Gaiety Theater was once toast of Bangor

Posted Jan. 18, 2009, at 4:21 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 13, 2011, at 10:38 a.m.

Norombega Hall was one of Bangor’s grand old buildings before it was destroyed by the Great Fire of 1911. This Greek revival colossus dominated the Kenduskeag Stream where the Norumbega Mall (yes, the spelling has changed) is located today between Central and Franklin streets. Ulysses S. Grant, James Garfield and other famed national leaders spoke there. Great actors such as Edwin Booth and Joseph Jefferson entertained.

By the early 20th century, however, the building once compared to Boston’s Quincy Market had seen better days. The theater, located on the second floor, had been abandoned, the stage removed. The 14 stalls below, where merchants once sold their wares, had been taken over by a furniture company, which was planning to expand upstairs.

Then, early in 1909, the old theater got a second chance, or a last gasp, as the case may be. The moving-picture craze in Bangor had been quickly followed by the vaudeville fad. The city’s first full-time movie theater, the Nickel, opened in August 1907, followed by a second, the Gem, in February 1908. The Union Theater, the city’s first vaudeville house, opened in October. Even the Bangor Opera House, which continued to bring the best of Broadway to town, was spicing up its programs occasionally with movies and vaudeville acts.

Why not another theater — a “high-class” vaudeville theater (no off-color jokes) that also showed movies and presented the best local singers to perform illustrated songs? Why not put it in the old Norombega, with a face-lift and lots of electric lights? Why not call it the Gaiety, a name that had worked in other cities? All that sounded like a good idea to theater magnate Benjamin Franklin Keith, “who is to vaudeville what Roosevelt is to politics, Morgan to finance or Rockefeller to oil,” said the Bangor Daily News on Dec. 3, 1908.

The Keiths sent James E. Moore to get things going. If the new operation were a success, it would be upgraded to an official Keith theater, and the company might decide to build a really big and ornate vaudeville house in Bangor. Moore had accomplished the same magic in Portland, beginning with an old theater. “Will history repeat itself?” the excited reporter wanted to know.

The Keiths already operated the Nickel, located near the Norombega on Central Street. The movie house had sold its 1 millionth ticket in December. James P. Forrest, its successful manager, would also be the manager of the Gaiety.

Soon that section of Central Street where the two theaters were located almost side by side was nicknamed the Great White Way by the Bangor Daily News, after the stretch of Broadway in New York City devoted to brightly lit theaters. An enthusiastic description of the new theater’s lighting plans, published in the newspaper on Dec. 15, gives the modern reader an idea of just how thrilling a few electric bulbs could be in the dimly lit city streets of yesteryear.

“Extending upward from the balcony [of Norombega Hall] will be a 12-foot pillar; from the top of this pillar, extending at right angles, will be the big ‘house sign,’ 15 feet long and with the name of the theatre spelled out in letters several feet high; while surmounting this will be a huge pyramid of colored lights — ‘sun-burst’ is its technical name — 10 feet in height and tapering to a graceful apex — the whole forming an electrical display hitherto undreamed of in this part of the state,” wrote the reporter.

The “house sign” would contain 750 bulbs. Over the entrance would be a smaller sign of 160 bulbs announcing “vaudeville and motion pictures.” Finally, “five gigantic flaming arcs” were going to be placed at strategic points on the front of the building, transforming the front of the old Norombega into “a blaze of electrical glory.” The reporter concluded, “With this gorgeous illumination combined with some flaming arcs to be placed before The Nickel, Central Street will surely become the Great White Way of eastern Maine.”

The lights were turned on Saturday evening, Jan. 16, 1909. Hundreds stopped to gaze. Inside, the walls had been painted buff, the wainscoting and trim green and the balcony railing white. The stage had been rebuilt, the scenery repainted, and red, blue and white border and footlights installed. The old faces of tragedy and com-edy had disappeared from the proscenium, replaced by “more delicately painted symbols.” The old curtain, painted with a giant scene of Yosemite Valley, had been “retouched and brightened.”

The grand opening was that Monday, a century ago this week. By 7:30 p.m. there was standing room only, reported the Bangor Daily News. Older people were reminded “of the old days when the best actors in America trod its historic stage, and when it served as the meeting place — the one great public auditorium — of the entire city.”

The show that first night began with a moving picture of “the ancient city of Strasburg.” The flickering pictures of men and women “were almost life size,” the reporter observed. Then the “picture sheet rolled up,” and the house lights, consisting of four big chandeliers with “24 100-watt tungstens,” flashed on to reveal the first vaudeville act, Miss Lou Paulette, who “sang a little and danced very gracefully and prettily.”

Miss Mazie Wolfe, one of two house soloists who performed illustrated songs, appeared next with her “very deep contralto — almost baritone” voice. Then the next vaudevillian, Tom Ashton, juggled many objects and balanced cues and billiard balls. He was followed by the popular James J. Maxwell, the theater’s other resident illustrated songster. He had been transferred to the Gaiety from his former gig at the Nickel.

Robson and Wilson played banjos, mandolins, guitars, silver bells and “a musical typewriter,” interspersing their act with “smart sayings and original humor,” before a movie reel — “two bright comedy pictures” — and the conclusion of the show, Bellmare and Pratt, “lively comedy acrobats in feats of daring and skill.”

Four shows, lasting about two hours each, were scheduled each day. The vaudeville and songs were changed each Monday and Thursday, and the movies on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. The price of admission was only 10 cents with no reserved seats. And no big hats, please, or spitting on the floor!

Thus, Bangor had its fifth full-time theater. There were more to come in the next few months, featuring everything from Broadway stars to song-and-dance men to the anonymous silver screen performers who one day would win the entertainment competition.

Wayne E. Reilly may be reached at wer@bangordailynews.net.

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