Cabot Performing Arts Center

For the first 95 of its 100 years, the Beverly, MA, theater known simply as the Cabot served the local community as many things. It was a silent-movie palace (with an orchestra pit for musical accompaniment), a stop for touring vaudeville acts, an outpost of the E.M. Loews cinema chain, and the home of a long-running, record-setting magic show.

What it was not, until recently, was a stage for live pop, rock, blues, and jazz performances. But Casey Soward, the executive director of the Cabot Performing Arts Center since the venue was reopened as a multi-purpose theater in 2015, says he’s lost count of the number of times incoming artists have insisted they’ve headlined the place before.

“It’s funny,” he says. “People will say, ‘You know, I played this place in 1984,’ and it’s like, uh, no, you didn’t.”

The Cabot’s neoclassical design, its lavishly decorated proscenium arch and its recently refurbished grand lobby certainly do capture the feel of a familiar, if bygone, era. According to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, of an estimated 20,000 such theaters across the United States as the Roaring Twenties got underway, only 250 or so remain.

Since its revitalization, the Cabot has hosted hundreds of live shows, from Steve Earle, Mavis Staples and Los Lobos to an all-star tribute to Bessie Smith. Boston musicians such as Peter Wolf and Jon Butcher have made regular stops, and in December 2020 the venue marked its 100th anniversary with a virtual celebration that featured James Taylor, Raul Malo, Paula Cole and many more.

Originally known as the Ware, after the two brothers who built it, the venue was renamed the Cabot Cinema in 1960. When its mid-century incarnation as a movie theater began to lose its lustre, a psychology teacher at nearby Salem State College (as it was called at the time) spearheaded another change of ownership in 1976. Caesareo Pelaez, a Cuban immigrant who doubled as a magician known as Marco the Magi, installed his troupe, Le Grand David, in the theater and set about restoring it to its past glory.

A few years later Le Grand David also took over the lease on the Larcom Theatre, another vintage Beverly venue. By the time of Pelaez’s death in 2012, Le Grand David was recognized as the longest-running magic show in the world by the Guinness Book of World Records.

After Le Grand David ended its run, the building was purchased once again, saved from potential demolition by local businessman and philanthropist Henry Bertolon, who paid a reported $1.2 million. The new board of directors hired Soward, a Cape Cod native who studied music production and engineering at Berklee and once worked in the stage crew at Boston’s Orpheum Theatre.

“That was one of my first introductions to these historic theaters,” he says. “I was in awe of the grandeur… It’s all in the wood. There’s really a spiritual energy you feel in these theaters, and I never forgot.”

(by James Sullivan)

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