A hundred years ago, denizens of downtown Bangor had a dizzying array of options to choose from when it came to entertainment. Catch a play at the Park Theatre? See the newest movie at the Bijou Theatre? Watch a vaudeville show at the Olympia on Union Street? Hear the Bangor Symphony Orchestra at the auditorium at Bangor City Hall? Or see the latest touring theater company to come through town, at the then-newly rebuilt Bangor Opera House?
Today, out of all the many theaters in downtown Bangor, only one remains: the Bangor Opera House, home to the Penobscot Theatre Company, built in 1920. This weekend the opera house will celebrate its 100th birthday with theater tours and a party Saturday.
“It’s such an old building, and there’s a lot of energy here. There’s so much presence,” said Bari Newport, artistic director of the Penobscot Theatre since 2012. “Eight years on here, and it’s still endlessly fascinating, the little things you learn about this place. It’s all that’s left of what used to be a huge part of downtown Bangor.”
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It’s hard to know, exactly, just how many theaters there were in downtown Bangor at a given time, as theater names and ownership changed on a seemingly year-to-year basis, and fire claimed many more buildings in those days than it does today. One of the first theaters in Bangor was the municipal auditorium located inside Bangor’s old City Hall on Hammond and Columbia streets, which was built in 1894 and which could seat up to 1,500 people — a kind of precursor to the Bangor Auditorium, which was built at Bass Park in the 1950s.
Among the earliest privately owned theaters were those known as the Gaiety and the Acker. The Gaiety Theater was located inside Norumbega Hall, a massive Greek revival-style hall built in the 1880s, located where Norumbega Parkway is today, between Central and Franklin streets. It burned down during the Great Bangor Fire of 1911. The Acker Theatre was built in 1908 on Union Street, across the street from the Bangor House. It was rebranded a few years later as the Nickel Theatre and, eventually, became known as the Olympia Theatre.
Some of the most famous Bangor theaters that people alive today may still remember were the Bijou Theatre, which opened in 1912 on Exchange Street. A year later, the Park Theatre opened at the corner of State and Park streets. All three theaters — the Bijou, Park and Olympia — started as vaudeville houses, hosting weekly variety shows featuring musicians, dancers, comedians, magicians, animal shows and other performers working the vaudeville circuit, alongside short silent films.
The Bangor Opera House’s predecessor (which was built in the 1880s and burned down in 1914) played host to such luminaries as Oscar Wilde, polar explorer Robert Peary and legendary actress Ethel Barrymore. After the new one was built in 1920, it hosted theater, music and vaudeville for more than three more decades, with visiting performers including Jack Benny and Mae West.
The heyday of live theater and vaudeville in Bangor did not last for very long. Nationally, the vaudeville era was largely over by the early 1930s, supplanted by the then-new “talking pictures,” which themselves had effectively killed the silent film era. By the 1950s, almost none of downtown’s theaters showed anything other than movies — including the Bangor Opera House, which in 1953 was transformed into a movie house. It would show films for more than four decades, with the last movie shown there being “Ghostbusters 2,” in 1989.
In the meantime, Bangor’s other theaters began to disappear. Urban renewal in the 1960s led to the destruction of the Bijou Theatre and of Bangor’s old City Hall, with its grand auditorium. Fire claimed the Olympia Theatre in 1963. The Park Theatre and the Bijou were the last of the bunch to go, both being torn down in 1973, leaving the Bangor Opera House as the last one standing.
In the 1990s, the opera house fell into disrepair and laid empty for five years, until a church purchased it in 1994. In 1997, the Penobscot Theatre Company bought the building from the owner of the church for an undisclosed price, though it was appraised by the city of Bangor at the time for $201,900.
It would be another 10 years before renovations would be undertaken. The facade and entryway to the building were renovated in 2008, and the auditorium itself was renovated in 2017. In 2015, the theater moved its costume and scene shop out to a building on Griffin Road in Bangor, and moved its administrative offices into the theater.
Though many improvements have been made to the theater, the Bangor Opera House is remarkable in that it retains many of its original elements. It is one of the few theaters left in the country that is a “hemp house,” which means it uses manually cranked natural rope to run its fly system, rather than automatic wires. It also retains its original stage boards.
Newport said one of the theater’s goals for the next century is to establish an endowment fund to maintain the building, separate from the theater’s production and staffing costs.
“We really need to be able to put some money away for the future, so we can make sure the building itself is sustainable, and so we’re not spending the money we make from ticket sales on things like heat and electricity,” Newport said.
Newport said the goal of the “Century Fund” is to attract 100 individuals or businesses that wish to donate $1,000 each, resulting in $100,000. The theater hopes to find a corporate sponsor to match that $100,000, she said. For more information, or to purchase tickets for this weekend’s 100th birthday party, visit penobscottheatre.org.
Watch: Eighth-grader builds replica Bangor Opera House from Legos