theatres. The contest was won by Rebekah Dodge of Hyannis.

Center Theatre would have its debut on Halloween Night 1937 with Maloney saying at the time he was bringing ‘the finest in theatre perfection, comfort, and convenience’ to the people of Cape Cod. The first picture shown was ‘Ali Baba Goes to Town.’

The fire that destroyed the Center Theatre in 1972. From the Britt Crosby collection/Gordon Caldwell photographer.

Under its new name the Main Street theatre would enjoy several more decades of profitable business. In the end it would actually be named Center Theatre longer than it was Idle Hour. The first motion picture theatre on Cape Cod would meet its doom as the result of two devastating fires on December 23, 1971 and July 2, 1972. The building would be destroyed.

In the forty-five years since its demise Main Street has become the hub of Cape Cod. Even in the dead of winter it is lined with cars and people. Stores and restaurants line both sides of the street from one end to the other. That is except for a spot next to Jack’s Drum Shop, whether coincidence or as a tribute the lot which once housed Idle Hour and later Center Theatre, has remained vacant ever since.

By Christopher Setterlund
737 West Main Street
Hyannis, MA 02601
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