For today’s South Station travelers, the latest news reports are as close as their smartphones – or at least the television monitors in the waiting area.
But pre-television, not to mention pre-Internet, news reports with moving images could only be seen at the local theater. Fortunately for Boston train travelers, South Station had such a venue in a former wing of the building near the corner of Summer Street and Dorchester Avenue.
South Station Theatre opened in a transformed carriage concourse on November 6, 1931 as the motion picture craze swept the country. The Boston Globe called the theater “an innovation in its field, equipped with talking picture apparatus, a lounge for women, and a smoking room.” The theater continuously showed newsreels and short films of all kinds from 8 a.m. to midnight. Admission was 20 cents (a little more than $3 today).
A 1931 photo of the art-deco theater entrance and box office, across from Track 27, showed posters with the lineup: Fox News, Universal News, Ted Husing’s “Sports Slants,” and three short films including “Thrills of Yesterday” starring Harry Houdini.
The theater proved popular with both train passengers and other visitors. In 1936, an outside entrance was added “for office workers on Summer St. and those patrons who park at night on Dorchester Ave.,” the Globe reported.
That same year, a new staple of the theater’s programming arrived: “The March of Time,” a newsreel companion to the popular radio broadcast of the same name. Produced monthly, “The March of Time” featured reporting, on-location shots, and dramatic reenactments of news events at home and abroad.
For much of the next decade, Americans were drawn to theaters to watch vivid newsreel coverage of what would be the seminal event of their lives: World War II. South Station Theater offset military programs with lighter fare, including cartoons, musical and comedy performances, featurettes, and even public service programming. Following passage of the Social Security Act in 1935, South Station Theatre presented a film from the Social Security Board instructing residents on how to register for the new program.
South Station Theatre operated until late 1954, when news programs were increasingly being beamed directly into Americans’ living rooms via that decade’s explosive new medium, television. But the space quickly took on another unique life: pews and altar replaced theater seats and movie screen and Our Lady of Railways Chapel opened in February 1955. It served worshipers until closing in September 1972, shortly before the southeast section of the terminal was razed to make way for the Stone and Webster building at 245 Summer Street.
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