How the Coolidge Corner Theater combines entertainment and illumination

Brookline’s beloved Coolidge Corner Theater has served audiences since 1933. In those 89 years, moviegoers have laughed, cried and fallen in love with these seats – so much so that it’s widely considered the one of New England’s most treasured landmarks.

But the Coolidge is more than just a movie theater. It is home to a variety of acclaimed original programs, such as the wildly popular ‘Science on Screen’, launched in 2005, which combines screenings of classic science fiction films and cult documentaries with compelling presentations from science and technology experts. Whether it’s the function of the amygdala in zombie brains in “Night of the Living Dead” or how far epidemiology has come since “The Andromeda Strain,” audiences leave the Coolidge with a cinematic culture and improved science.

Beth Gilligan, assistant manager of Coolidge Corner Theatre, joined All things Considered host Arun Rath to discuss the theater’s interesting — and sometimes unconventional — pairings. This transcript has been slightly edited.

Arun Rat: So this program has been going on for quite some time. Do you remember what the initial impetus was for this?

Beth Gilligan: The Science on Screen program started at the Coolidge Corner Theater in 2005, before I was there. I joined the theater in 2009. It all started when a man named Richard Anders, who is a local entrepreneur and investor, approached the theater team to create the series. I think the idea was that Boston has so much amazing scientific talent. It was a great way to tap into that community and also educate the general public about science and technology. In 2011 we began national expansion of the series with support from the Alfred Sloan Foundation. So we’ve actually reallocated grants to arthouse theaters across the country, and it’s increased tremendously. But it all started with this original idea in 2005.

Rat : And at this point, with everything you’ve talked about, especially since 2011, it’s more of an institution, isn’t it?

Gillian: It is, yeah. We are really proud. We were able to distribute over 350 grants to 108 theaters across the country. We’ve been to 42 states. We have new grantees this year in Oxford, Mississippi, Fort Lauderdale, Taos, New Mexico. And the basic idea is that we received funding from the Alfred Sloan Foundation, and in turn, we give grants to different communities so that they can start and maintain their own “Science on the Screen” programs.

I think the beauty of this series is, I mean, in Boston, we’re so lucky. We have Nobel laureates on the street. But I think there are also some super talented chemistry teachers in high school who might be able to give a really compelling presentation. There’s so much homegrown talent in different communities across the United States and to be able to tap into that in a fun and accessible way, we love how much it’s grown and seeing different theaters take ownership of it.

Rat : What have been some of the most interesting screenings and guests that some of the other theaters have hosted?

Gillian: Oh my God, there are so many. I mean, it’s really funny. There was a theater in Scottsbluff, Nebraska that I remember. They screened a documentary whose name escapes me, but they brought in live reindeer to do a presentation. And I know at the Tampa Theater they did a screening around “Jaws” and had a local shark expert, and they had hands-on activities in the lobby – there’s weather and fire related stuff going on are produced in California. So everyone sort of adapts to what’s happening in their area, which is great.

Rat : What is your process at Coolidge for choosing films and guest couples?

Gillian: You know, for a science show, it’s not science. It’s kind of a combination of sometimes I read an article about someone doing really interesting research. Other times there will just be one big movie that I think would be amazing to see on the big screen, like “The Grapes of Wrath” is something that I don’t think we’ve shown in a very long time. The cinematography is incredible. It’s John Ford’s 1940 movie, and I was like, well, is there a science angle to it? And I thought, of course, of the drought. And we brought in environmentalist Bill McKibben to give an amazing talk before this screening. So sometimes it’s recommendations from people on speakers, sometimes it’s more topical. I know the pandemic was in the headlines more and more at the beginning of 2020, someone was talking about diseases, pandemics and infectious diseases. Climate change has been a big topic lately. It really varies, but it’s a really fun series to go in different directions with.

I think one of the great things about it is that we don’t show traditional science films all the time. I think, you know, if we were to show a nature documentary or something about outer space, you’re almost preaching to the choir. And what we’re trying to do is have these unexpected pairings, like you talked about zombie brain, amygdala with “Night of the Living Dead”, or something like “Airplane” where we had a MIT aeronautics, an astrophysicist talking about self-piloting aircraft technology. Someone from MIT’s driverless presented an outdoor screening of “Fast Five,” which many consider the pinnacle of the “Fast and Furious” series, and she talked about what the future might look like with driverless racing cars. So you get a kind of more general audience, which I think is great fun for speakers as well because they’re so used to, in many cases, speaking at academic conferences in front of their peers. Many of them love having the opportunity to speak in front of a larger audience and to invite family and friends. So it’s really fun to watch that.

“I think one of the great things about it is that we don’t show traditional science films all the time.”

-Beth Gilligan, Deputy Director of Coolidge Corner Theater

Rat : It’s awesome. Unconventional pairings really seem to stand out the most. I mean, honestly, it still creeps me out to think of “The Grapes of Wrath” like a climate change refugee story, which it really is. So tell us about some of the upcoming things that most interest you.

Gillian: Tonight, Monday, December 12, we have Dr. Grant Tremblay, who is an astrophysicist from Harvard, and he’s going to give us some insight into the multiverse in relation to the movie “Everything Everywhere All At Once”, which was great art and blockbuster test this year. It’s a really fun splurge, a really hard-to-describe movie from the Daniels starring Michelle Yeoh. And that was one of our biggest hits this year at Coolidge, and amazing too. It really brought the audience back after we were pandemic-shut down for a long time. So, just to be able to kind of give it a “Screen Science” twist. We’re seeing a lot of ticket sales and a lot of excitement around it.

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