The story of the creation and development of The Eveningstar Cinema in Brunswick, ME by Greg Melick, Designer/Builder
The Eveningstar Cinema came into being in the summer of 1979 through a series of remarkable (perhaps miraculous) events. Because I am still struck by the amazing, improbability of much that occurred then, I thought it might be entertaining for you too. If you are interested in becoming the new owner of the Eveningstar Cinema, this may be of particular interest to you…
In 1978 I came to Brunswick from my home in Connecticut with my fiancée, Dawn Amato, to take an owner/builder course from the remarkable Mr. Charlie Wing. Dawn and I had plans to build our own home and had heard about Charlie’s school from a magazine or something so we came to learn. Charlie had been a NASA physicist and Bowdoin College physics professor and had started Cornerstones Building School to teach folks how to build passive solar homes for themselves. He had written a book (still in publication, I believe) called ‘From the Ground Up’ and had successfully launched another owner-builder school in Bath, Maine, called Shelter Institute (still operating). Dawn and I became really involved in the course and stayed on afterwards to help organize the construction of a small demonstration summer cottage at the Maine Festival of the Arts, at the time being held on the Bowdoin College campus. As a consequence of my help there, Charlie offered me a job on his teaching staff. I declined and returned to Connecticut and my teaching job at Burdick Middle School in Stamford. In the fall of 1978 I began my second year of teaching at Burdick and the first as the new English Department Chair with responsibility over some 14 other teachers, most of whom were still teaching Warriner’s Grammar (you know, sentence diagrams and all that…). Let’s just say it was a challenge. I was given permission to take my inner-city 8th grade class on a week-long white-water canoe trip (I was an experienced canoeing instructor) and spent all of the second quarter preparing them for that… you’re probably wondering how that relates to teaching English. That’s another story; but trust me, it did.
Charlie Wing contacted me from Maine and asked if I would be interested in helping him begin a Home Energy Audit Division, based on a computer program he was designing. Teaching at the middle school was great, but at $9,200 a year I didn’t see our planned-for house or kids in the future so I agreed to come back to Brunswick and interview for the position. I came back six times for that purpose and was hired in the early spring of 1979, around Easter. Meanwhile, Dawn was finishing up her Junior year at college. She and I made plans to return to Maine, me permanently, she for the summer. She planned to return for her senior year at Hampshire College in the fall. Before the College school year ended though, she found herself taken up by an attractive and charming classmate who had been in romantic pursuit of her for two years. So in May of 1979, I found myself unexpectedly without her company on the two school-sponsored canoe trips up the Housatonic River and then unexpectedly on my way to Maine alone with my dog, Tucker (a Walker Hound that Dawn and I had rescued a few years earlier in Northampton, Massachusetts). Dawn went on to marry that guy from college. They started a family in
Colorado and later divorced. I stayed in Maine with Tucker. By the way… it’s a cosmic rule, there’s got to be a dog at the beginning if things are to turn out well.
I arrived in Brunswick on a bright, sunny Saturday afternoon in late June or early July of 1979. I phoned Charlie and was asked over to his house for a meeting the following day. There I learned that his newly hired business manager had determined that Cornerstones could afford to hire no one else and I therefore had no job… I had already quit my teaching position at Burdick Middle School and surrendered my lease on the house I had shared, so returning to Connecticut was problematic at best and full of painful memories as well. It felt like my entire life was starting from scratch, like someone had pressed the reset button. I had seemingly been reborn in a new place where I had no associations, no friends, no past, small financial resources, and limited options. I was none-the-less excited to be here. The people in Town were astonishingly warm and friendly and they opened their homes and their hearts to me right off. So I began looking for a teaching job. After several interviews over the first month in towns severalmiles distant, I landed back in Brunswick to interview for a 3/5 job. As I left his office that Wednesday, the Principal of Brunswick High School said that “unless Jesus Christ himself shows up for the final scheduled interview that Friday”, I had the job. He never called and I assume that’s why the Brunswick School system has done so well over the ensuing years.
