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The Orpheum theater, pictured here on Essex Street in downtown Haverhill, was the first movie theater opened by Louis B. Mayer, who began operating it in 1907. He went on to be a giant in the flimmaking industry.

HAVERHILL — When Gertrude Barrett was 9, she spent most Saturday afternoons at the Orpheum theater on

Essex Street in the heart of downtown.

“It cost 10 cents to see a movie,” Barrett said. “They didn’t sell popcorn in the movies at that time.”

Barrett, now 102 and living at Penacook Place nursing home in Haverhill, recalls seeing silent films at the Orpheum, which was the first movie theater opened by Louis B. Mayer — and which launched his career as a giant in the movie industry. After getting his start in Haverhill, Mayer went on to found Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Corp. and made such well-known movies as “The Wizard of Oz” and “Gone With the Wind.”

This week marked the 100th anniversary of the grand opening of the Orpheum, which previously had been a dilapidated burlesque house on Essex Street called Gem Theatre. At the time, locals referred to the Gem as “the Germ” because of its shabby condition.

Mayer, who was in his early 20s at the time, was living in Boston and became intrigued with the growing industry of “Nickelodeon” movie theaters that charged its patrons 5 cents admission. He and his friend Joe Mack learned of a rundown burlesque/vaudeville house in Haverhill, just off Washington Square. Mayer put $600 down and leased the building, which he cleaned up and renamed the Orpheum.

The grand opening was Thanksgiving Day — Nov. 28, 1907. At the Orpheum, Mayer presented what he called “high class films” with themes of honor, decency and virtue — the kind of clean and simple themes Mayer believed Americans desired.

Children’s admission was 5 cents. Orchestra seats cost 10 cents.

The Essex Street block where the Orpheum once stood has changed dramatically over the years. The theater was demolished decades ago, along with other historic downtown buildings. In its place is the Foto Factory photography shop and the Haverhill Housing Authority’s apartment complex for senior citizens.

Old shoe factories nearby that pumped the city’s economy in the days of the Orpheum and other downtown theaters have become home to condominiums and apartments and restaurants and shops — but Haverhill’s elders remember the days of the “shoe shops” and theaters.

Lillian Schiavoni, 89, of Haverhill remembers seeing silent films in black and white at the Colonial, one of several theaters in Haverhill. It was the kind of theater where children could spend a Saturday afternoon being entertained for a dime.

“The shows ran continuously, and you could go in anytime you wanted and stay as long as you wanted,” Schiavoni said. “They’d show two movies, the news, coming features, and they’d have a comedian, too.”

William Miller, 73, of Haverhill said his father, Frank Miller, bought the Orpheum in the 1920s from Mayer.

“My dad continued operating the Orpheum under the name Lafayette theater and operated it until his death in 1934,” Miller said. “Members of my family operated the theater until closing it in 1951.”

Miller remembers seeing movies during the late 1930s at the Lafayette theater. At the time it cost around 20 cents to see a movie.

“They’d always show a double feature,” he said.

Advertisements in local newspapers lured patrons to the Orpheum with the promise of “The largest variety, the latest subjects and the longest show in the cosiest, cleanest, biggest, best ventilated and best equipped moving picture theater in the city.”

Several years later Mayer opened the Colonial theater near the corner of Merrimack and Emerson streets, and within a few years Mayer was operating five movie houses in Haverhill, as well as theaters throughout New England.

During his years in Haverhill, Mayer lived at 16 Middlesex St. in the city’s Bradford section and on Temple Street. He also lived in a house he built at 27 Hamilton Ave.

In 1918, Mayer formed Louis B. Mayer Pictures and moved to Los Angeles to make his own films. Several years later Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was formed. By 1936, Mayer was the highest paid business executive in the country with an annual $1 million salary.

Among the actors who appeared in MGM movies were Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, Cary Grant, Spencer Tracy, Elizabeth Taylor, Buster Keaton, Katharine Hepburn, Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney.

In 1950, Mayer received a special Academy Award for distinguished service to the motion picture industry. He died Oct. 29, 1957, of kidney failure and was buried in East Los Angeles.

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