From 1926 through 1986 the United Theatre was the go-to destination for area film lovers in Downtown Westerly, Rhode Island. The United opened as a Vaudeville theatre on January 18th, 1926. The opening night gala featured five acts of Paramount Vaudeville, including the Seven Rainbow Girls, Eddie Cooke and the Shaw Sisters, Bernard and Ferris, Exposition Jubilee and the Jean Jackson Troupe. That night also featured the first film ever to play at the United; the now lost May McAvoy silent film Tessie.
As one of a handful of Vaudeville theatre’s in the Westerly area, the United saw its share of big name performers. From world-renowned opera stars including operatic contralto Ernestine Schumann-Heink and tenors Mario Lanza and Giovanni Martinelli to well-known vaudeville troupes like the Will Mastin Trio, featuring one Sammy Davis Jr., the United was Westerly’s home for the arts.
Of all the Westerly theatre’s, the United was the only one fitted with an organ, making it the go-to theatre for silent film exhibition. In 1929, the United was the first theatre in the region to showcase the “talkies.” This new film technology drew such overflow crowds that two shows were necessary before the final curtain was drawn at three in the morning. As silent cinema began to fade, the theatre would eventually transition into a full-time movie theatre showcasing the biggest and best first-run features. When Star Wars was released in 1977, the film was such a hit that it played at the United for an entire year.
Generations of families experienced vaudeville shows and watched movies at the United. But in 1986 the theatre faded into disuse. The Westerly Land Trust purchased the theatre on February 3, 2006 as part of their Urban Program. The purpose of the program is to focus resources on the redevelopment and enhancement of commercial properties in the Downtown, particularly those in areas of historic significance to the Town. Today, the building and adjoining space are about to undergo extensive renovations designed to transform the property into a multi-use arts complex.