BAR HARBOR, Maine — Despite what the theater marquee suggested Monday, the president of the group that runs the Criterion said that the theater has not closed for the season.

“We are now closed,” reads one end of the marquee. On the front, it said, “Thanks for a great season.”

On Friday, Aug. 20, during an evening when late-summer tourists crowded downtown Bar Harbor’s busy sidewalks and shops, the unlit theater marquee listed dates for the movie “Inception,” but the door was locked and inside was dark.

Ron Jordan, head of the Criterion Theater and Arts Center, said Monday that the theater’s former house manager, Benjamin Smith, decided “arbitrarily” last week to cease theater operations. However, Smith did not have approval from the theater’s board of directors to do so, he said.

“He was not authorized by the board to close the theater,” Jordan said. “We’re in the process of getting a new house manager for the rest of the season.”

Jordan said the group hopes to resume operations at the theater as soon as possible.

Jordan said that, as far as he knows, Smith’s actions were unconnected with an ongoing dispute the theater group has had with the building’s owner, Erin Early-Ward. Early-Ward had sought to begin eviction proceedings with the organization, saying it had not kept up with its rental payments.

Jordan said the group reached an agreement last Wednesday with Early-Ward to end the eviction proceedings.

Attempts Monday and Tuesday to contact Early-Ward were unsuccessful. No one answered the door Monday at Early-Ward’s home, and she is not listed in the local phone book. An employee at Early-Ward’s fabric store said Tuesday that she was out of town.

Smith said Tuesday that he decided last week to shut the theater down and walk away because of a lack of communication between him and the board. He said he was worried last week about having enough money to pay vendors, movie studios and employees when he found out from the theater’s bank that the theater’s board of directors had written a $5,000 check to Early-Ward. He said he found out that the check was part of the agreement with the landlord.

“Not being able to pay my employees was my biggest fear,” Smith said.

Smith said he has had difficulty all summer making sure the theater’s bills could be paid. When he found out from the bank about the check to Early-Ward, he said, he decided it was time for him to move on, but not before he made sure the theater’s employees were paid with money orders.

Smith said he wants the theater to succeed but that he’s not sure it can happen with the current makeup of the board of directors. He has worked for the Criterion for six years, since before Early-Ward owned it and the nonprofit tenant was established, he said. He and his wife bought a house in Finland in June, he added, but he returned to Bar Harbor to try and help the theater get turned around financially.

“This whole year has been really uncertain,” Smith said. “I’ve never dealt with this much stress in my life.”

According to Jordan, the theater still has to come up with the remainder of its 2010 rent, which he estimated to be around $30,000, by the end of the year. If it does, he said, the arts group will have the option of buying the theater in 2011. He said the group is seeking donations to help it pay off its rent for this year.

Exercising the purchase option would have multiple benefits, according to Jordan. It would enable the theater to launch its capital campaign, he said, because donors are more willing to support a purchase effort than they are ongoing lease payments. Besides eliminating the lease payments, he added, buying the building would enable the arts group to earn revenue from the businesses in the theater’s storefront spaces on Cottage Street and to apply for grants. The group is not eligible for many grants because it does not own the theater, he said.

The arts group has been at odds with Early-Ward since January over its possible eviction.

Last winter, the town fined the theater $4,000 for not getting full approval for its rebuilt marquee, the cost of which has been reported to be $150,000. The design of the marquee was altered to include elements not approved by the town when it gave the go-ahead to rebuild it.

Jordan said that despite its problems, the group has tried for the past three years to provide Mount Desert Island with a variety of programming, including films, live music, workshops, community events and theatrical productions.

“Needless to say it has not been easy,” Jordan said in a prepared statement. “Between cost overruns with the marquee, internal problems with the board of directors, and a difficult financial climate, our challenge is great.”

Early-Ward bought the theater in 2007 with her then-husband, Anthony Uliano, from local restaurateur Michael Boland for $1.4 million. At the time of the sale, the newly formed arts group signed a 99-year lease on the theater and was given a 10-year time period to buy it outright.

According to the town’s official online assessing database, Early-Ward acquired the theater from her ex-husband at no cost on Nov. 19, 2009.

The art deco Criterion Theater, which first opened in June 1932, has 877 seats, including 88 in the upstairs “loge” or balcony, according to the theater’s official website.

Bill Trotter

Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....