FORT KENT, Maine — It’s been the site for countless first dates, break-ups, school trips, family nights out and at least one marriage proposal. That’s probably not that surprising though, given its long history in Fort Kent.
This summer, what is now The Century Theater celebrates 100 years of going to the movies.
To mark a century of movies the Fort Kent Historical Society is throwing a year-long party kicking off July 15.
“I’ve been thinking about this for three years,” said Chad Pelletier, society president. “There are so many memories associated with the theater.”
Pelletier has tracked down and collected a wealth of theater memorabilia going back to the early days of “talkies” when what was originally called The Savoy Theater offered a different movie every night six nights a week.
Among the finds that will be on display are old Savoy Posters that turned up after being used as wall insulation in old Fort Kent homes, paper movie playbills that at one time were placed on car windshields to advertise movies, numerous film clips, old movie reels, the original ticket stand and the old candy display case.
Those are the tangible pieces of the theater. Pelletier is also interested in the intangible — the memories people have of movies in Fort Kent.
“I remember the long rail going up the stairs,” said former Fort Kent Town Manager Alain Ouellette. “The ticket takers were at the top of those stairs and always had a smile for us.”
For children growing up in Fort Kent in the 1960s the theater was a popular gathering spot, Ouellette said.
“There was a time when a group of us used to hang around together and one particular Saturday there was a matinee with a movie that had ghosts and claws,” he said. “It was not even a ‘B’ horror movie, I think it was a ‘C’ horror movie.”
Walking in to watch that horror movie, Ouellette said, all the patrons were given 3-D glasses, something he and his friends had never seen before.
“We slipped them on and sad down to watch the movie and all of a sudden it came on and objects are coming toward me from the screen,” he said with a laugh. “I was probably 7 or 8 years old at the time and I remember I ran out of the theater, ran all the way home into my room, closed my door and stayed there the rest of the afternoon I was so terrified.”
Not everything scary was on the big screen at the theater, according to Pelletier.
“When I was growing up the woman who managed the theater was Gilberte Ouellette and we used to call her ‘Madame Flashlight,’” he said. “She did not put up with any nonsense and if you were causing any trouble, she’d swoop in, shine her flashlight on you and then swear at you in French or English — whatever would frighten you more.”
Youngsters working on the fall potato harvest would save their money and pray for a rainy day so work would be called off and they could spend their hard-earned dollars on a movie and candy, Pelletier said.
According to Pelletier, it all began in the early 1900s when a group of investors associated with an insurance company known as The Modern Woodsmen of America got together and purchased an old barn.
The building was moved from a lot that now houses the Fort Kent Post Office to what is now the parking lot of the present-day movie theater.
“At first they used the building as a public hall,” Pelletier said. “But by 1917 they started showing movies.”
In 1948 Aroostook County businessman the late Charles A.H. Brooks purchased The Savoy, along with just about every other movie hall in northern Maine.
“I remember dad going to Boston to pick out the movies he’d show over the next month or so,” his daughter Sarah Brooks said. “A lot of times those movies were flown up to him.”
Brooks also remembers her father traveling from their home in Ashland to Fort Kent to tend the theater there.
“It was just so great to into the old theater and spend time in the office and I can remember just how the doors looked and how that old marquis would look when it was all set up,” she said. “I remember how much I wanted the posters or photos that came with each movie, but dad always had to send them back.”
In 1969 the theater changed hands again and had a new home in a new building next to the old Savoy.
That was also Fort Kent’s centennial year and the theater was renamed The Century in honor of that milestone.
“It was really one of the most popular places in town,” Pelletier said. “And even today, with so many people having access to online movies and cable, it’s still popular.”
Which shows, said current owner Ben Paradis, the importance of having a movie theater in a small town.
“Doesn’t every town need a theater?” he said. “There is a need in every town for the arts, and that includes the cinematic arts.”
After taking the theater over several years ago, Paradis has worked to modernize the venue, including updating it to show digital movie formats.
That’s a long way from it’s earliest days when Pelletier said only silent films were available and local musicians would tickle the ivories on pianos next to the screen to provide a soundtrack and patrons came from both sides of the international border.
“In a small, rural town it takes planning to travel to the movies because people live over such distances,” Ouellette said. “So it does not become just one destination, people will come to enjoy a movie but also pick up groceries or do other shopping while in town.”
In that way, he said, the movie theater is an important part of any small town’s economy.
Plus there is the social component, Ouellette said.
“There is that whole notion of ‘community’ that we are in danger of losing with the internet and social media becoming so important,” he said. “But when you go to the movies you have the real connection to people [and] there is something about watching a movie on a big screen that no online service can ever replicate.”