WALDOBORO – Most tourists and foreigners alike know this coastal town as the home of Moody’s Diner on busy Route 1. Relatively few venture off the state road onto the village’s picturesque Main Street.
But the volunteers who have spent the last five years renovating the Waldoboro theatrical gem hope that this could soon change. Built in 1936 by a timber wholesaler who spent the summers in town, the Greek Revival style exterior of the Waldo Theater blends in with the other historic buildings on Main Street, while the interior has Art Deco accents from its time as speak elegant cinema.
Wear and tear on the old building, including massive water damage over the years, led to its closure in 2014. At that time it was mainly used as a community theater. After raising more than $ 700,000 and doing much of the work themselves, volunteers saw the theater reopen to the public in June with a production of John Cariani’s play “Almost, Maine.”
With the physical improvements – including new sound and video streaming systems, a new roof, new acoustic panels, and lots of new plaster and paint – comes a new, broader mission. In addition to the community theater, the nonprofit group that operates it plans to host live music, films, dance classes, educational programs, and other community events. Palaver Strings, a Portland-based string company that performs across the country, was due to play there on Friday.
The next big event to shed light on the theater’s new look is the Maine Fall Fiddle Fest on October 15th and 16th with a Saturday evening concert featuring violinists from Maine and New England including Erica Brown, Matt Shipman, Frank Ferrel and Ellen Gawler, among other things. There will also be violin workshops, an open jam session and a youth violinist showcase. Some events take place in other locations in the city.
A number of family films will also be shown in the theater this fall, starting with “Beetlejuice” on October 29th. Masks and proof of vaccination against COVID-19 are required for live performances in the theater, but only masks for the family films.
Volunteers, board members, and supporters hope that the rejuvenated theater will be an economic engine that will bring people to the city to visit stores, restaurants, or perhaps start new businesses. They also want the theater to offer a wider range of programming than in the past and serve the wider community. Theater, film or music venues close to Waldoboro include the Lincoln Theater in Damariscotta, 10 miles away, and the Beach in Rockland, 15 miles away.
“Waldoboro is kind of a forgotten city on the Midcoast. We believe this organization will give people a reason to come to town, ”said Keri Lupien, President of the Waldo Theater Board. “We want to connect the people in the community with art and culture.”
A BIG BEGINNING
Waldoboro was incorporated as a town in 1773 and soon became a shipbuilding center. It is also known as a gathering place for mussels. It is a predominantly rural town with a village center that has never been as big and lively as nearby communities like Damariscotta or Rockland.
So how did it come about that a great Art Deco-influenced cinema was built here during the Great Depression? Carroll T. Cooney, a New York City timber wholesaler who had a house in Waldoboro, wanted the city to have a state-of-the-art movie theater. He hired the architect Benjamin Schlanger, who had designed the Lincoln Center in New York and theaters around the world. The projection and sound systems should be the same as in the Radio City Music Hall in Manhattan. The theater was opened in 1936 and has 400 seats. After various renovations over the years, it now has 285 seats.
Cooney’s family ran the theater and films were shown there until 1957. The growth of television caused cinema audiences to shrink across the country, and the Cooney family sold the building. It remained closed for about two decades. Reopened for theater productions in the 1980s, and operated by multiple groups and individuals from time to time, before closing again in 2014 due to maintenance and repair costs.
Just a few years later, people in Waldoboro started talking about ways to save the theater and make it a community focal point again. One was Lupien, who moved to Maine for a job as a wine seller more than 20 years ago. She had her first date with her husband at the Waldo Theater to see a production of “Forever Plaid”.
Lupien said she had no experience in theater organization, but as a saleswoman “I can speak passionately about things I enjoy.” So she started telling everyone who listened about the potential of theater.
Barbara Boardman, who has worked as an architectural and landscape architect, was another local resident drawn to the theater and its plight. At first she thought she would volunteer, maybe to clear debris from the building. But in the end she joined the board.
“I’ve never had anything to do with theater. For me it was just driving around the village and seeing the building shut down and collapse, ”said Boardman. “I just thought it was such a shame.”
What started as a group of concerned citizens turned into a nonprofit that took over the theater and began raising money and getting help and advice from people in Waldoboro and the surrounding communities. The group’s advisors include a composer, the city administrator, an electrician, construction professionals, a theater sound designer, architects, and a film professor.
This includes John Stirratt, bassist for the nationally known rock band Wilco, who lives in the area and whose wife Crissy Stirratt sits on the board. Another advisor is Ron Phillips, retired CEO of Coastal Enterprises, a Maine-based community development company. Phillips’ wife, Suzanne Cooney Phillips, is the granddaughter of the man who built the theater and her parents ran it when she was a child.
“They did an amazing job, not only revitalizing the theater and its aesthetics, but also the programming,” said Phillips.
One of the first big fundraising drives for the renovation was a 2018 benefit concert with Stirratt, the Maine Rock Youth Orchestra, and several other acts. The show grossed more than $ 30,000.
To run the theater day in and day out, the board hired Kate Fletcher from nearby Warren, whose daughter had starred in a play there before it closed. Fletcher had also worked in arts administration for more than 25 years, including at Long Wharf Theater and the Elm Shakespeare Company in New Haven, Connecticut, as well as The Strand in Rockland and Maine Media Workshops and College in Rockport.
Fundraising began in 2018. The board’s goal is to raise $ 700,000 for the improvements and opening in 2020. Hundreds of donations, large and small, have come from local businesses and individuals, including members of the Cooney family. In early 2020, an anonymous donor pledged $ 43,000 if the community could raise an additional $ 157,000 by the end of the year. said Fletcher. This challenge was surpassed with more than $ 182,000. The total of $ 700,000 includes a $ 200,000 construction credit line and grants from various foundations.
The start of the pandemic created barriers to renovation. Teams of volunteers had to wear masks and be held in small groups while they worked to remove plaster of paris or debris, Fletcher said. In order to reupholster the original seats, the theater organized a “de-upholstery day” during which a few volunteers unscrewed the seats and took them outside. In the parking lot, volunteers worked at various stations, tearing off old fabric and filling the seats with new fabric. More than 200 volunteers worked during the theater’s renovation, said Fletcher and others.
Many of the theater’s original features have been retained and repaired, including curved side walls that help with acoustics. But many areas of the walls had to be replaced with fabric-covered acoustic panels because they had been so badly damaged over the years by the ingress of water. A new roof was an essential addition to the theater during the renovation.
When the renovations were completed, it became clear that the theater would not open for live shows in 2020, so cameras and other equipment were purchased for live-stream shows. The theater hosted seven livestream concerts from its renovated stage last year, Fletcher said.
The theater now has 285 seats, on a large balcony and on the floor, but Fletcher said due to COVID-19 the theater will likely only sell 150 to 200 tickets for Fiddle Fest and will be adding masks and vaccination records to all live performance events for the foreseeable future . After “Beetlejuice”, “Rear Window”, “Elf” and “The Muppet Christmas Carol” are on the family plan. Over the next year, the theater hopes to host more of everything, including films, plays, concerts and events, Fletcher said.
One of the live streaming concerts from the theater last fall showed Palaver Strings. Josie Davis, a violinist in the group who grew up in Waldoboro, praised the acoustics and sound system of the theater. As someone who was there prior to the renovation, Davis said she felt “inspired” to see what became of it.
“It’s really beautiful and a wonderful place for live music,” said Davis. “I think this could be a real focal point for the community. Waldoboro is often overlooked and that could attract people. “
“Lean Fall Stand” begins with a literal cliffhanger that you won’t soon forget