If you weren’t satisfied by the seasonal lights of Christmas trees and innumerable illuminated Rudolphs and Frostys, the Modern Theatre had just the thing to boost your spirits on Christmas night, 1978. It was a new lighting machine, and it was creating wild visual effects for Sun Ra’s Arkestra.
The Modern, at 523 Washington Street, was where Bostonians saw the first talking picture shown in the city, Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer, in 1928. That was then, and by the 1970s, the Modern had fallen on hard times. Like its neighbors the Paramount and the Savoy, the Modern was in desperate need of rehabilitation. In 1977 David Archer leased the building through a non-profit venture and set about the task.
Archer envisioned an arts district on Lower Washington Street that would link the restaurants around Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market with the Tremont Street Theatre District. He wasn’t alone in this idea, either, as the Opera Company of Boston bought the Savoy Theatre in 1978.
By late 1978 the theater was restored to the point where it could stage a performance. In December Archer announced a 12-night engagement by Sun Ra with his Arkestra and dancers. “The aim for the moment is to signal the comeback of a restored facility and to emphasize that this will be a showcase for experimental and avant-garde forms of entertainment, from music to theater,” Archer told the Globe on December 14, opening night.
Also involved was a company called Celestial Productions, which introduced a lighting machine built by Bill Sebastian. He used it to create “spacescapes” to accompany Sun Ra’s music. Said Sebastian, “I can’t guarantee anybody is going to like what they see here, but I can guarantee they haven’t seen anything like it before.”
Christmas was the final night of Sun Ra’s engagement, and I have not yet found a report on the Arkestra and the lighting machine. The bigger story, though, was Archer and his efforts to revive a fine old theater on the edge of the Combat Zone. He was an early activist in the efforts to revive Downtown Crossing.
Archer brought more jazz with an avant-garde flavor to the Modern in 1979, including the World Saxophone Quartet, Michael Gregory Jackson, Cecil Taylor, and Amina Claudine Myers. Other bookings included theater, mime, and comedy, and by early 1981 the Modern had staged some 200 events.
But survival was a struggle, and in 1981 Archer changed the theater’s status from non-profit to for-profit in an attempt to attract much-needed capital to buy the building and complete the renovation. He was not successful. In May he closed the theater. That ended David Archer’s involvement, but his arts district idea lived on.
The Savoy Theatre was renovated and reopened as the Opera House in 2004, and Emerson College restored the Paramount and reopened it in March 2010. Suffolk University purchased the Modern in 2007 and gave it a top-to-bottom renovation. It reopened in November 2010. The lively arts were back at the Modern to stay, as Archer hoped they would be, 32 years after he presented Sun Ra.
Here is Sun Ra with “Twin Stars of Thence,” from his 1978 LP Lanquidity (Philly Jazz PJ666). The Arkestra likely played some of Lanquidity’s trance-inducing music in their sets at the Modern.
Note: Text changed 11/15/2021 to note that David Archer leased the Modern Theatre in 1977, and did not purchase it in 1976, as originally written.