Bangor was a hotbed of theatrical entrepreneurship a century ago. Within two years time, between 1907 and 1909, the Queen City had gone from having one full-time theater to six. The show houses and their successive reincarnations were getting bigger and fancier, each boasting some new comfort or architectural or technological ornamentation — such as hundreds of light bulbs, a sure sign the city was keeping up with New York and Boston.
The fare had expanded to include movies and vaudeville, besides live plays. The highbrow stage productions from New York and Boston that had kept the Bangor Opera House going before the turn of the century were facing stiff competition from unknown movie actors, song-and-dance comedians and animal acrobats.
The Gem — the predecessor of the famous Bijou Theater — was the latest example of this explosion of popular entertainment. Opened on Exchange Street in February of 1908 as a movie theater, the Gem closed for expansion and renovations in March 1909. When it reopened on Oct. 4 under the proprietorship of John Herlihy and David Freeman, it was a vaudeville house.
The promotion of the new Gem began in the Bangor newspapers even before the old Gem closed. Based on architectural drawings it published on March 18, the Bangor Daily News declared the new theater was going to be “a real work of art” complete with “rich carvings, opalescent glass and hundreds of lights.” The entire front of the theater would “glow with lights and colored glass and artistic decorative detail — just like the entrance to a big city theater.”
In April and May, both dailies commented on the building’s massive foundation. It was “as solid as a fort,” declared the Bangor Daily News.
The Bangor Daily Commercial recorded an observer saying, “Well, that building will never fall down. … It’s as solid as a pulp mill.” The new section of the building would back up to the Kenduskeag Stream. The original theater, which had seated only 240 patrons, would serve as “vestibule and foyer.”
As opening day approached, more comparisons were made between the new Gem and big city theaters. “From Exchange Street, the new Gem presents a handsome and rather imposing appearance, its lofty arched entrance recalling to many the chief architectural feature of John Stetson’s long-famed Globe Theater, which for so many years was a conspicuous landmark at Washington and Essex streets, Boston,” commented the Bangor Daily News on Oct. 2.
“The arch, running up to the height of the second story of the building, is surmounted by an ornamental panel extending to the cornice, carrying an illuminated sign facing up and down the street. The great arch itself, in its panelled ceiling, its carved front and in the ‘sunburst’ fanlight which it spans, carries hundreds of electric lights, while at its crown is a great translucent jewel, which, like the varicolored glass panels of the sunburst, will be brilliantly illuminated.”
A few days later, after opening night, the reporter pulled out his last bit of hyperbole (or perhaps what he found written on a press release). The new Gem “would have done credit to 42nd Street,” he declared.
What could possibly appear in such a theater that would do justice to its pretensions? The five road-weary, threadbare acts on opening night included comics, singers, dancers, Russian gymnasts, acrobatic dogs and “a spectacular electric novelty dance by Maddie the Diamond Girl” (which had been a hit at the Scenic Temple at Revere Beach). The performers needed to be good, competing as they were against offerings at two other vaudeville houses, two movie palaces and the old Bangor Opera House, which was offering a live production of the ever popular “Peck’s Bad Boy.”
In its newspaper advertisement, the management of the Gaiety theater, a vaudeville house on Central Street, summed up the precariousness of the situation: “It’s not the theater that makes the show — It’s the show that makes the theater.” Fancy architecture wasn’t entertaining.
Attendance that night was placed at 2,700 people, including the mayor and other notables. Even with two shows, this was a remarkable feat, since seating was described as being less than 1,000 counting the orchestra and the balcony. “Hundreds of others” were turned away at the doors (three sets of double doors, seven feet high).
Herlihy and Freeman would learn in the months ahead that every night was not opening night. With performers to pay as well as a theater staff of eight including an orchestra director and a stage manager — and who knows how many other entities raking off a cut of the take — the days ahead would not be easy ones. Tickets ranged in price from a nickel to 20 cents. All the electric light bulbs in the world would not attract an audience.
On Nov. 22, both Bangor papers announced that the Gem building’s lease had been turned over to yet another management company, Abram Amusement Co. of Portland, “proprietors of Dreamland in Boston, Dreamland in Bath, the Johnson Opera House in Gardiner and Farwell Opera House in Rockland.” The theater would be closed for a week for further improvements so Bangoreans could have their own “dreamland.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.