I remember my first night at the Harvard Exit seven years ago, standing among the century-old projector, grand piano, ottomans, and other furnishings with clawed feet and thinking, “I will like this job and be happy here.” It was the first time I’d ever felt that way about a job. The high ceilings and ornate woodwork made every room feel like a church, especially the auditoriums. The first time I cleaned the upstairs auditorium after a show (the film was Control, about Joy Division), I stopped sweeping garbage for a moment to listen to the between-shows baroque music and felt the weird energy of a ritual place, a place people go to be transported.
The place, designed by architect Pierce A. Horrocks, was built in 1925 as a clubhouse for the Woman’s Century Club. The club was equal parts social and political, its founding related to the women’s suffrage movement. It became a movie theater in 1969, but the Woman’s Century Club still held its monthly meetings in the lobby the entire time I worked there—we had to stow away all the plastic cup lids, straws and movie flyers (I hoped) so that the members could pretend it was the 1920s.
In its early years, the Harvard Exit was famous for its owner’s above-par taste in foreign and independent films, which the posters that lined the staircase attested to. It was one of the first “art” theaters in town.
In the building’s early days, a Century Club member supposedly hanged herself in the upstairs lounge and now haunts the place. Many people came in looking for ghosts, including a woman who tried to dig in the wall of the basement for a skeleton she believed was down there. I talked at length with one guy who came to see a movie about ghosts, and later in the week he brought me a photo he’d taken of one, with a note on the back addressed to “the girl who wouldn’t tell me her name” (which was funny, since I and all the other employees had name tags). I don’t know if the thing standing in the window of the farm house in the photo is a ghost, but photographers tell me the photo is freakish—under- and over-exposed at the same time. The Museum of the Mysteries Capitol Hill ghost tour stopped at the Harvard Exit weekly, and the tour guide always asked if we’d “seen any activity.” I never saw a ghost there, though I had some funny experiences with electronic devices and I never liked the upstairs lounge.
I was most fascinated by the building’s structural mysteries, like the subbasement, far below the main basement where ice cream and soda were kept, which contained a nonfunctioning furnace the size of a pipe organ. The rumor was that during Prohibition, the ice-cream parlor in the building next door that now houses the Deluxe was a front for a speakeasy. When the authorities came by, patrons would flee into the Harvard Exit’s basement through a tunnel.
There was a shower on the second floor that had a urinal in it, which we called “The Shurinal.” My favorite mystery: a room that had been covered by a staircase when the building was brought up to fire code. There was a little hole in the drywall on that staircase, and if you peered into it during the day, a small window illuminated the room, now inaccessible, that still had furniture inside.
Every type of person came to the Harvard Exit. There was a guy who jerked off on Christmas to a movie about the Holocaust, and someone who sucked the chocolate off every peanut in two boxes of Goobers and spit them on the floor. My favorite regular spent her evenings recording experimental songs she composed on the piano at St. Mark's Cathedral then brought us the tapes. Before each movie, she went into the bathroom and opened a can. It could have been beer, but for some reason I’m almost sure it was soda. A delightful elderly woman from New York came in a few times a year because the Harvard Exit, she said, was “a real theatah.” I agree completely. The Harvard Exit is grand and decorative and designed for celebration. When they’re experienced socially, movies, like the balls held by the Woman’s Century Club in that building, are magic. They should be seen somewhere celebratory.
At one point I thought about joining the projectionist’s union, but I was told it was a dying trade. Most of the guys in the union were old and got their start in the many porn theaters that once lined the waterfront. When I heard that, I wanted to go to one of those theaters. I wondered what they were like. I was lucky enough to visit the Lusty Lady a few times before it closed, and besides being hot it was kind of magical—all these people gathering to see something that we now experience alone on our computers. I quit my job at the Harvard Exit three weeks ago, after working there seven years, and today I learned it’s closing.
I like to think the hair-raising feeling I got when I stood alone in the auditorium upstairs was from being somewhere people have gathered for decades to have a particular experience. The collective excitement as the lights go down, thousands of good dates and bad dates and people watching movies alone because they feel like shit or they have something to celebrate, and friends in their 50s discreetly popping open beers together in the same theater they’ve been going to since they were teenagers. Harvard Exit, I don’t mind the thousands of pounds of garbage I swept from your floors, I will miss you.