Bangor’s most elegant theater — more glamorous today perhaps because it was torn down shortsightedly during Urban Renewal — opened a century ago this week. The Titanic had sunk a few days before, but doubtlessly, for some who attended the grand opening, the hoopla surrounding the Bijou Theater’s second coming would dominate their memories of that week in history for years to come.
This wasn’t the first Bijou. A smaller vaudeville house by the same name had opened in the same location at 164 Exchange St. two years before (replacing yet another theater, the Gem). The second Bijou was so much more grandiose that April 18, 1912 came to be regarded as its official birth by most sources.
The reopening of the Bijou and the opening of a second new theater, the Palace, which began showing movies nearby at 95 Exchange St. in early February, were just the latest signs that Bangor’s economy was still hot after the big fire that destroyed 55 downtown acres the previous April. The fire destroyed two Central Street theaters, the old Norombega Hall (which contained the Gaiety vaudeville house) and the Nickel, the city’s first movie theater.
Nothing could keep theaters down in that era. The Nickel soon moved to a building on Union Street, while the expanded Bijou absorbed the functions of the Gaiety. All three theaters were operated by the powerful Keith theater chain, which, it was believed, would reward Bangor for its enthusiastic backing of popular entertainment by sending a higher class of vaudeville to the Queen City, on par with Portland and Boston.
That was the promise. “Our vaudeville will be much better than we had at the old Bijou … We shall have all of the important acts this spring which play the Keith theater in Portland,” theater manager Steve Bogrett told a reporter for the Bangor Daily News on March 28 as the new Bijou neared completion.
There was plenty of cash around to finance new theaters. There was room for all classes of entrepreneurs. The Palace was built by Pope D. McKinnon, proprietor of the Globe Hotel, which was located in a rundown neighborhood on French Street.
“The Pope” was an aficionado of horse racing and liquor dealing, having had more than one run-in with the police. He hoped to use a hall upstairs for boxing exhibitions and dancing. He considered himself a connoisseur of movie house singers. “It’s a hobby of mine,” he told the Bangor Daily News on Sept. 14, 1911.
The Bijou was owned by Edward H. Blake, a scion of great wealth as well as a former Bangor mayor. A lawyer, as well as a composer of music and poetry, Blake was president of the Merchants National Bank, a large stockholder at the Bangor Daily News, which was located next to the theater, and a major downtown property owner. A prominent yachtsman, he held memberships in several yacht clubs as well as Bangor’s famed Tarratine Club. When he died in 1922, his estate was valued at more than $2 million, said the Bangor Daily Commercial.
Blake’s theater was leased by the Keiths. The theater building was extended back to the Kenduskeag Stream and widened to take over space previously occupied by a storehouse belonging to the J. M. Arnold shoe company. It was decorated to a level of ornateness never before seen in Bangor.
Opening night was a grand affair, so grand that the reporter assigned by the Bangor Daily News had to strain to find enough superlatives. Here are a few excerpts of his review:
“Long lines of automobiles were drawn up in Exchange street, and for an hour their faultlessly attired occupants streamed beneath the blazing circles and pyramids of lights which made the street bright as day. It was a remarkable scene in the big auditorium — big, yet with a skillfully conveyed sense of coziness and intimacy: a splendid audience … set amid surroundings of old rose and ivory, of beautiful paintings and massive plastic (plaster?) relief.”
Exclamations of surprise could be heard inside the theater at the “lavish luxury displayed on every side,” the reporter continued. “The little cupids and seashells in plastic relief adorning the front of the balcony; the life-sized feminine figures surmounting the boxes; the immense painting — glowing, graceful groups in the semi-nude against an azure background — which glorifies the great sweep of the outer proscenium arch; the massive centerpiece [“a large ornamental light hanging from the ceiling drop and about it … four globes throwing light upon the ceiling”], which one could admire for hours and not waste his time; the deep rose and old ivory wonderfully blending in the color scheme, the whole reflected in the golden gleam of myriads of concealed lights….” Eight “clean-looking young ushers, in the conventional Keith uniform of very deep blue, with black braid and gilt-lettered caps, were drawn up at the head of each long aisle.”
The show, five acts accompanied by an orchestra directed by Emile Beauparlant, was thought to be a notch above the typical vaudeville Bangoreans had come to expect. Every act came direct from a major Keith theater in either Boston, Lowell, Lynn or Portland, said the papers. But the content of these performances today sounds remarkably similar to what had been playing in Bangor vaudeville houses since the first one opened in 1908.
A “playlet” called “The Bandit,” starring E. Frederick Hawley, a well-known vaudeville star, topped the list. The Venetian Four, violinists and a harpist, performed “A Night in Venice,” set against various romantic backdrops. Other acts included Barnes & Robinson in “a melange of music and song;” Edward Estus, the “acme of athletic artistry” — a “sensational equilibrist;” and Speigel & Dunn, blackface comedians, a staple of vaudeville in those days. The performances were interspersed with movie shorts.
The theaters of the day were democratic institutions. Prices at the new Bijou ranged from 10 cents to 25 cents depending on whether one sat in the balcony or in a box over the stage. Almost anyone could afford to see one of the three daily performances.
The proliferation of electricity played a major role as well in making the Bijou the most glamorous place in town. “THOUSANDS OF LIGHTS ADORN NEW THEATER,” proclaimed a headline in the Bangor Daily News on April 1. A 22-foot-high sign spelling out the theater’s name in light bulbs and surmounted by a blazing star could be seen up and down Exchange Street. “Serpentine effects” — “flashes of yellow fire” ran up and down the sign, the reporter wrote, struggling for words. On top of the building and out back over the Kenduskeag Stream more lighted signs and effects made it difficult to be anywhere downtown without experiencing Bangor’s Great White Way.
“Bangor now has what it has long desired, a first-class, up-to-date vaudeville house, where the best features of the vaudeville world will be presented. The opening of the new house marks the beginning of a new theatrical era in Bangor,” concluded the Bangor Daily Commercial the day after the opening. Had the newspaper reporter been able to read the future, however, he might have changed the word “beginning” to pinnacle.
Knowing what we know about the course of popular entertainment, it would have been easy to count the years until the Queen City found itself unable to maintain its multitude of old fashioned theaters and their glorious mix of live plays, movies, vaudeville and opera.
Wayne E. Reilly’s column on Bangor a century ago appears every other Monday. Comments can be sent to him at email@example.com. The most detailed account of the history of the Bijou can be found in “Bangor’s Bijou & Mr. Bogrett” by Linda K. Branniff.