BEVERLY — Back in the day, a trip to the movie theater was as exciting as the movie itself, said Casey Soward, chatting over coffee in the front bar of The Cabot theater in the city’s bustling downtown.
“The movie palaces of the 1920s were amazing,” said Soward, a former Swampscott resident and executive director of The Cabot Performing Arts Center. “These remarkable theaters hosted vaudeville shows and silent movies. There are only about 250 of them left.” The Cabot is one, and it easily could have been razed if not for a group of determined individuals who realized its historical significance and importance to the city’s future.
The Cabot sat empty for some two years, starting in 2012 shortly after the death of Cesareo Pelaez, who owned the building and led the successful Le Grand David and His Own Spectacular Magic Company. His family kept it open as a second-run movie house for a while, eventually giving up the ghost. A local businessman bought it to keep it out of developers’ hands. A board of directors was formed. Nonprofit status was acquired. The nonprofit now owns the building.
These days, The Cabot has found a niche as a live concert venue, producing more than 100 performances a year. “We average 500 to 600 people per show, and most of those people want to grab a bite to eat before the show,” said Soward. “The Cabot is the cultural center of the city of Beverly.”
Tuesday night, a gala fundraising concert to help renovate The Cabot by 2020, the theater’s 100th birthday, will be held. “Honoring Bessie Smith: The Empress of the Blues” is curated by Rockport native/Beverly resident Paula Cole, the Grammy-winning singer-songwriter best known for hits “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone” and “I Don’t Want to Wait.”
The list of performers is truly remarkable: Doyle Bramhall II, Shemekia Copeland, Dom Flemons, Nona Hendryx, Meshell Ndegeocello, The Western Den and Terri Lyne Carrington, whose dad and grandfather have Lynn roots.
This is the kickoff of a $3 million fundraising campaign that will include renovating the balcony and updating the sound system, in advance of the theater’s 100th birthday on Dec. 8, 2020.
Bessie Smith may not be a household name, said Soward, who calls her the Beyoncé of her time. “She was the first female rock star, the first marketable blues artist, the highest paid black performer. Remember, this is the 1920s. She was a black female. Women had just received the right to vote. Her star shined the brightest right around the time the Cabot opened its doors. Honoring her was very much in line with our 100th celebration plans.”
Each artist will perform one Bessie Smith song and one song of their own that was influenced by Smith.
Soward, who now lives with his family in Beverly, is in his third year as executive director, after nine years as assistant director of production and performance at Boston University’s School of Music. His first job was at Boston’s Orpheum, one of the oldest theaters in the United States, where he worked on the stage crew after graduating from Berklee with a bachelor of music degree in production and engineering. “That started my love of old theaters,” he said.
Soward laughed when asked about the first show he presented at the Cabot. He enlisted the help of Fred Taylor, a mentor and the man behind Boston’s jazz scene for more than five decades, who said: “Well, Darlene Love is available.” Soward, a big music fan, said “Heck, yeah.” He appreciated the talent of the singer of “He’s a Rebel” and “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).”
“When Darlene arrived she was horrified. She saw the old seats, the mildewed carpet … the place smelled and her dressing room was awful,” said Soward. Taylor and Sue Auclair, the venerable Boston music publicist, were onsite and calmed Love’s nerves. Afterward, Love said it was one of the most electric evenings of her career and praised the audience. “It was an incredible night. The show sold out and Love has brought her holiday show to The Cabot every year since,” said Soward. She’s back Dec. 8, The Cabot’s 98th birthday.
In addition, Soward said the Cabot will collaborate with Beyond Walls, the nonprofit behind the murals that have helped revive downtown Lynn, next year on two murals that will adorn the exterior of this majestic theater.
Honoring Bessie Smith: The Empress of the Blues, Tuesday, Dec. 4, 8 p.m, at The Cabot, 286 Cabot St. Tickets, starting at $59.50, are on sale now at TheCabot.org. For more information, email: [email protected] or call 978-927-3100.