Bangor’s entertainment scene was transformed in less than a decade from one theater, the Bangor Opera House, primarily showing live productions featuring well-known stars, to several theaters — the Bijou, Park, Palace, Graphic and Nickel — featuring silent films and vaudeville along with occasional concerts, live drama and even a boxing match or two.
During the time span between 1907 when the first movie theater opened, and 1916, two years after the Opera House was destroyed by fire, Bangor residents got a whole new view of the world that included everything from famous movies such as “Birth of a Nation” to the latest Charlie Chaplin hits and World Series games.
One of the big local entertainment news stories in 1916 was that P.J. Feeney, owner of the opera house property, would rebuild the theater if the city would exempt it from taxes. The city said special tax treatment would be illegal, and Feeney’s plan was rejected for a time.
That same summer, Riverside Park, the outdoor theater and amusement center in Hampden owned by the Bangor Railway and Electric Company, opened for its final season. The popular warm-weather destination held its last shows during the week of Aug. 14.
The closing of Riverside Park marked the end of an era. Autos were gradually replacing trolleys, giving people freedom to find entertainment where they wished. Movies being shown in Bangor theaters as well as theaters in many nearby towns were rapidly surpassing in popularity the live plays, concerts and vaudeville acts offered at Riverside.
The most exciting entertainment story of the season, however, was the arrival in Bangor of a movie troupe complete with famous actors. “It is the first time the city proper has ever figured in the films,” said the Bangor Daily News, although it is unclear whether the resulting movie actually featured any footage of Bangor.
MOVING PICTURE STARS IN BANGOR, the newspaper announced on July 10, 1916. The subhead said, “Edmund Breese, Ormi Hawley and Others Here to Stage a Five-Reel Metro Thriller.” The names of those obscure folks today illustrate for us the transience of celebrity in the age of silent films.
The Penobscot River was “the most picturesque river in New England,” and the area was “rich in magnificent scenery,” but “film makers usually give us a wide berth,” lamented the reporter who wrote the story. Even Dustin Farnum, the famous movie actor from Bucksport, had been unsuccessful at convincing movie executives to make a film in the area, he wrote.
Breese’s name was “almost a household word.” He had appeared on “the legitimate stage” as well as in the silent films. He had been seen in Bangor several times both on stage in “The Count of Monte Cristo” in 1898, and in several movies.
Spotted in a Millinocket theater during the shooting of the current movie, the famous Breese was “forced to go on the stage and make a speech.”
Ormi Hawley’s “blonde beauty is familiar to most lovers of the silent drama.” Hawley, it seems, was something of a daredevil, “who has cheerfully risked her life that the movie patrons might have thrills. She had once been burned in “a premature explosion,” and “has had many narrow escapes.”
During an interview, she assured the reporter that director Harry Revier would never ask her to do anything that he wouldn’t do himself. Revier was notable in the movie world then for having filmed such famous scenes as “the burning of Rome.” Later he became famous for making “exploitation films” such as “Lash of the Penitentes” and “Child Bride,” according to his Wikipedia entry.
A noteworthy member of the company was actor George Harcourt, a Bangor native with a stage name. His father was John Holmes, a noted logger and lumberman who had drowned on the West Branch of the Penobscot in a log driving accident.
Harcourt had been on the stage for many years, “recently finishing a tour of 35 weeks in the support of Ethel Barrymore.” He had been invited to work on this movie because of his knowledge of the river.
The movie, tentatively named “The Iron Hand,” was going to be shot along the river in Grindstone, Costigan, Millinocket, Old Town and Bangor, as well as in a shipyard in Rockland. An old log-towing steam boat would figure as one of the major props.
Breese played a ruthless lumberman who sacrifices everything of value in his life, including his wife, for money, according to the ad copy that appeared in the Bangor papers when the film appeared in the Queen City a few months later.
Some spectacular scenes were planned including “the thrilling climax” — an explosion to break up a log jam using several “big charges of dynamite” after a fist fight on a log raft. A log driving contractor and the Great Northern Paper Co. had agreed to help set up these potentially dangerous scenes.
The newspapers followed production in a few more stories that month. On July 15, the Bangor Daily News reported that “the big explosion” in the log jam had taken place the day before about 20 miles from Millinocket, which had become the company’s headquarters.
By July 26, a “lurid and sensational” forest fire scene had been accomplished with the “liberal use of gasoline and smoke torches,” reported the newspaper. Deer, rabbits and some other wild animals released near the fire, however, had run into the flames instead of away from them to the consternation of the movie crew.
That afternoon, the Bangor Daily Commercial reported that local loggers watching the players’ antics in some of the whitewater scenes had condemned them as “reckless and foolhardy.”
Such comments, of course, would also attract audiences when the film was released.
A little more than two months later, the movie appeared in Bangor. It would be shown Wednesday and Thursday at the Park Theater, said the Bangor Daily News on Oct. 1. The name had been changed from “The Iron Hand” to “The Weakness of Strength.” It had been shot in Grindstone, Millinocket, Rockland and “many other places throughout Maine,” according to the newspaper advertisement. Bangor was not mentioned.
A large picture of Breese ran in the newspaper on Oct. 4 with some advertising copy declaring the film “a spectacular Metro dramatic production,” the first production starring the leading man since “The Spell of the Yukon.” It claimed, “No one excels Mr. Breese in daring adventures of out-door life.”
If nothing else, the movie offered authentic settings in the “pine-woods of Maine and on the Penobscot River.” The gigantic log jam in particular was filmed at Grindstone Falls, and part of the film was made in a “great shipbuilding concern in Rockland.”
In the Bangor Daily News the next day, a news brief noted that if a viewer watched carefully, he or she would be able to spot Edward Jordan of Bangor, a driver for a “public automobile business” that had been hired by the movie crew to transport them around. “He will be easily recognized by his friends,” declared the newspaper.
While making movies in Maine was unusual, at least one other film was released about this time, according to an advertisement in the Bangor Daily News on Nov. 15. “The Dawn of Love,” starring Mabel Taliaferro as a fisherman’s daughter, was playing at the Park Theater.
Filmed along the “northern coast of Maine,” it dealt with “strife between smugglers and customs officers.” The movie’s “big moments” included the burning of a lighthouse and “exciting scenes in the smugglers’ cave.” No town is mentioned.
Whatever happened to these movies? They would probably be more interesting today than they were in 1916. But like most silent films, they have been lost to time, according to various internet sites. Whether copies have been preserved on the shelf of a museum somewhere, however, remains to be seen.
Wayne E. Reilly’s column on Bangor a century ago appears in the newspaper every other Monday. His latest 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.