May 23, 2018
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Bangor hailed opening of first vaudeville house

Bangor's first vaudeville house, the Union Theater, later became the Olympia Theater, which many Bangoreans still remember.
By Wayne E. Reilly, Special to the BDN

Bangor’s first vaudeville theater opened with a glittering social affair a century ago this week. Union Hall, located on Union Street facing the Bangor House, had been transformed into the Union Theater, “a tasteful little vaudeville house,” according to the Bangor Daily News.

Vaudeville was a relatively new phenomenon that lasted from the 1890s to the 1930s. For a city its size, Bangor was late in getting its own vaudeville palace, so imagine the excitement that Monday evening, Oct. 26, 1908. Tickets were by invitation only. A “ladies orchestra” directed by Miss Margaret Cassidy, pianist, warmed up the audience, while “charming young women, all gowned in white” ushered. This all-female effect was considered quite innovative.

Harry I. Bolton, president of the Bangor Bowling and Amusement Co., which owned the theater, was invited up to the stage to receive “a handsome bouquet from the jewelers of Bangor.” After the orchestra played an overture, and a projectionist in a booth lined with asbestos showed a brief moving picture about South Africa, the real fun began. “A Dutch comedian in dialogue,” a wooden-shoe dancer, and a singing and dancing soubrette (a saucy, coquettish maidservant in comic operas, according to my dictionary) opened the show.

After these preliminaries, Ferrari, the handcuff king, dazzled the audience with his ability to get out of all sorts of locked situations. Wesley Norris and Stella Wiley, “colored” comedians, singers and dancers, got an enthusiastic ovation. Then came the highlight of the show — the Rosaires, wire walkers. Mr. Rosaire was

billed as the only man in the country who could do a swinging handstand on a slack wire.

Union Hall had been dedicated 22 years before as a roller-skating rink. After that craze died away, it became a furniture store, then “the home of polo,” and finally a bowling and billiard hall, according to the Bangor Daily News on Oct. 27. Now vaudeville would get its chance.

Vaudeville had preceded movies in most cities, but now movies were putting some of the vaudeville theaters out of business. Not in Bangor. Two movie theaters recently had opened — the Nickel in August 1907 and the Gem in February 1908.

“That there is a field for a vaudeville house here nobody will dispute,” manager Harry M. Gardner explained to the Bangor Daily News on Sept. 11 before the theater opened. “You will have to travel the length and breadth of the United States to find another city with an immediate drawing population of 45,000 to 50,000 people which has nothing between the ‘legitimate’ [stage plays such as those performed at the Bangor Opera House] on the one hand and moving pictures on the other. This is an abnormal theatrical condition.”

Bangor would be part of a vaudeville circuit that included Lowell, Lynn, and Salem, Mass.; and Portland, Gardiner, Augusta, Waterville and Fairfield, Maine, as well as Saint John New Brunswick, and perhaps some other cities. Advertisements promised “high-class” vaudeville, “a strong bill and a clean one,” a reference to the vulgar humor associated with many vaudeville houses. Tickets were 10, 20 and 30 cents, and the four shows, lasting for 2½ hours each, stretched from noon to 10:30 p.m., according to plans announced in the newspapers.

The transformation of Union Hall was a marvel to behold. The front of the building, finished in green and gold, was to have the distinction of being “the first theater in New England to be fitted on the mission style of architecture.” That style, as interpreted by the prominent architect W. E. Mansur, featured towers on each end of the front of the building. His creation became one of Bangor’s most venerable entertainment institutions for 50 years.

Inside was a large lobby with the ticket office and stairs leading up to the main auditorium and horseshoe balcony. The theater would seat 800 or 1,000 people, according to various newspaper accounts. Eight fire escapes secured by “glass locks” allowed easy egress in case of fire, always a major concern back when theater fires sometimes killed hundreds.

A maze of green lattice work on the walls and ceiling cut by a series of broad, white arches and decorated with masses of palms, shrubs and flowers was intended to give the audience the impression they were watching the stage from inside a huge arbor. “Green, white and gold will be the predominant tints,” said the Bangor Daily News in describing this contrivance on Oct. 5.

This was truly Bangor’s golden age of entertainment. The Union Theater was Bangor’s fourth theater, and three more were in various stages of creation, according to the newspapers. These included the enlargement and redesign of the Gem, the rehabilitation of the old Norombega theater, which had been dormant for a number of years, and the construction of a new theater at York and Exchange streets.

How was all this going to affect the Bangor Opera House, still the city’s premier vendor of high-brow theatrical drama (although it occasionally let movies and vaudeville sneak onto its stage)? Things were better than ever, according to the end-of-the-year wrap-up in the Bangor Daily News on Jan. 1, 1909.

“The past year has brought a radical change in the local theatrical situation, and it is a change which benefits the play-going public.” The low-quality repertory shows, which often performed a different play every night for a week, were being edged out by the movie and vaudeville “craze.” The flip side of the coin, however, was that more “good shows,” including famous actors and Broadway and near-Broadway shows with the original casts, were being booked at the opera house in an effort to cater to more sophisticated theater lovers.

As for the Union Theater, it lasted barely a year. Acker’s Family Theater had replaced it by 1909, according to the City Directory. Then the Nickel took over the building after its home on Central Street was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1911. Finally, around 1920, The Olympia, which is still remembered by many Bangoreans today, operated there until the late 1950s. The building was gutted in a fire on Nov. 19, 1963.

Wayne E. Reilly can be reached at Dick Shaw contributed information for this column.

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