BRUNSWICK, Maine — Barry Norman kept many balls in the air during the past eight-plus years in his effort to keep Eveningstar Cinema viable.
The beloved independent theater in the Tontine Mall, which turns 40 this year, continues to pop its own corn, served with real butter, which patrons can enjoy with craft beer while sitting on squishy couches.
To keep the theater current, Norman, now 61, dug into his retirement savings and went into debt to replace the reel-to-reel projector with a digital projector, add seating and replace the carpet.
He’s held fundraisers and hatched plans to expand into a multi-screen theater with, perhaps, an adjacent brewpub.
He’s carefully selected films to delight the particular demographic — part Bowdoin College professor, part artist, part retiree — that stops in for a matinee after lunch at nearby Wild Oats Bakery.
Hundreds — even thousands? — of nights he’s climbed the short ladder and folded his 6 foot, 5 inch frame, complete with a bad back, into the theater’s 5-foot-high projection booth to start the show on time.
But all that changed Saturday night, when Norman’s dog, Scooter — his “soul mate” — experienced a major seizure as the result of diabetes. Norman knew it was time for him to go.
“This dog [was] so freaking tough,” Norman said. “I’d ask the vet, ‘Do you think we’re there yet?’”
Repeatedly, the answer was no, Norman said. Until Saturday.
Scooter, a “17-and-a-half” year-old Schnoodle, long a fixture on Maine Street alongside Norman, never left Norman’s side except to cuddle with Norman’s father as he was dying or jump into the lap of an occasional theater employee.
For years, Norman has set his schedule around the blind, diabetic dog’s need for twice-daily insulin shots, and got him to the vet’s four times a week for intravenous fluids.
“Scooter and I were together 24/7,” Norman said Tuesday. “I held the dish when he ate because he couldn’t stand for that long. There’s no way he should have been alive … he was the toughest dog in the history of little dogdom.”
But this year, Norman became embroiled in an ugly personal dispute that he described as a “nightmare” of harassment and fraud. He believes his own anxiety over the situation contributed to Scooter’s demise. He knows it is the chief reason he now plans to leave Maine, “never to return.”
Throughout the week, as Norman has walked to the bank or the coffee shop, people have stopped him to express condolences, after reading his heartbreaking post about Scooter’s death on Facebook.
“I must start off by telling you of the existential crisis facing Eveningstar Cinema,” Norman begins, and then explains “a series of connected and horrible events” that led to his decision to leave Maine.
While Norman said he’ll leave Maine with good memories, despite “some bad people” he’s met recently, he’s also hopeful his longtime manager will be able to purchase the theater and keep it running largely the way it has been for four decades.
Gracia Babbidge, 40, of Bowdoin worked at several multiplexes before arriving at the Eveningstar 15 years ago. A longtime lover of movies, she was hired as a projectionist and well remembers the theater’s biggest blockbusters — Michael Moore’s film, “Fahrenheit 9/11,” which the theater showed five times each day, and “The King’s Speech,” which was held over for nine weeks.
Norman said he told Babbidge he hoped she would be able to buy the theater, but he still listed it for sale — for $50,000. He said that’s “a fraction of what I paid for it,” but attributed his cost to not enough due diligence.
Selecting the films has thus far been Norman’s task, but Babbidge is ready for the challenge. Aside from that — assuming she gets financing — Babbidge said it’s too early to think of any changes.
“We don’t want to mess up something that’s been pretty successful. We’re already trying to do everything right. What can we do better?”
So far, though, no bank has been willing to provide financing, despite Norman’s pitch that she’s the obvious best choice to keep the theater in business.
Earlier this week, Babbidge launched a GoFundMe campaign to help her raise capital to buy the theater. As of Wednesday morning, it had raised $3,735 of its $50,000 goal.
Norman said he can be flexible about when she pays him, but Babbidge said Tuesday she hopes to complete the purchase before Norman leaves Maine in May.