Stand backstage at the Criterion Theatre in Bar Harbor, and it is easy to feel like you’ve stepped back in time 80 years. The historic theater hasn’t changed all that much since it was built in 1932, in the last days of the vaudeville era and the early days of movies. Close your eyes, and you can smell the perfume of society ladies at plays and musical revues, the popcorn popping for screenings of talking pictures and the pine rosin applied to violin bows during classical concerts.
The theater’s opening was heralded as a major cultural milestone for eastern Maine. Vanderbilts, Rockefellers and Fords rented out the private loges in the balcony. The weekly plays, concerts and fundraisers were regularly listed in The New York Times. For many years, it was a glamorous center of activity in the town.
The opulent silk tapestries adorning the walls, though frayed in a few places, are still hanging. All 796 of the original seats still are there. The stunning chandelier still holds court over the auditorium, and upstairs in the balcony lobby there’s a museum-quality 1930s film projector. Even the original doorknobs are there, with their beautifully symmetrical art deco flourishes. There’s a reason the building is on the National Register of Historic Places. Despite the normal wear and tear of age, it’s a well-preserved treasure.
You might not know that, though, unless you’re older than a certain age or grew up on Mount Desert Island. Since the early 1990s, the Criterion has had inconsistent programming and a litany of financial, legal and interpersonal problems to overcome. Aside from weekend movies and one-off events, the Criterion has stayed mostly empty and silent, despite the millions of visitors that flock to the island each year.
Not for much longer, though. Not if Hancock County native son Joshua Raymond, current Criterion manager Tom Burton and other dedicated volunteers have their way.
“It blows my mind that this community hasn’t fully utilized the Criterion. It is absolutely gorgeous, and it’s a huge part of Bar Harbor history,” said Raymond, 28. “Why haven’t there been daily tours of the building, during the summer? Why don’t we have a Wikipedia page? There are 3 million people each year that come to visit Acadia. Why isn’t the Criterion a part of their visit?”
There are lots of reasons for that — mishandling of money, lawsuits, debt and even an embezzlement arrest in the early 1990s have set the theater back, even as it tries to move forward. Raymond and company seek to put an end to that seemingly cursed past, however, as they try to wipe the slate clean and start again.
“We want to gut everything in terms of how the board of directors is structured, and the overall mission of the theater, and start fresh and make it prosper,” said Raymond. “There is incredible potential for programming here that has never been capitalized on. That starts now.”
The issues that have plagued the Criterion over the past 20 years are too numerous to list in full here. In 1994, then-manager Michael Morison, son of Betty Jean Morison, who owned the theater for 34 years, was arrested for embezzling $60,000 from the Criterion. In 2001, local entrepreneurs Michael Boland, Sam Hamill and Martin Sheriden bought the building from Morison, only to put it back on the market a year later.
In 2007, Anthony Uliano and Erin Early-Ward purchased the building for $1.4 million, and a nonprofit group led by Bar Harbor resident Rob Jordan was formed to operate the facility. The Ulianos divorced soon after, and Erin Early-Ward is currently the sole owner.
A new marquee, constructed in 2009, cost significantly more money than the Criterion board expected it to. Those loan repayments, coupled with a high lease payment and a $4,000 fine levied by the town of Bar Harbor due to unannounced changes to the look of the marquee, have led to any profit seen by the theater’s programming being swallowed up almost immediately.
Last summer, Early-Ward threatened to evict the Criterion board, who are the lessees, because of unpaid rent. In August, former manager Benjamin Smith abruptly left his position, citing the organization’s ongoing financial problems and a lack of communication between him and the board of directors as his reasons for quitting. Burton replaced Smith in late September, and has been working for free ever since.
The board now owes Early-Ward $30,000, which must be paid by the first week of January. Raymond is working on attaining that money through a local source, though nothing is assured until the check has cleared.
“I think the community has lost a lot of faith in [the Criterion],” said Raymond, who came on board with the theater last fall. “They’ve seen all the problems it has had over the years, and they understandably question whether or not anyone can really do what needs to be done with it. But we can do that. I promise you, we can do that.”
The first part of Raymond’s mission is to get the Criterion on firm financial footing. Once the $30,000 lease payment is made, the board of directors can then proceed with what has been its goal from the beginning: to purchase the building.
“All the payments we’ve had to make over the years, especially the lease and the marquee, have really dragged us down, and we can’t really do the things we need to do until we own the building,” he said. “I have been working on a brand-new, revamped budget and business plan that incorporates the structure of repayments, so we can get current on immediate debts. In the initial months of 2011, we should be able to secure a bank loan to cover the purchase of the building. It has been a long process, but it’s time.”
Once that happens, the job is to bring in other parts of the Bar Harbor community, such as College of the Atlantic and Jackson Laboratory, not only to serve on the board but also to be involved in programming.
“We haven’t been the community center we should be, so through cooperation with COA and other groups, we can be that,” he said. “We can rent the theater for rehearsal space for theater groups. We can have yoga and book clubs. We can offer highly discounted or free rental for student groups, or for whatever Jackson Lab might want to do. Why shouldn’t we be using it, every chance we can get?”
Bar Harbor’s Z Studio has redesigned the Criterion’s website, complete with a new logo and color scheme reflecting the theater’s art deco decor. There’s also new programming that started in early December and has a selection of independent features and documentaries, theatrical readings and puppet performances and HD broadcasts of theater and opera from Europe. On New Year’s Eve, the theater will host a local band fundraiser, featuring eight Maine bands and musicians.
The Criterion will likely remain dark from January through March as more money troubles are sorted out and the restructuring of the board proceeds. By the spring, though, Raymond hopes to unveil a full spring, summer and fall schedule — one that incorporates film, theater, music and community events in a consistent way that reflects the former glory of the once-great theater.
“We have one of the most versatile spaces in Hancock County, and we’ve been just kind of letting it rot for far too long,” he said. “We can be a center for the arts in Down East Maine, just like we used to be.”
For more information on the Criterion Theater, visit criteriontheater.com. The New Year’s Eve fundraising party will feature music from Audrey Ryan, Bowen Swersey, Deja Blues, Erik Horschak, Jill and Mark “Bluesboy” Kanter, Suz and Gabe Wood and Dirty Dill and His Late Night Plan. The show starts at 8 p.m., admission is $5, and it is open to all ages. For links to an array of PDF files of old 1930s and 1940s news clippings featuring the Criterion Theatre, visit www.criteriontheatre.com/press.html.