The Bijou Theater opened its doors on March 28, 1910, a century ago yesterday. Readers who grew up in the Bangor area before the theater was torn down in the early 1970s most likely remember the Exchange Street landmark with nostalgia. The Bijou, with its ornate decor and big balcony, is high on the list of celebrated buildings many feel should never have been sacrificed to urban renewal.
The Bijou opened as a vaudeville house during the Queen City’s theater renaissance in the early 20th century. At that time, the Bangor Opera House already specialized in Broadway plays and other theatrical productions. The Nickel and the Graphic theaters featured movies and illustrated songs. The Gaiety and Acker’s played vaudeville. The Gem started with vaudeville and switched to movies — before being transformed into the Bijou.
On Jan. 8, 1910, the newspapers announced that the recently renovated Gem, at 164 Exchange St., was closing for alterations for a second time in less than a year. Two months later, on March 8, the papers announced a seismic shift in the Queen City’s theater scene. The Keith syndicate, the famous entertainment conglomerate that operated theaters in Boston, New York and many smaller cities, would take control of the Gem. It would be renamed the Bijou. The Gaiety, which the Keiths operated in the old, out-of-date Norombega Hall on Central Street, would close.
The newspapers were fawning in their praise of the Keiths. B.F. Keith, the patriarch, was “an amusement Napoleon whose reputation is as broad as the country itself.” The Keiths already operated the Nickel, and had found success as well with the Gaiety. Now the company would watch its new investment carefully to see whether Bangor lived up to its expectations as a place to make even more money exhibiting animal acrobats and song-and-dance comedians.
The immediate plan called for enlarging the balcony, elevating the seats, adding a retiring room for the ladies and a smoking room for the men, and several other changes. The building seated only about 600 people, but if the new arrangement was profitable, the Keiths promised to build a much larger theater in a few months with as many as 1,500 seats, and to bring in the “metropolitan vaudeville for which Bangor has long been hungering.”
If all these details seem a little dry today, they weren’t to Bangoreans back then. The plans were discussed by ministers in pulpits and by businessmen at their clubs. Some people felt Bangor had too many theaters. While these theaters could be an educational force, they also could be places to waste time and pick up sinful ideas. Couldn’t the money be better invested in factories, some of the city’s hardheaded, bottom-line men wondered? These same theaters, of course, were often packed and they attracted visitors from all over eastern Maine, helping to promote business and guarantee that Bangor would remain an entertainment capital, if not a logging capital.
The Bijou faced a daunting array of competition from the city’s other theaters the day it opened. The comedian Charley Grapewin was performing onstage at the Opera House in a brand-new show called “Above the Limit.” At the Nickel, four features were showing, including “Pirate’s Airship,” while the illustrated songs were “I’m Not Mad at You” by Miss Hall and “Till We Meet Again Dear Love” by Mr. Brown. The Graphic offered a similar array of films, including “In Old California,” and popular songs.
Acker’s, the city’s other vaudeville house, had the most to lose from the Bijou’s intrusion. It featured the usual formula — a comedy circus consisting of dogs, ponies, monkeys and Maud the bucking mule, some singers of popular songs, a “playlet” and “a child wonder.”
The Bijou’s fare on opening day was similar to Acker’s and what had been at the Gaiety, now closed. White’s Comedy Mules were the lead attraction. Watching aspiring riders fall off the ornery critters was the highlight. Dan Dawson, the famous English character comedian, sang songs in a cockney accent, while the Bennett Trio performed acrobatic stunts. Gordon & Keyes were “colored singers, comedians and wooden shoe breakers.” J. Butler Haviland and Alice Thornton performed a playlet, “The Veteran.” A few moving pictures rounded out the performances. Bangoreans filled the theater that night.
The manager of the Bijou was Stephen Bogrett, former manager of the Nickel and the Gaiety. “He is gifted with a pleasant personality, business acumen and tact,” remarked the Bangor Daily News the morning after the theater’s official opening. But that wasn’t all. Bogrett also had a gift for knowing what the public wanted, and he had boosted the quality of the shows at the Gaiety. “He has realized easily and promptly what can’t seem to be pounded into the heads of many managers — that Bangor is just like a part of Boston or some other big city, and simply won’t stand for anything that isn’t clean and good.”
A year or so later, after the Great Fire (which spared the Bijou), work began on a major enlargement of the theater. Another grand opening was held in 1912. The Bijou became a major institution in Bangor’s entertainment world.
Unlike the Gaiety, the Gem, Acker’s and several other theaters that have been forgotten, the Bijou is still fondly remembered. Many people, I suspect, would gladly pay the price of a new DVD player, perhaps even a home entertainment center, for a chance to go back in time to the old theater to revisit once more what popular entertainment was all about before the big-box theaters and the VCR took a lot of the fun out of going to the movies.
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.