Imagine this: it’s late September 1928, and Providence is abuzz with activity. There are huge factories, some of the largest in their fields, employing thousands of people; trolley lines crisscross the whole city; boats are docked at piers in the Providence River; hundreds of trains stop at the station a day. Industrial Trust Bank, Providence’s first skyscraper at 428 feet tall, looming over downtown, is set to open to the public on Monday, October 1st. And Loew’s Theatre — Providence’s new “movie palace” — will do the same just days after on Saturday, October 6th.
By the end of the 1920s, movie techniques had developed significantly, and exciting plots, dashing stars, and beautiful leading ladies became prominent. Tickets to these shows were cheaper than live ones, and people flooded to see Douglas Fairbanks, Rudolph Valentino, Mary Pickford, Clara Bow, and more. Marcus Loew saw opportunity: he created a national chain of “movie palaces,” where people bought not just a ticket to a film, but to an experience. In 1924, Loew’s, Incorporated, owned MGM Studios, which was producing movies for his theatre venue enterprise.
In the late 1920s, Loew had acquired a block of land on Weybosset Street, at that point considered the center of Providence, to build Loew’s Theatre. It was set to be the biggest and best movie theatre that the city would see at a projected cost of $1,000,000 dollars (but would actually cost $2,500,000 in the end).
Designed by Rapp and Rapp, prestigious theatre architects on the early 20th century, it boasted any and every amenity imaginable: a Morton organ with 1,500 pipes and a console on an independent elevator that could magically rise up from the stages (installed before “talkies” became the new norm); a Vitaphone, which could play a record of sounds and voices to accompany the film; cushy seating for over 3,200 people; lush lobbies with doormen at one’s beck and call; stately resting areas decorated in the style of Louis XIV.
On Saturday, October 6, 1928, the doors opened to crushing crowds: 14,000 people paid to enter the space from 11am to 11pm. Excess Baggage was the first film to show that day, multiple times, with organist Joe Stoves performing in between. A live red and green macaw was perched on a balcony. No expense was spared for the extravagance of the event. No one knew that in a year, the Roaring Twenties would give way to the Stock Market Crash and then the Great Depression.
Loew continued to show movies through the 1930s and 1940s, especially as film became a popular distraction during the Depression and a means of news acquisition during WWII. But by the 1960s, the future of Loew’s looked dim, as it did for most old movie houses in downtown. It was acquired in the early 1970s, renamed The Palace, and became a venue for a variety of live entertainment, including several notable rock bands. By 1975, though, the building was in a state of disrepair, losing revenue, and looking at the possibility of being razed to make way for another parking lot. Through efforts of Sylvia Dario and Mayor Vincent “Buddy” Cianci, the building was acquired, closed, and completely renovated and refurbished: the entire interior was cleaned, repaired, and painted; seats were reupholstered; fresh carpeting was installed. When the venue opened in 1976, it was renamed The Ocean State Theatre. It hosted first-run movies, fashion shows, opera, and symphonies. The theatre was formally purchased by a consortium of other local businesses, became a non-profit private corporation, and was again renamed: Ocean State Performing Arts Center.
In 1982, the building was renamed Providence Performing Arts Center (PPAC). Through the 1990s and early 2000s, the building saw additional refurbishments, including the installation of PPAC’s iconic illuminated marquee, making this building one of the most photographed in the city.