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    David Kleiler, independent film impresario who saved the Coolidge Corner Theatre, dies at 79

    David Kleiler.
    John Blanding/Globe Staff/File 1984
    David Kleiler.

    The countdown was ticking toward the final curtain for the Coolidge Corner Theatre in September 1989 when David Kleiler spoke to about 400 people who had gathered on Brookline’s streets to protest the impending closing.

    “This is David versus Goliath,” Mr. Kleiler told them. “We want to keep this place open.”

    In this case, “Goliath” was a developer who wanted to convert the building to retail space. And “David”? That was none other than David Kleiler himself — Greater Boston’s biggest movie fan, a former film professor who would become known as the guy who saved the Coolidge and who inspired generations to keep watching movies on a big screen.


    Mr. Kleiler, who formerly directed the theater’s foundation, launched film clubs, and ran organizations to support independent filmmakers, died April 15 of complications from treatment for cancer. He was 79 and had lived for decades in Brookline.

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    “The curtain will not close on the theater,” he assured the crowd in the streets in 1989, and he kept that promise when the Coolidge was rescued, as a nonprofit, that fall after a 14-month effort.

    A little more than two decades later, at his 70th birthday party, a chorus of friends from Boston’s film world gathered to pay tribute.

    “Without David Kleiler, there would be no Coolidge Corner Theatre today. It’s as simple as that,” Nat Green, who had served as the first chairman of the Coolidge Corner Theatre Foundation, said that evening.

    And while raising money and awareness to preserve an enduring art house landmark was Mr. Kleiler’s most publicized achievement, it fell midway through a career unlike any other in the region’s film circles.


    He had been a film instructor at Babson College, where he founded a film society, and taught adult education film classes in Brookline. He founded Rear Window — a sort of roving underground film society — and for a time ran a company that produced and distributed local independent films.

    Notably, Mr. Kleiler was the founder and artistic director of the Boston Underground Film Festival and launched Local Sightings, a support services organization for the local independent filmmaking community. In more recent years he cofounded the film club Salon/Saloon, initially showing movies in his living room.

    “I love watching people watch film,” he told the Globe in 1982.

    Other festivals also launched or flourished with assistance from Mr. Kleiler, who continued to teach here and there, formally and informally, at colleges and in every encounter.

    For directors and script writers, and those who programmed or ran a film series, each conversation with him was a master’s class in how to think about movies and how to view the world on and off a theater screen.


    “He changed the way I’ve ‘seen’ the rest of my life,” Erica Max, former managing director of the Coolidge, told the crowd at Mr. Kleiler’s 70th birthday gathering.

    With nearly evangelical fervor, he introduced films at screenings and never cut short his speech, even if the crowd was two, rather than 200. His high energy was as legendary as his encyclopedic knowledge of movies.

    “If you haven’t spent a week with David, you don’t know the meaning of the phrase ‘try to keep up,’ ” Robert Deutsch, former marketing director at the Coolidge and now vice president of marketing for Liaison in Watertown, said in a speech at Mr. Kleiler’s 60th birthday party.

    Those once-a-decade gatherings to celebrate birthday milestones were, in a way, an outgrowth of Mr. Kleiler’s philosophy of getting like-minded people to experience art together and discuss it afterward.

    Film, he believed, was best experienced in a dark room surrounded by others. He dubbed his Rear Window series “obscure films in obscure locations,” and screened movies in arts centers, bars, and restaurants, Steve Head recalled in a 2016 essay for the website The Arts Fuse.

    “He felt so strongly about the communal experience of watching films,” said Alice Stone, an independent filmmaker in Boston whose work Mr. Kleiler championed. “He went to his grave not having a Netflix account.”

    The older of two brothers, David Kleiler was born in 1940 and grew up mostly in Silver Spring, Md.

    His mother, Frances Brazon Kleiler, was a homemaker. His father, Frank M. Kleiler, had served as executive director of the National Labor Relations Board and as a deputy assistant secretary in the US Labor Department.

    Before he was in high school, Mr. Kleiler began sneaking out to see film noir showings. He also perused film listings in local newspapers and devised his own screening schedules — a burgeoning skill he would put to use as an adult.

    “He knew exactly what he wanted to do all his life,” said his son, David Jr., a filmmaker and musician in Los Angeles.

    Mr. Kleiler graduated from Georgetown University with a bachelor’s degree and did graduate work at Catholic University, Boston University, and New York University.

    He married Rosemary Walker, with whom he had a son. Their marriage ended in divorce.

    To avoid being drafted, Mr. Kleiler also had served in the Navy Reserve, during which he worked office jobs and was a pre-flight inspector, his son said.

    Throwing himself into film work full time at the beginning of the 1980s, Mr. Kleiler walked away from his tenured college teaching post.

    “I like to take chances, and I was tired of teaching. I guess when you reach the age of 40, you either settle in or take chances. I took a chance,” he told the Globe not long after. “I guess it sounds crazy to give up the security of academia, but I really love the movie business. I couldn’t hedge my bets.”

    Mr. Kleiler was “truly was an original. There’s no one like him,” his son said. “He was always stabbing the air with his hands, and he spoke in these run-on sentences, firing left and right, thoughts overlapping one another. Honestly, I think his brain just worked too fast.”

    Even at the end, as his health was failing, Mr. Kleiler “still saw four to five movies a week,” his son added. “To me, there’s nothing more poetic than that he was still going to see movies when he had macular degeneration.”

    In addition to his son, Mr. Kleiler leaves a brother, James of Kensington, Md., and two grandchildren.

    A funeral Mass will be said on 11 a.m. Wednesday in St. Cecilia Church in Boston.

    In a 1992 Globe interview, Mr. Kleiler said he viewed his multifaceted film endeavors, many of them based in Brookline, as a way of “hoping your life makes a difference. I have some skill, I’ve got some energy, and very few people get a chance to do something important in life. I love film, and I do love this community.”

    For him, films “became a way of talking about life, and he encouraged people to understand their own lives and own psyches by talking about cinema,” his son said.

    In that regard, friends said, Mr. Kleiler’s effect could not be overstated.

    “I knew him for 26 years,” said Stone, the independent filmmaker, “but there were people who knew David for 26 minutes and he changed their lives.”

    Bryan Marquard can be reached at