Salt ’n Spar

Lights, camera, action at Wiscasset Theater

Fri, 12/08/2023 - 8:00am

Once upon a time there was the Wiscasset Theater, a movie house downtown offering more than just Hollywood films. Its front entrance didn’t have a glitzy marque of flashing lights, but inside there was a stage where high school plays and other live performances were sometimes held. The building’s still there, although it has been much altered over the years and is now home to condominiums.

Located on the corner of Washington and Summer streets, Wiscasset Theater held its grand opening on July 7, 1950, a Friday night. To get a good seat, patrons lined up early at the entrance which fronted Washington Street. The doors for the evening shows opened at 6, and the entertainment usually got underway at about 6:30. First, there would be a short news reel and maybe announcements from the management of coming attractions. Next came a cartoon, or zany “Three Stooges” episode followed by the featured show. The main attraction on opening night was “Jolson Sings Again,” starring Larry Parks and Barbara Hale. This film was apparently a 1949 sequel to the better known “Jolson Story,” based on the life of jazz singer Al Jolson.

The theater was open seven days a week, and the late show usually started around 8:30 or 9. There were matinees for kids every Saturday and Sunday afternoon. The matinee on the opening weekend included a Walt Disney cartoon based on the classic Washington Irving story, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and narrated by Bing Crosby. “Storm Over Wyoming” was shown, too, a B-grade Western movie filmed in black and white featuring the continued adventures of Cowboy Dave Saunders and his faithful sidekick, Chico.

Judy Flanagan, a former Wiscasset selectboard member, has fond memories of going to the theater with her brothers, Harry, Dean and Chuck Shea. “If it was raining we’d often talk our parents into letting us go to the Saturday matinee. Chuck told me he was pretty sure the cost of admission was 12 cents and thought you could buy a bag of popcorn, candy or a soda for a dime. It seemed like every time we went they were showing a Western movie, they were really popular in the 1950s.” Judy said sometimes she’d walk to the movie theater and meet her best friend Nancy Sherman there. (Nancy is now Nancy Roby). “I know for sure that I first saw ‘Gone with the Wind’ at the Wiscasset Theater,” Judy continued. “I still think about that every time that movie comes on.” 

Blinn LeBourdais, 84 years young, said kids in town could get free movie tickets by giving away movie programs listing the theater’s coming attractions. “Russell, my brother, and me would knock on doors giving away movie programs all over town. We lived on Fort Hill Street which was pretty close to the theater.” Blinn said he was pretty sure the theater was owned by the White family who lived downtown too on Warren Street. He couldn’t remember the Whites’ first names but recalled Mr. White ran the projector while Mrs. White and her daughter took turns behind the counter selling concessions and manning the ticket window. “Sometimes they’d feature live acts – good ones too!” added Blinn. “I remember Ken MacKenzie and Betty Gribbin putting on a really swell country music show and packing the house,” he said. MacKenzie and Gribbin were pioneers of New England country/western music and members of Maine’s Country Music Hall of Fame.

Long before it became home to a movie theater, the long barn-like building had been a focal point of the community. In April 1981, I wrote a newspaper story shortly after it was sold to Wiscasset builder Paul King of Young’s Point who has since passed away. Paul and his crew worked for months converting the building into an apartment house. I remember him leading me around inside, taking me upstairs and showing me where the projector room had once been. The projectors, there were two of them, were long gone but there were still some old film spools and other odds and ends remaining.

For that same story, I’d also interviewed native Wiscasseter Neal Creamer. Neal was 80 years old then and knew a good deal of local history. He had collected a lot of memorabilia during his long life which his widow Betty Creamer later donated to the Wiscasset library. Neal told me he’d grown up just a few doors down from “Red Mens Hall” as he called it and had earned extra money doing odd jobs there as a teenager in 1917. Way back then he said, dances, concerts and vaudeville-style shows were held nearly every week attracting sizable crowds. In the 1920s, silent films were shown, too. “I ran the projector,” said Neal. “You’d have to crank it with one hand and adjust the arc lamp with the other.” Creamer recalled one occasion when Bert Haggett and his son, Lawrence, owners of the Wiscasset Ford Motor Co. dealership, rented the hall for an auto show introducing new car models.

Mr. Creamer told me he was positively certain the building opened in 1882 originally as, “the Wiscasset Music Hall.” Musical recitals, theatrical productions and lectures were all staged there, and once a traveling minstrel show appeared with performers appearing in blackface. He said people got to calling it Red Mens Hall after a fraternal group, the Improved Order of Red Men, began meeting there around the turn of the century. The Red Men identified themselves with the American Revolution, the Sons of Liberty and the legendary Boston Tea Party. Its members, all men, dressed up in costumes of Native Americans wearing buckskin, feathers and painting their faces with war paint. They met on the second floor where the lodge room was located. After interest waned in the organization, the hall next became home to the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, IOOF, another men’s fraternal group. This group added its own improvements to the lodge, a pool table that later found its way in to the firehouse.

Around the mid-1920s the first floor of Red Mens Hall began serving as the gymnasium for nearby Wiscasset Academy, the town’s former high school. The wooden, two-story academy building overlooked the river and stood about where the current elementary school is today. Along with hosting basketball games Red Mens Hall was sometimes opened for roller skating and dances. “There were bleachers along the side of the hall where people could take in the action,” remembered Blinn. “During the basketball games when a player took a long shot they’d have to throw the ball high, up and over the ceiling’s support beams to get a basket. There was a big heating grate in the floor too that you’d have to dribble the ball around.”

Wiscasset’s Ken Sherman who has since passed away scored 53 points in a basketball game played at Red Men’s Hall – a record that still stands. High school basketball games continued to be played at Red Mens Hall until the elementary school’s domed gymnasium opened in 1950-51. I’ve been told, repeatedly in fact, Wiscasset High School which opened in 1961 adopted its former Native American sports mascot because its basketball program had begun in Red Mens Hall.

After the Wiscasset Theater closed, the building was leased to Yankee Wholesale operated by George Jones of Wiscasset. As the name implies, Yankee Wholesale supplied candy, cigarettes and confectionary items to area businesses for a number of years. If I remember correctly, the Odd Fellows continued meeting upstairs in the hall until they sold the property to Paul King in late 1980 or early 1981. The Odd Fellows used the money from the sale to build a smaller lodge building on Route 1 next door to the old Ames Supply store. A few years ago, the Wiscasset chapter of the IOOF merged with its counterpart in the City of Bath.

Before closing, thank you to Steve Christiansen of Wiscasset who provided me with an original promotional program announcing the Wiscasset Theater’s opening. Steve thought this would make an interesting story. Let me know if you agree.

Phil Di Vece earned a B.A. in journalism studies from Colorado State University and an M.A. in journalism at the University of South Florida. He is the author of three Wiscasset books and is a frequent news contributor to the Boothbay Register-Wiscasset Newspaper. He resides in Wiscasset. You can contact him at pdivece@roadrunner.com