BAR HARBOR, Maine — More than a month after a previous manager quit and walked away, leaving the theater dark for weeks, a new manager has been hired and is working to reopen the Criterion Theater.
Joseph “Tom” Burton is the new person in charge of the theater’s day-to-day operations. But the theater’s future is dependent not so much on its personnel as it is on its ability to raise money in a short period of time. If it can’t raise enough cash, the group that operates the theater might find itself out on the street.
Burton, a longtime local businessman and elected municipal official, said Thursday that the theater group is expected to meet its most pressing deadline. He said it has raised enough money to make its Oct. 1 lease payment of $15,000. He said he had been asked by the theater group’s board to set up a time on Friday with the theater building’s owner, Erin Early Ward, to give her the check.
“I believe we’ll be able to make the payment,” Burton said. “That was the first real hurdle [of my new job].”
The next lease payment is due in December, he said.
“We probably need to raise between $10,000 and $12,000 to get the doors open again,” Burton said. “We can get this place up and running in a matter of days if we can get the money.”
The theater has been shuttered since mid-August, when Benjamin Smith, the previous manager, decided to close the theater and walk away. Smith cited the organization’s ongoing financial problems and a lack of communication between him and the board of directors as his reasons for quitting.
Smith’s actions came as a surprise to the board, which has been hoping to reopen the theater as quickly as possible.
In addition to hiring Burton, the theater group also plans to hire Historic Theater Consultants of Tucson, Ariz., to help it develop a strategic plan.
One of Burton’s first duties was to host a public forum last week so members of the community could share ideas with theater officials about programming. Burton said between 35 and 45 people showed up at the theater — “a good turnout” given the short notice people had for the forum, he said.
“It went real well,” Burton said. “We wanted the community to get in here and tell us what they want.”
Burton, who is working for free, said the theater is not likely to continue showing first-run movies from Hollywood studios because of the cost and commitment involved. Other types of events, such as plays, live music, dance, comedy, independent films and simulcast events, will be more prominently featured in the theater’s schedule, he said.
Burton said the theater likely will close for a few months after Christmas. The nonprofit group spent $45,000 on heating fuel during the winter of 2007-08, its first in the 877-seat theater, which is part of the reason it continues to have financial problems, he said.
Another contributing factor is the theater’s marquee, which was rebuilt in 2008 for $150,000, according to reports. Last winter, the theater was fined $4,000 by the town for not getting full approval for the marquee’s final design.
A statement released last week by the theater group’s board of directors indicates that Burton is “the right man” to run the theater.
“Bringing in someone like Tom, who has the ability to hit the ground running, combined with a long-term vision for the operations of the theater, was critical to the success of the organization,” the statement said.