November 20, 2018
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Community looks to revitalize ‘endangered’ historic theater

For the past 10 years, there has been a void in downtown Waldoboro as the once-vibrant Waldo Theatre, which has been closed for four years, has slowly fallen into a state of disrepair.

But the memories of the the theater’s heyday, and the possibility of what an active theater could bring to the small coastal community, have lit a fire for a small group of residents who are trying to bring the Waldo back to life.

“As someone who has lived here for just about 40 years, everytime you drive by and see this place closed, and you remember what it used to do, it feels like a huge hole. Just knowing that the streets were always packed with cars and that there was a lot of vitality,” said Janet McMahon, president of the Waldo Theatre Board of Directors.

Opening in 1936 as a state-of-the-art movie house, the Waldo Theatre long served as a community hub in Waldoboro. But in 2008, due to a lack of leadership and fundraising, the theater entered a period of decline, shuttering its doors entirely in 2014.

The theater was placed on the National Historic Register in the 1980s, but in 2017 it was named as one of the most endangered historic places in Maine by the organization Maine Preservation.

Around 2016, deterioration began to show on the roof of the building, making it clear that the roof was failing. The prospect of losing the physical integrity of the theater prompted several community members to reestablish a board of directors and begin working on restoring and reopening the Waldo. The first step on the road to reopening the Waldo will be fixing the roof.

“It was a lot of committed community members saying, ‘If we don’t do something on our watch, we’re going to lose it forever,’” Keri Lupien, vice president of the board of directors said. “Then we realized that this is a viable project, and that we can do and should do it.”

The nonprofit that owned the theater, Waldo Theatre, Inc., still existed. All that was needed was a new board, a vision and, of course, funding.

After taking time to organize behind the scenes, assess the work that needs to be done to the building and create a plan for the theater’s restoration, the board recently launched a campaign to raise more than $700,000 needed to bring the theater back in working order. They hope to reopen the theater by 2020.

“I have yet to meet one person who has said, ‘Give up, it’s not worth it,’” McMahon said. “It doesn’t matter what your background is, I think everyone sees the values of the arts in a community.”

The Waldo Theatre is deceptive in appearance. With a brick facade, you wouldn’t expect that the interior would be reminiscent of an art deco New York City theater. The Waldo was designed by architect Benjamin Schlanger, according to Lupien. Schlanger helped design Lincoln Center in New York and the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C.

When the theater was built, it was outfitted with projection and audio systems that were state of the art for their time. During the 1930s and 1940s, Lupien said the Waldo was known as “Maine’s Little Radio City.”

“It’s really this hidden gem that is a real work of art,” Lupien said.

In 1957, the theater shuttered its doors for the first time. Lupien said this was due to a decline in interest for movies as television came onto the scene. The theater did not reopen again until the 1980s when it was purchased by a local doctor who fixed up the Waldo and shifted the venue’s focus to live theater.

The current board of the Waldo Theatre envisions the space being used for a wide variety of purposes: live community and professional theater, programming for children, live music, educational panels and simply as a place for the community to gather.

The push to reopen the Waldo Theatre is coinciding with what town manager Julie Keizer calls a “period of revitalization” in Waldoboro.

After economic downturn during the early 2000s, Keizer said new businesses are opening in Waldoboro, including a brewery that was started in the footprint of an old alpaca farm. A new soap making business has also popped up in town along with a wood-fired catering company, Lupien said.

“Businesses are coming back to town, culture is coming back to town. It’s really important that we support [the growth],” Keizer said.

McMahon and Lupien see the restoration of the Waldo Theatre adding a needed piece to this revitalization, by offering the potential for a wide scope of arts and entertainment options to compliment shops and restaurants.

With surrounding communities, like Rockland, recently undergoing their own downtown revitalizations that have been fueled by the arts, Lupien asks: “Why can’t we have that? Why can’t Waldoboro have something to be proud of?”

While still early on in the campaign to reopen the theater, Waldo Theatre board of directors is hoping that this kind of revitalization can be the story for Waldoboro, too.

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