WILLIAMSTOWN — In 1857, Sigma Phi fraternity moved into a brand new house at 50 Spring St., just off the Williams College campus.
Fourteen years later, Hiram C. Walden bought the structure and lived there, later using it to house his trucking and warehousing business. But in 1916, he renovated the building and sent it into a 100-year arc with a totally different trajectory: He opened a silent movie theater with 550 seats, equipped for live musical accompaniment of the films.
This year, Images Cinema is celebrating that century of film in Williamstown, reflecting back not only on its own history but that of the cinematic arts as well.
The Walden Theater at first showed silent films, likely with a piano and musician to provide a sound track. In 1930, the company that had purchased the business in 1922 — Thornton & Harrington — converted it to show movies with sound, bringing in new projectors and a sound system.
Through a number of different owners, and with varying degrees of success, the building has at least partially served as a movie theater for 10 decades — showing silent movies, then "talkies," and on into color films, beginning in the 1950s.
According to Doug Jones, executive director of Images Cinema, when Walden renovated and added to the former fraternity house in the mid-1910s, "it was an era when there were a lot of storefront cinemas popping up. And he wanted to do it right. He dedicated the money and energy to make it into a proper theater."
He called the building the Walden Block, and the theater originally provided enough seating for 550 movie-goers, as opposed to the 150 seats in today's theater.
"At the time, any theater would have brought in a crowd," Jones said. "And the fact that a community this size could support a movie theater for 100 years speaks to a level of dedication to the arts you don't get in a lot of places."
Over the years, it went by a number of names. In 1932, with a change of ownership to Clarence King, the name changed to Taconic Theater. In 1967, the theater was renovated and renamed the College Cinema. In 1971 it became the Nickelodeon. In 1978 it became Images Cinema.
Then, in 1989, something interesting took place. Amid hard times for the theater, a group of activists, led by actor Christopher Reeves, raised funding to renovate the building and re-energize the business.
But the 1980s brought the popularity of VCRs, and the 1990s brought in the DVD. Movie theaters across the country were failing, and Images was facing similar issues.
In 1998, with support of much of the Williamstown community, a nonprofit dedicated to film as an art form and a source of entertainment was established and took over operation of the theater. Since then, the non-profit group has mounted campaigns that succeeded in renovating the lobby and returning the entrance to its original spot in front of the building in 2009, convert to digital projection in 2012, and in 2013 returning the marquis to the front on the building after 30 years.
Until the day of the 100th anniversary of the opening, the theater will offer a yearlong film series that features films, guests and other special events in a countdown through the decades. The series will revisit favorites from the golden age of Hollywood, the New Hollywood of the 1970s, the independent movement of the 1980s and 1990s to today, with events both inside and outside the theater.
On Nov. 30, a silent film that was popular at the time of the Walden's opening — complete with musical accompaniment — will be featured 100 years to the day of the first movie shown at the theater.
"We saw the 100th anniversary as an opportunity to build on the history, but still keep moving forward," Jones said. "Images has a long history and deep roots in the Berkshires. It's thanks to the dedication of Images' community of supporters and film lovers that we can reflect on the past 100 years while also anticipating the next 100."
The 100th anniversary film series will continue throughout 2016 with films and special events that include "Do the Right Thing," "The New Hollywood" with Rolling Stone's David Fear, "Jaws Dive-In Theater," "Singin' in the Rain," "Double Indemnity" with the New York Times' Wesley Morris and more.
Feb. 27 at 2 p.m.
'Kevin B. Lee and the Video Essay'
Williams' graduate Kevin B. Lee (English '97) has been described as the "king of the video essay" by the New York Times. Riding the new wave of personalized media enabled by digital technology and social media, video essays are an interactive phenomenon that is part film criticism, part fan letter and remarkably creative. Lee will screen several video essays, including his own acclaimed "Transformers: The Premake," which has screened at film festivals worldwide, and discuss the history and mission of this emerging genre.
Co-presented by Williams College Alumni Relations.
March 7 at 7 p.m.
'Little Miss Sunshine'
2006. Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
The most popular film of the decade at Images, this subversive comedy from husband-wife directing team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris follows the Hoover family as they pile into a rusted-out VW van. This hilarious look at what it means to be a family features an amazing cast, including Greg Kinnear, Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Paul Dano, Abigail Breslin and Alan Arkin.
Filmmakers Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris will join us via Skype for a post screening discussion of their record-breaking film, which is celebrating its own 10th anniversary in 2016.
April 11 at 7 p.m.
'An Evening with John Sayles and Maggie Renzi'
John Sayles and Maggie Renzi have been creative partners, in life and in art, since the early seventies, after meeting at Williams College. (He's class of '72; she's '73.) Throughout their career, their films have epitomized the best qualities of American independent cinema: impactful stories with memorable characters. In the nineties, their work found its widest audience with the Academy Award-nominated Passion Fish and Lone Star.
As part of this evening, filmmakers John Sayles and Maggie Renzi will join us in-person for an onstage conversation about their work, accompanied by a screening of a digitally remastered "City of Hope," which is celebrating its own 25th anniversary in 2016, their award-winning look at the personal cost of politics in a great American city.
The 100 Years of Images series will continue through November 2016.