A newfound friend of mine, named Susan, who owned a card shop in the Tontine Mall called Paper Works (the fore-runner of The Works and The Mix on Maine Street), suggested one day that I consider opening up a movie theater in the space recently vacated down the hall from her store (that space is now a music store). I knew as much about business as I knew about the structure of DNA… no, actually, less than that, but it seemed like an interesting idea. I did nothing about that interesting idea for weeks. Then one day I got a call from a fellow named Gerry Siebel. He was calling from the beautiful old Congregational Church at the head of Maine Street. You can see its photo on our Internet Home Page – it’s just a block from the Cinema, near Bowdoin College. He said that he had met a friend of mine inNew Haven, Connecticut when he was there visiting a friend of his while on a trip from Chicago with his fiancée, Veya Simic. My friend, Keith, an art teacher from Burdick who was a fanatical skydiver living across from the New Haven airport, had told him that I was up in Maine building passive solar homes (Keith was an abstract artist – not big on details). Gerry said he had an interest in such constructions and asked if it would be okay if he came by to visit and talk. I explained what was actually happening and invited he and Veya over for lunch. Gerry was personable and intelligent and we got along well from the start. He had studied filmmaking for three years at Columbia in Chicago. Gerry and Veya stayed for two weeks in the extra room, toured the area, and then returned home.
A couple weeks after Gerry’s visit, my friend Susan asked again if I would be interested in starting a business in the Tontine Mall, specifically a movie theater business. I began to connect the dots that were being mysteriously line up in front of me and called Gerry in Chicago to see if, as a more knowledgeable student of film, he might have an interest in such an idea. He had decided to return to take theCornerstone building class in early August and, yes, he thought there was some merit to the idea and we could discuss it during his stay at that time. Gerry came out, moved in with me, and while he went to class, I went to the libraries and began figuring out how to make a business plan. We worked on a budget which turned out to be about half right and then went down to talk with Ric Quesada and John Dunn, the landlords at the time (Ric was an architect and he had redesigned the Tontine Mall to host boutique high-end shops out of a former car dealership – the Eveningstar now sits in the space that was once a couple of garage bays). Ric and John told me that the space had been offered to another cinema owner from Portland (The Movies on Exchange Street – which was itself sold a couple years later and lasted until some time in 2007 or 8). As an earnest money deposit, I offered them all the money I had left, asking them to hold the space for us for just one week while we put together our business plan to see if we could raise the capital needed to build a Cinema. Ric and John took the deal and Gerry and I went to work. A week later we had a business plan, a small bank loan, and some money from our hisparents and my grandparents; about $26,000 in all – about a quarter of what we would eventually need to finish the work, but we didn’t know that then. Back we went to Ric and John and sold them on the idea of letting us build a movie theatre in the Tontine, put a down payment on the space, and left for Boston to find an equipment dealer.
In Boston we connected with a guy right out of ‘Get Shorty’. He had a big, ugly, mushy wet cigar and ran an untidy mess of a used equipment dealership in a back alley hole in the wall. Inside were torn up theater seats scattered everywhere, broken down projectors strewn about, matted, dirty carpet samples scattered over the concrete floor and a cheaply decorated, fiber-board paneled office with an old school teacher’s desk with papers spilling out of its every orifice. The place stank of stale cigar smoke and oil and I didn’t much like the idea of touching anything. The proprietor’s name was Bud. I don’t think his bottle-blonde bimbet/secretary had a name, or much of a purpose around the office either, but she was at least very pleasant and eager to please, if not exceptionally bright.
Bud said he knew just what we needed, which was good, because we had no idea at all. In fact, he said, he happened to know where there was a complete theater full of used equipment in Springfield, Massachusetts that could be had for an unknown sum. He assured us it was top quality stuff, and he did so with the air of authority of someone who could tell what top quality meant, all evidence to the contrary. He had, in fact, installed this very same equipment himself some 17 years earlier. The theater in question had shut down in 1964 after only two years of operation and was now about to be renovated into a bank. Bud knew the owner wanted to sell the equipment. “What equipment is included.” I asked. “Everything,” he said. “Seats, projectors, cue markers, splicing machine, make-up table, rewinds, rectifiers, zippers. The works.” Were we interested? “How much?” we asked. “Have to ask.” he replied.
I was uncomfortable committing anything to anybody who promised everything without any details. I thought for a minute. Bud left the room to make a call. The pretty, polite bimbet asked if we would like a cup of coffee. She had obviously been instructed to stall us long enough for Bud to get in touch withthe owner of the equipment by phone. It occurred to me that if Bud had installed this stuff, he might have a bill of lading (I’d read about such things during my research at Bowdoin’s library the previous week) so I asked if this might be the case. The obliging bimbet said she would look in the files, and she did. She found the file in question and it listed equipment sold to the Cabot Theater Company of Springfield, Massachusetts. I quickly scanned the document, which summarily listed the equipment Bud had sold in 1962, and I noted the sketchy corporate details on the letterhead. Bud returned to the room, his mission to reach the equipment owner having been unsuccessful. We thanked him for his time and left, carefully picking our back through the trash-filled alley that led back to the street and away from his workplace.
