Originally the Esquire Theater in the early 1960s, it became the Orson Welles Cinema under its next owner, folk musician Dean Gitter. When Gitter departed, the new owners were Molly and Ralph Hoagland (later a co-founder of the CVS Corporation). From 1971 to 1978 the theater was managed and programmed by Larry Jackson, who later held positions with Miramax, Orion Pictures and the Samuel Goldwyn Company.
In 1972-73, the Orson Welles Cinema expanded with two smaller screening rooms in addition to the main large auditorium. Larry Jackson eventually succeeded, in 1977, in getting Orson Welles to visit the cinema named in his honor. Welles and associate Gary Graver used the occasion to shoot footage inside the Orson Welles Cinema for their documentary Filming Othello (1978).
Ancillary operations included the Orson Welles Film School, a record store, a bookstore and The Restaurant at the Orson Welles, aka the Orson Welles Restaurant. The chef was Odette J. Bery, who later wrote Another Season Cookbook: Recipes for Every Season from the Chef/Owner of Boston's Another Season Restaurant (Globe Pequot, 1986). In his autobiography, Jay Leno notes that he performed in the Orson Welles Restaurant during his early days as a stand-up comic. After The Restaurant closed, the two-level space became Chi-Chi's, part of the Mexican restaurant chain.
Film notes for each showing were prepared by staffer John Rossi, who for each film gathered lengthy cast and crew credits, a partial synopsis and selected film reviews. These were prepared in the upstairs offices of the complex, as was the black-and-white digest-sized Orson Welles Cinema Magazine.
The Marathon became an annual event that it continued even after the Orson Welles Cinema closed. Following the 11 Marathons held at the Orson Welles, the film series moved on to other Boston theaters, and under the name Boston Science Fiction Film Festival has continued through to at least 2006, when it was held at the West Newton Cinema in 2006.
Less successful was the Welles' Boston Film Festival (1976), which included such films as Monty Python's Flying Circus' And Now for Something Completely Different and Jacques Rivette's Out One: Spectre. However, according to Welles Cinema staffers, many of the announced films arrived late or never appeared.
The career of writer-producer Fred Barron began in 1975 when he used the history of Cambridge's The Real Paper as the basis for a screenplay, Between the Lines. When Joan Micklin Silver brought Hester Street (1975) to the Welles Cinema, she was joined at the Welles Restaurant by Barron and others. When someone asked what she would direct next, she answered that she was looking at screenplays. Barron stood up, left the restaurant and returned with his screenplay. The success of Between the Lines (1977) led to a short-lived TV series, also titled Between the Lines.
Filmmakers who made personal appearances at the Welles Cinema include Peter Bogdanovich, Edward Dmytryk, Ed Emshwiller, Jean Eustache, Jean-Pierre Léaud, Jim McBride, Vincente Minnelli, Nicholas Ray, George Romero, Harold Russell, and François Truffaut. After Steven Lisberger premiered his Cosmic Cartoon (1973) at the Welles, the animated short received a Student Academy Award nomination.