A first row of seats built 18 feet below the ground in a granite cliff. Two ghosts, maybe three depending on who you ask. Hidden passages. One of the last remaining hemp houses using an original wood grid system to manage sets.
The Bangor Opera House, home to the Penobscot Theatre Company since 1997, is a work of art in and of itself.
Once an Egyptian-art deco style vaudeville theater, the building with its cathedral ceiling and golden proscenium arch, harkens back to an era of opulence in Bangor — a time when the performing arts were king and Bangor was known as the Little Broadway of the North.
This week, the company will pull back the theater’s metaphorical curtain to offer patrons a look behind the scenes at the inner workings of one of Maine’s premier professional theaters.
A lone survivor
Richard Shaw, a Bangor historian and author, has been a patron of the theater for as long as he can remember. As a young man, he’d sometimes spend all afternoon there watching double features on the big screen.
The theater has undergone several transformations since it opened in 1898. It was first an opera house, then closed after burning nearly to the ground in a 1914 fatal fire that took the lives of two firefighters. Six years later, it opened as a vaudeville and cinema house.
These days, the theater boasts a subscriber list of almost 1,000 patrons, produces six to eight professional shows per year, produces three additional youth plays and employs 13 staffers.
“This is not a place to bring in a bunch of events but rather a home for a theater company,” Bari Newport, producing artistic director, said.
That legacy, Shaw said, is a part of what makes the opera house such an iconic fixture of downtown Bangor.
“What’s amazing is the fact that it’s a survivor to begin with. … The Bijou was torn down, others burned. It is the last survivor of the big five theaters that were downtown,” he said.
Its survival plays a big role in Bangor’s art scene, and Newport argues, its vitality.
“When you think about what makes a community, there’s usually schools, a place of law, a library. … A theater though is also pretty high up there in what makes a community,” she said.
Bangor’s theater is filled with quirky details, stories of performances by household names such as Oscar Wilde and Mae West. And like all good theaters, sometimes the dark corners and odd staircases to nowhere give the place an air of mystery.
Some say the theater is haunted by at least two ghosts. There’s a little girl frequently seen in a backroom that’s home to a broken chandelier and a lone armchair, and a man in turn of century clothing is sometimes spotted wandering the theater. Newport said she’s never seen either ghost, but both seem to leave patrons alone, and some people even claim they’ve seen a third ghost of one of the firefighters who died in the 1914 blaze.
The theater’s original floors are still intact, though in need of repair. Several rows of seats were removed when the theater stopped showing films. Holes where seats used to be bolted in are filled with light-colored wood putty.
The opera house is a fully operational hemp house, which means sets and lights are hung by rope weighted down by huge sandbags. A hundred years ago, sailors would man the ropes, whistling cue calls back and forth to each other when sets needed to change.
The “paint rail,” a long wooden railing along a catwalk near the back of the stage is covered with years of splattered paint in faded reds, greens and yellows. According to Newport, the paint rail got its name because it was where artists used to stand and paint backdrops, one square at a time as if they were creating a mural.
Many places throughout the theater still have faded red carpet, installed for a visit by Ronald Reagan during his first inaugural tour. And on occasion, patrons may stumble across a gold swatch on an otherwise colored wall.
Several years ago, the Penobscot Theatre Company hired a historic paint analyst from Boston who was able to peel back the layers and layers of paint on a few walls to reveal one of the original colors of paint — an orangey-gold to fit the Egyptian theme.
Because the space was originally built as an opera house, the actual stage sits far back from the audience, so the company now builds it out so the front row is right up close with the actors onstage.
“How the stage is changes the relationship of the audience to the play,” Newport said. “Most of the time you want to get the audience as close to the action as possible.”
On the move
In the coming weeks, the entire Penobscot Theatre Company scene shop, rows of costumes and housing for the company’s three apprentices, will move to a new location in the former Fire Station No. 6 at 4 Griffin Road. The Penobscot Theatre Company purchased the building last December after years of using donated warehouse space for its scene shop.
They will lose some square footage but won’t have to worry about finding landlords willing to donate space.
“Yes, we’re losing storage, but we’re gaining stability,” Newport said.
The theater company, which is operating just short of debt free, needs less than $50,000 to pay off the firehouse. Once they meet that goal, Newport said she and others will be less reserved about celebrating the new space.
“We don’t want to celebrate until we’ve raised all of the money, down to the very last penny,” she said.
Want to take a look inside the spaces? You can this weekend when the Penobscot Theatre Company is offering free tours of the historic Bangor Opera House and the new firehouse location.
Penobscot Theatre Company staff will offer guided tours of the theater from noon to 3 p.m. Saturday at 131 Main St., and firehouse tours will run every half hour between noon and 2:30 p.m. Reservations are required, and close-toed shoes are recommended.
For more information or to participate, call 942-3333 or email email@example.com.
Correction: An earlier version of this story included an incorrect email address for the PTC tours and the incorrect date for when the PTC purchased the theater. Both have been corrected.