June 21, 2018
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Booze baron’s Christmas gift to Bangor

By Wayne E. Reilly, Special to the BDN

One of Bangor’s most prominent theater entrepreneurs a century ago was also one of its most prominent bootleggers. When Pope D. McKinnon was not dodging the liquor squad, he was the proprietor of two of the city’s six theaters. One of them, the Star, billed as the city’s most capacious, opened on Christmas Day, a century ago this week.

Pope D. McKinnon certainly wasn’t prominent in the circles populated by the Queen City’s wealthy lumber barons and other social elite. But if you were to ask a logger on vacation from the lumber camps for a good place to get a drink and rent a room, McKinnon’s Globe Hotel would have been at or near the top of the list.

McKinnon, a native of Prince Edward Island, created part of the economic infrastructure that provided services to the thousands of loggers, sailors and other laborers who passed through Bangor annually.

His four-story boarding house at 44 French St. contained “upwards of 85 comfortably furnished sleeping rooms,” according to a Bangor Daily Commercial supplement promoting city businesses in 1912. McKinnon, who was praised as “a pusher” or a hard worker, also employed 10 or 15 men manufacturing cigars in a factory adjoining the hotel, and he ran a café down on Exchange Street. He also invested in downtown real estate.

McKinnon was known far and wide. When a reporter for the Boston Evening Transcript visited Bangor in 1911 to write a long profile of the city’s logging culture, he described McKinnon as “an inn-keeper, restaurateur, amateur banker, humanist, raconteur and hotel clerk. His guests are as a cloud of witnesses about — of all ages, all sizes and one sex.” That sex, of course, was male.

McKinnon was “firm but kind” whether extending credit to impoverished loggers or giving a nickel to his daughter if she got “100” on a school paper, noted the reporter from Boston. McKinnon said he provided up to 1,200 meals a day when the loggers were in town, “but there ain’t a day goes by that I don’t give forty meals free.”

The reporter even had the nerve to describe the illegal barroom that made the Globe Hotel so popular, but in a sneaky kind of way, couched in euphemisms and metaphors: “First impression: a blue haze; second, dim shapes with elbows crooked; third, a long bar; fourth, rapid transit of strong waters; oh, the very strongest, qualified to lay the seasoned toper [heavy drinker] out cold; fifth, of the efficacy of complete prohibition.” In other words, Maine’s prohibition law didn’t work.

In modern times, McKinnon has been forgotten except by a discerning few such as the late Sandy Ives, University of Maine folklorist. Once they were done piling logs by the frozen streams and rivers in the Great North Woods to wait for ice out, Ives wrote, the men headed for Bangor “for a few flaming hours at Barney Kelly’s [saloon] or Aunt Hat’s place [house of ill repute] up in Veazie until there was nothing left but to let Pope McKinnon stand them for their room and board until it was time to go back up on the drive.”

Besides a bed, a lodger needed to be entertained. That meant liquor and beer even though Maine’s first-in-the-nation prohibition law banned it. In the Bangor papers between 1904 and 1913, McKinnon’s name appears perhaps more than any other innkeeper in the police columns as the target of raids and some arrests — either his or his employees.

For example, between May 12 and July 7, 1913, the Globe Hotel and its outbuildings were raided by the sheriff’s department at least five times, its “hides” discovered and monumental stashes of alcohol carried off. McKinnon was arrested and charged with “illegal deposit,” according to a story on May 30 in the Bangor Daily News.

McKinnon apparently considered the new silent films another

commodity for keeping his lodgers happy. The erection of new theaters was also a way to develop his real estate acquisitions.

His love affair with the cinema became widely known in 1911 when he told a Bangor Daily News reporter that he intended to build a theater on Exchange Street. He had already hired a well known local architect, Victor Hodgins. But he seemed more interested in hiring the singers who filled in between the reels.

“I am going to make a special effort to get good singers — it’s a hobby of mine,” said McKinnon. “Some of those now appearing in popular places are no Carusos.”

The 500-seat Palace Theater opened Feb. 1, 1912, at 95 Exchange St. boasting a four piece orchestra. The 150 incandescent lights illuminating the front, the lobby’s ornamental steel work and white mosaic tile floor and the “inverted chandeliers” providing “indirect lighting” in the auditorium — these and other features were deemed worth noting in the press.

A little over a year later, the same newspaper announced that Pope D. McKinnon “and others” were planning to build an even bigger movie theater, once again designed by Victor Hodgins, at the corner of State and Park streets. One of its “many pleasant surprises” would be “upholstered seats.” The commanding location was near three new buildings — the federal building, the high school and the public library.

Groundbreaking was a momentous occasion just like everything else McKinnon did.

“A dynamite blast at the corner of State and Park streets at 5 a.m. Friday scattered a large amount of small rock…breaking eight or 10 windows in the Pearl block, crashing through the roof of the Largay building, breaking off a piece of the cornice from the Bangor Real Estate building, smashing two small holes through the glass pavement in front of the Pearl building and breaking windows at the McAloon building and the Adams block. No one was hurt, which is considered to be remarkably fortunate, as the rocks flew in all directions,” reported the Bangor Daily Commercial on June 20, 1913.

There is much confusion about the name of this theater today. At the time, McKinnon said he planned to name it the Palace, and his other theater, on Exchange Street, would be called the Palace Annex. When it opened, however, on Christmas Day, the new theater was called the Star.

Within a year or so, the Star had been renamed the Park Theater. In the 1914 Bangor City Directory, McKinnon is listed as the proprietor of both theaters as well as president of the Star Theater Corporation. By 1916, however, both theaters had disappeared from his city directory resume.

What happened to McKinnon’s Bangor theater connections is hard to tell today without more information. McKinnon had business interests in New Brunswick as well as Bangor, which may have attracted his attention in the months ahead. Or his theaters more than likely may have turned out to be a bad investment for him.

The “mammoth new theater” boasted 1,500 seats, which gave it the largest seating capacity of any of the city’s theaters. Its six-piece orchestra was “something entirely new to a Bangor movie house,” and the two huge electric signs by the entrance announcing the name of the theater brightened the busy corner. Every seat commanded a perfect view of the screen: “No pillars, No posts,” reported one of the newspapers in the days leading up to the grand opening on Christmas Day, 1913.

The singers, Helen Tarr and Jack Sheridan, were also, of course, better than average. “There will be none of the old-fashioned illustrated songs, for they went out of date years ago,” Mckinnon announced. The bouncing ball would be replaced by talented soloists.

Ironically, the bad boy of Bangor booze hired ex-Chief of Police John C. Bowen to stand at the front door keeping things orderly.

McKinnon, the owner of a seedy boarding house where his lodgers regularly drank themselves under the table, had presented Bangor with its finest Christmas gifts ever.

It was the golden age of entertainment. Now, six theaters — The Bijou, The Nickel, the Opera House, the Graphic, the Palace and the Star — had turned the downtown into a remarkable entertainment center. Large auditoriums at City Hall and out on Main Street at the Bangor Auditorium contributed to this mix that featured Broadway shows, grand opera, vaudeville, movies and orchestra and band performances. Famous actors, musicians, lecturers and celebrities of all sorts were often featured.

Bangor was justly proud of its entertainment diversity and its new theaters and even its bright new street lights, which some compared to what could be had in big cities.

Wayne E. Reilly’s column on Bangor a century ago appears in the newspaper every other Monday. His new book, “Hidden History of Bangor: From Lumbering Days to the Progressive Era,” is available where books are sold. Comments can be sent to him at wreilly.bdn@gmail.com

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