BELFAST, Maine — After two decades of renovation, innovation and great movies, Colonial Theatre co-owners Mike Hurley and Therese Bagnardi are putting their downtown Belfast icon up for sale.
But they’re not in a hurry to hand over the vibrant art deco theater, the one with the fiberglass elephant trumpeting on top.
“The right person has to come along,” Hurley said this week. “It’s a unique, iconic business. And a unique, iconic building.”
Bagnardi and Hurley, who are married, purchased the Colonial in 1995, in what he described as essentially a whim tempered with luck. Bagnardi’s business was in a dry spell and she was looking for something to do. Hurley opened up the paper and saw the real estate ad for the cinema, which has operated on High Street since the day the Titanic set sail in 1912.
“Three days later, we owned it,” he said. “We kid ourselves that we said what could there be to it? You make some popcorn and sell some tickets. Turned out, we had a lot to learn.”
The duo dove right in, first changing the then-two-screen theater’s color scheme from yellow and brown to the snazzy greens, purple and pink it is now. They fixed the neon sign that had broken out of the front marquee and then started in on the interior. They restored the lobby, which had previously featured a video rental business, and then got really creative and tunnelled underground to build a third theater, which they named “Dreamland.” All three theaters — Dreamland, Star and City — are named after the cinemas that dotted the downtown landscape years ago, Bagnardi said.
The elephants came from Perry’s Nut House on Route 1, which at that time had closed and had its treasures put on the auction block.
“Michael said we have to buy them,” Bagnardi recalled. When she asked him why, he told her they couldn’t leave town. And so they have stayed. Hawthorne, made of fiberglass, was put on the Colonial’s roof. Baby Hawthorne, made of wood and much heavier, was carried by local strong men to the lower lobby, where he remains today.
Both Bagnardi and Hurley said that they follow the show business and that the show starts on the sidewalk.
“You want the theater to be a special place to go,” Hurley said. “That’s why we spent money restoring it. We’re a small-town theater, but we want it to feel the way it feels at Radio City Music Hall.”
Liam Riordan, a University of Maine history professor and director of the University of Maine Humanities Center, said that downtown theaters like the Colonial matter a lot to the cultural lives of Maine communities.
“I do think theaters have played an extraordinary role as a hub of local culture,” he said, mentioning the recently-reopened Criterion in Bar Harbor, the Grand in Ellsworth, the Alamo in Bucksport and the Strand in Rockland as some other good examples of early 20th century downtown theaters that remain relevant up and down the coast. All but the Colonial are now operated as nonprofit organizations.
“Now all are multi-functional spaces and performance hubs,” Riordan said. “We do need these kinds of gathering spaces. They can include music and dance and lectures.”
Although theaters in general may be under some pressure by the growing ease and availability of home entertainment options, such as streaming videos, he said that their location is critical.
“I think it’s very much about the geography of where these theaters tend to be,” he said. “These early 20th century theaters are in downtowns. The location really lends them to be community hubs. The multiplex at the mall, which involves driving a car, is a different institution.”
‘The theater is the hub’
A few years ago, Hurley and Bagnardi had a big challenge when they were forced by the movie industry to convert from 35 millimeter film to digital prints. The digital switch was “extensive and expensive,” Bagnardi told the BDN in 2012.
Some Maine cinemas couldn’t survive the switch. Maine Coast Mall Cinemas in Ellsworth shut down in January. Casablanca Cinema 4 in Bethel showed its last film in September 2012 because it could not cross the digital divide into the future, according to the Boston Globe. A seasonal movie house in Milbridge is likely to stay closed after the December 2014 death of its longtime owner Dave Parsons, who had been getting pressure from movie distributors to convert to a digital format.
But the Colonial did it, with lots of help from the public, Hurley said, and that fact should put the theater in a good financial position for the next owners. When people ask him if the movie industry is in trouble, he tells them that 2015 is on track to be the highest grossing year in history in the country. And if the movies are doing OK around the country, they’re doing just fine in Belfast.
“We’re selling because we’ve been doing it for 20 years,” Hurley said. “When the free matinees start at the holidays, that is five weeks of intense work that doesn’t stop, morning to night.”
“In 20 years, we’ve done all we could,” Bagnardi said. “It’s time for somebody else.”
The couple also is selling the Temple Theatre in Houlton. That two-screen theater is listed for sale for $350,000. The Colonial is more, with a list price of $2.2 million.
It’s valuable to the community, said Breanna Pinkham Bebb of Our Town Belfast, a nonprofit group whose mission is to grow and sustain the city’s historic downtown.
“The theater is the hub of what we have to offer for entertainment, with things for families and people of all ages,” she said. “It’s probably a huge asset to people who are thinking of living here or who are coming on vacation here.”
Brook Ewing Minner, the new executive director of Northeast Historic Film in Bucksport, which runs the Alamo, said that the town supports its theater. That has especially been true as Bucksport weathers the recent sudden loss of its paper mill, which long has been the economic driver for the area.
“There’s a lot of pride in the Alamo. It means a lot to have a movie theater in the middle of Main Street for any town,” she said. “I sometimes think that there’s a misperception that everyone is home alone on the couch, staring at their phone, but I think it’s not true. People want to be together.”
Both Hurley and Bagnardi said they hope that a Belfast buyer will see the value of the Colonial as a community hub. Although they show art and independent films there, they also show summer blockbusters and family fare.
“We want it to be for everybody, and the new people, we hope they’ll also want to be for everybody,” Bagnardi said. “You kind of hope it’ll be a place for all kinds of gathering and social interaction. An operating theater in a downtown is not just an economic engine, but also a social hub.”