As the Joni Mitchell song goes, they might have “paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”
Built by the Zeitz family and opened in 1923, the Zeiterion was intended as a vaudeville showcase, but shortly changed its focus to screening silent movies and its name to the State Theatre. Its construction and lavish décor cost the equivalent of $12 million today.
Despite a stab at maintaining its appeal with a 1971 renovation, the State closed in 1980, no doubt due in part to competition from Compass Twin Theater (later Cinema 140), which debuted in 1968 on Hathaway Road, and the 1971 opening of a three-screen cinema at the then-new North Dartmouth Mall.
The State’s glory days of world premieres, including the 1956 release of “Moby Dick,” with star Gregory Peck in attendance, were a distant memory by the time the screen went dark.
At that time, the Penler family ran Paragon Travel in a portion of the downtown building they owned. Their business was thriving, but they couldn’t see a future for the defunct State movie theater. They planned to demolish that part of the building and make a parking lot for their tour buses.
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But before they proceeded, they approached John K. Bullard, then director of the Waterfront Historic Area LeaguE, with a proposition. And that’s why the Z still stands today, Bullard recounted.
“Jim and Bob and John came to me and said … ‘We know you’ve been very successful at WHALE in saving old buildings and so we would like to give you a crack at it before we demolish the last theater in downtown New Bedford.’ Downtown had had 17 theaters. It was really a wonderful thing that the Penler family did to give us that opportunity.”
Involved at the time with the Rotch-Jones-Duff House project, WHALE was cautious about taking it on. But a decision was made to test the waters by raising $200,000 in a month from not more than five donors. If the effort was successful, it would be taken as a sign to undertake the project. Sarah Delano, Charles Dana, Karen Lloyd and her sister, Angelica Lloyd Clagett, and C. Thomas Clagett Jr. pledged to give.
On Dec. 31, 1981, the Penler brothers donated the theater portion of the building to WHALE.
WHALE eventually transferred title to the City of New Bedford, and a nonprofit organization, Zeiterion Theatre Inc., was created to maintain the building and present entertainment. Singer and Academy Award-winning actress Shirley Jones headlined the Zeiterion’s reopening gala on Sept. 25, 1982.
The original donors’ “names are in bronze in the lobby,” Bullard said. “Without those people, there wouldn’t be a theater, so when people come into the lobby, they should look at those names and say, ‘Thank you’.
– Joanna McQuillan Weeks
Disclosure: John Bullard is a founder of The Light, and a donor. Our newsroom is wholly independent of all funders; only our journalists make content decisions.
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