Located in Medford, Massachusetts, the Chevalier Theatre is one of the Boston area’s hidden gems, an historical landmark, a memorial to a hero and a cultural icon. It is a working theater available for rent and an historical restoration project.
Two Buildings in One
The Chevalier Theatre was built in 1939 by the Works Progress Administration as part of the Medford High School complex.
The handsome exterior building, constructed in the Greek Revival style is decorated with columns and the clean lines that are characteristic of this architectural period. But this classical facade belies the treasure contained within, an elliptical art deco house reminiscent of the work of Frank Lloyd Wright!
The spacious interior features 2,061 seats, 1,350 on the floor and 711 in the grand curved balcony. The Chevalier is the sixth largest theatre in the Metropolitan Boston area! Every seat was designed to be a "good one" with a clear view of the wide elliptical stage surrounding an orchestra pit with a capacity for 60 musicians. There was even a chamber built to house a theatre organ, although one was never installed. Most striking in the interior is the double elliptical ceiling with its spectacular recessed lighting, a design that adds to the enormous feeling of spaciousness and grandeur.
Completed in 1940, the Theatre was dedicated to Godfrey de Courcelles Chevalier, a resident of Medford who attended Medford High and who had distinguished himself in World War I as a naval hero and aviation pioneer.
Twenty-Five Years of Service — Then Tragedy
The theatre was used as an auditorium, for student theatrical productions and special commencements until 1965. John F. Kennedy spoke there, and there were performances by many celebrities, including Frank Sinatra and Lou Rawls!
Then tragedy struck.
In 1965, Medford High School burned down. The cause of the fire is unknown, although arson was ruled out. Miraculously, the Theatre was spared the worst of the blaze although it suffered some smoke damage.
The City of Medford built a new high school in another location, and the Theatre fell into disuse. No more performances, no more celebrities. The bright lights of the house seemed doomed to never shine again.
The once grand building slowly succumbed to the ravages of time, and for a while it was ignored and abandoned. The exterior building suffered the ravages of weather, many of the windows were broken, weeds grew up through the sidewalk cracks and the place began to look like a derelict.
The Rise of the Phoenix
CommissionIn 1981 the work to repair the years of neglect began.
An all volunteer Civic Commission was formed under the State’s Chapter 486 of the Acts of 1980, adopted by a vote of the City Council and approved by the City Manager. The Civic Commission consisted of 5 members, charged with the restoration of the Theatre as an independent operation.
With funds received from grants and state and federal assistance, the Commission started to bring the building back to life.
The first priority was to bring the building up to code and get it open for business. Using limited funds effectively, the commission had the building upgraded for handicap access via two elevators (one for the stage, one for the house). They had new high speed rigging installed on stage, upgraded dressing rooms and the HVAC system, installed new windows and began repairs to the facade of the building. They re-opened the Theatre for business, renting it to theatrical troupes, including the Mystic Players (who perform there every year). In 1983, the Theatre was placed on the National Register of Historical Places.
The commission sought contributions and help from Theatre lovers, and in 1996, received a tremendous musical gift.
The Horowitz family learned about the restoration work and donated a Marr and Colton theater pipe organ to the Chevalier. They also donated a Chickering reproducing grand piano along with approximately 400 music rolls for the instrument. The piano can be coupled to the pipe organ’s automatic roll player to augment its musical capabilities.
A second organ, a 9 rank Wurlitzer Theatre Pipe Organ, was donated to the Theatre by the Pine Tree Chapter of the American Theater Organ Society. A small group of volunteers, the Chevalier Theatre Organ Society, is working to restore this instrument in the Theatre.
For 20 years the volunteer Commission has been carefully working to preserve the Theatre’s rich heritage. It is a continuous work in progress and much remains to be done. There are architectural and decorative plans to bring the interior of the house back to its former glory, designs for painting, seat augmentation and other facilities.
Although it is a work in progress, the Chevalier Theatre is available for rental by theatrical groups, for special events and is a perfect sound recording studio. It is an ongoing restoration, and we welcome, indeed we NEED support, donations and inquiries from friends of the theatrical arts.