ELLSWORTH, Maine — When The Grand auditorium was built in 1938 it was a bright and shining attraction on Main Street, which just years before had been decimated by fire.
The highly polished glass blocks and chrome details reflected the neon lights that were part of the art deco-style marquee and tower, and added a sparkle to the recovering downtown.
Almost three-quarters of a century later, time and the elements have taken their toll on the theater’s facade. Many of the thick glass blocks have fallen off the tower, some replaced by plywood, others not; and many of those chrome details and neon lights have been lost.
The Grand hopes to erase those ravages of time, and next week volunteer models from all over Hancock County will dress up in fashions from area stores as part of the effort to restore the Grand marquee.
The models will be part of the “In Grand Style” fashion show and luncheon, which will take place at noon Friday, Aug. 14, at the Holiday Inn in Ellsworth. The show has been a major fundraiser for The Grand, and last year raised more than $27,000.
This year, all of the proceeds from the fashion show will serve as seed money for the marquee restoration project. In recent years, The Grand has had to draw on the fashion show money to cover operating expenses, according to Charlie Alexander, president of the Grand’s board.
“This year, we’re able to dedicate all of the proceeds to this capital project,” Alexander said Wednesday. “That’s something we’ve been working toward for years.”
The Grand board will use fashion show money for matching funds as it seeks grants for the marquee project. The board is applying to have the theater listed in the National Register of Historic Places. So it plans to restore the marquee and trademark tower to its original state using original materials.
That will mean using Vitrolite glass blocks on the tower and the marquee, according to Grand executive director Zoe Scott. Vitrolite glass is a thick, highly polished glass that was popular in the 1930s but is no longer made, Scott said. Its reflective qualities gave the original Grand marquee some pizzazz that the board hopes to recapture with its restoration project.
“We really want to bring them back to their original glory as a landmark for downtown Ellsworth and the region,” she said.
While the marquee provides an outward landmark in Ellsworth, Alexander said, its restoration holds a wider meaning for The Grand, which in the past two years has recovered from fiscal problems and has bolstered its diverse offerings with the addition of simulcasts of the Metropolitan Opera. That has generated standing-room-only houses during its first season.
“When it has been restored, it will be a sign of success,” he said. “I see it is as a further, outward indication of the excitement that the community feels about what’s going on inside.”
Working with WBRC Architects-Engineers in Bangor, Scott said, the board plans to do the work in two phases. The first phase will be replacing the glass on the tower at an estimated cost of $72,000.
The second phase will concentrate on the marquee itself. The work will require inspection of the structural elements and could lead to a new marquee, Alexander said. Earlier estimates put the cost of the marquee work at around $68,000, but, he said, the board has not received a firm up-to-date estimate.
Depending on funds, Scott said, the work on the tower could begin this fall and be completed in the spring. If money is available, the marquee work could be completed as early as autumn 2010.
Funding is the key, and that is where the fashion show comes in.
The show is sponsored this year by Bar Harbor Bank & Trust, Kelco Industries and Machias Savings Bank.
Committee chairwoman Jane Bradley said she has been overwhelmed by the support from the community for this year’s show. Businesses from around the county and beyond have donated goods and services for the auction and raffle that have become a tradition at the fashion show.
A dozen stores from all over Hancock County, and one from Bangor, have provided the fashions and accessories for the show, all of which will be modeled by area volunteers. WLBZ 2 weather forecaster Steve McKay will be the emcee again, and Karen Dickes of Ellsworth will provide the runway music for the models.
“This has really taken off,” said committee co-chairwoman Paula Kee. “We raised more than $27,000 last year and I think we’re going to hit that again. The key this year is that all the money raised will go to seed money for grants, so the more we make, the more [The Grand] gets.”
Space is limited for the fashion show and luncheon, and Tuesday, Aug. 11, is the deadline for reservations. Tickets are $25 and may be purchased at the Grand box office or by calling 667-9500.