Mysterious Mantilla highlight of theaters

Posted Sept. 06, 2009, at 6:12 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:26 a.m.

The platform at Bangor’s Union Station was “black with people” Sunday afternoon Aug. 22, 1909. Dozens of curiosity seekers turned out to see Mantilla, the Girl in the Mask, get off the train and walk through the waiting room. They didn’t see much. The mysterious Mantilla, “a young girl with a slight graceful figure,” wore a mask over the upper part of her face exposing only “a firm, sweet mouth and the tip of a piquant little nose,” reported the Bangor Daily News the next morning.

Mantilla immediately hopped into the big touring car driven by Stephen Bogrett, the new manager of The Gaiety, to be whisked away to the Bangor House, the city’s finest hotel. If you wanted to see her dance “on a specially constructed pedestal” from the Gaiety’s front rows Monday night, you would have to pay 20 cents. A dime would buy you a seat up back or, during the matinees, anywhere in the house.

The end of summer marked the re-opening of Bangor’s three theaters specializing either in dramatic stage productions or vaudeville. This event coincided with the Eastern Maine State Fair. Thousands of out-of-town fair goers would be attracted to shows at the downtown theaters when they tired of the midway at Maplewood Park.

The Gaiety and Acker’s Family Theater, both of which specialized in vaudeville, were re-opening along with the Bangor Opera House, which featured full-scale stage productions. Back then, many theaters closed in the summer, leaving only the movie houses to entertain the steaming masses. In Bangor, that meant The Nickel and The Graphic, the city’s two celluloid palaces. (The Gem, a third movie theater, was closed for remodeling. It would re-open as a vaudeville house soon, and a few months later become the Bijou.)

Remarkably, just two years before, Bangor had only one full-time theater, the Bangor Opera House. Besides its live plays, it had shown a few movies as well as occasional vaudeville-type entertainment. Then the floodgates of new kinds of popular entertainment opened in 1907 with the arrival of The Nickel, the Queen City’s first movie house. Vaudeville theaters soon followed.

Besides Mantilla, The Gaiety would be featuring Ethel Barr and company performing “a historical playlet, ‘An Episode of ‘61.’” Caryl Monroe, the country blossom; The Woodwards, novelty dancers; and Stevens & LeRoy, musicians and vocalists (along with some moving pictures) would complete the bill. There were three shows daily at 2:30, 7:15 and 9. The Gaiety was located in the imposing old Norombega Hall, once Bangor’s most famous theater, located in the Kenduskeag Stream where Norumbega Mall sits today.

Bangor’s other vaudeville house, Acker’s Family Theater, had taken over the Union Theater the previous April. Located on Union Street across from the Bangor House, the Union Theater was Bangor’s first vaudeville house. It had lasted only a few months under that name.

Acker’s, part of a Canadian chain, was offering “one of the strongest vaudeville bills ever presented in Bangor,” promised the Bangor Daily News. Johnson Bros. and Johnson’s minstrel performance featured “the two smallest end men in existence.” Guy Bartlette and company in their musical comedy sketch “A Dream of a Welsh Rarebit Fiend,” Burke and Urline, the automobile girls, and the Montereys, a “colored singing act,” completed the bill. After the Great Fire of 1911, Acker’s would become the new home for The Nickel. Years later, it would become the Olympia, a movie theater many people still remember.

The Bangor Opera House, located on Main Street, the lone survivor of Bangor’s early theater days, was attempting to keep up its reputation for sophistication while competing with vaudeville and movies. It’s first week was taken up by “The Volunteer Organist,” a popular “pastoral play.” That would be followed by May Robson in “The Rejuvenation of Aunt Mary.” Robson, who was already considered “one of America’s best character actresses,” went on to major stardom in the movies.

Bangor’s two movie theaters would continue featuring the latest celluloid marvels and local songsters as they had all summer. The singers were still better known than the film stars, Hollywood having not yet invented itself. Among its offerings, The Graphic, at York and Exchange streets, featured “two of the best photographic love plays ever flashed on a screen — ‘Mine at Last,’ a story of wartime, and ‘Two Pigeons,’ a beautifully colored Pathe film.” While the projectors were being reloaded, Miss Brennick and Miss Fitch entertained with “When the Woodland Flowers Bloom in Spring” and “When the Bloom is on the Cotton, Dixie Lee.”

The Nickel announced it would be showing a similar list of now-forgotten short features as well as Pat Harrington, a 6-year-old comedian, who had made a hit in Lewiston. The singing duo of Mr. Stone and Miss Miller would be performing “The Garden of Dreams,” an opera piece. “An hour’s show for a nickel! Could liberality go farther,” asked the press release printed in the Bangor Daily News.

Meanwhile, on that Sunday afternoon long ago, Mantilla, the Girl in the Mask, was spirited away to Bangor’s most exclusive hotel, where she would be kept sequestered with her very own waitress to serve her private meals in her room and a chauffeur to take her to the theater for her performances. On Monday night the theater was filled to capacity.

The Bangor Daily Commercial the next day described her performance: “Her dancing is classic in its conception and execution, and it is not often that Bangor has an opportunity to see classic dancing done in the manner in which the lady of the mask presents it. Her principal offering … was the old time Greek Worship dance, which displays the graceful work of the dancer to the best advantage …” From the vagueness of this brief review, we can assume that the girl in the mask with “the piquant little nose” left many members of the audience mystified.

An illustrated collection of Wayne E. Reilly’s columns titled “Remembering Bangor: The Queen City Before the Great Fire” is available at bookstores. Comments about this column can be sent to him at wer@bangordailynews.net

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