On the way home, Gerry and I discussed the ethics of going around Bud to find the owner of the equipment. We had three good reasons for cutting Bud out of the deal. 1) He didn’t have to be in it. 2) We didn’t want him in it. 3) His being in it would probably cost us more than we had to spend. So wedecided to try to locate the owner in Springfield on our own as soon as we could, and strike a deal with him before Bud could get in touch with him. It occurred to us that this might present a problem since all we had was the name of a 15-year old, defunct company and sketchy information supplied by Bud that the building in which the equipment was housed was about to be converted into a bank. We tied our hopes of finding this stuff on the assumption that if that last part was true, the Springfield building inspector might know something about any building that matched the description of a former cinema that was scheduled to soon become a bank…
The following day I called for the Springfield, Massachusetts Building Inspector’s office. The City Hall switchboard operator missed the ‘correct’ connection and put me through to the Plumbing Inspector’s office instead. He was out to lunch, but I described what we were looking for to the fellow who answered the phone. He said that his boss, the Plumbing Inspector, used to be partners in a cinema operation in the 1960’s in the nearby town of Chicopee, Massachusetts, and The Cabot Theater
Company name rang a bell. Would I like to call back and talk with his boss later? Of course! When I did, it turned out that the Plumbing Inspector had indeed been in partnership in The Cabot Theater Company, which had owned The Cabot Theater on Cabot Street (all this originality!) in Chicopee, and the Theatre had closed in 1964. He put me in touch with the current owner, the very same man who now wanted to sell the equipment; a fellow by the name of Louie Maniotti (spelling estimated). I made an appointment to drive Gerry’s car out to see Mr. Maniotti the following day (Gerry was taking classes at Cornerstones with Charlie Wing and so couldn’t make the trip).
I was directed to come to The Ding Dong Ice Cream Company (don’t you love this…). When I arrived I was surprised to see a large number of ice-cream trucks enclosed in a compound, complete with guard- gate, surrounded by a high chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. A guy in his late fifties, dressed in a cheap dark brown singled-breasted suit and worn visibly old by the burdens of his lot in life, let me in the gate and personally conducted me to Mr. Maniotti’s office.
Louie had his own bimbet; who was much taller, much blonder, much more impressively endowed, and brighter than Bud’s, but otherwise Louie’s office was a tidier version of the cheap fiber-board-backed, fake wood-paneled job we’d encountered at the end of an alley back in Boston. He wasted no time, directing me to join him in his big, slightly tatty, all black, land whale of a Cadillac, and off we went for a tour of his holdings in the former hat-factory town of Chicopee, where the incidence of mercury poisoning had gotten so high during its hay-day that it still supported an unusually large population of genetically mutated and retarded people.
Louie drove me past his laundries, his motels, his theatres, and his driven-in estaurants, into the last of which we pulled for lunch and a cup of coffee. This was a little greasy spoon diner trying to be less, rather than more, conspicuous in the middle of nowhere special. We sat down at a booth and chatted. I, at 29, fresh from wealthy southwestern Connecticut, was wondering what the tour had been about. I’d never seen such a collection of sorry enterprises in my life and couldn’t imagine, despite all appearances
to the contrary, that he had actually been bragging about them. The thing they had in common was that they were all cash businesses, like his ice-cream company. Later on I got the point, but it was lost on me at the time, which was just as well since I wouldn’t have known how to properly respond anyway and under the circumstances that might have proved uncomfortable – or worse. Sometimes it’s good to be genuinely innocent…
After a while, lunch was over. Of a sudden, Louie seemed to decide that we weren’t about to bond over shared life experiences, so he determined at last to get down to business. From his pocket he drew a pen and from the holder nearby, a napkin. Placing both before him with a ceremonious flourish, he said, “ I am going to write the price for the equipment on this piece of paper and pass it to you across the table. There will be no negotiating the price. Take it. Or leave it.” He wrote a figure, turned the napkin over, and carried out his plan to the letter. Receiving the napkin face down, I turned it over to reveal his asking price. It would leave us about $2,000 for everything else we had to do and that was all, but itseemed fair enough so I whipped out the Agreement to Sell that I had prepared before coming, filled in the figure he had given me and passed it to him across the table, face up. My point was to get him to commit to the price he’d posed and to us, thereby pre-empting Bud, the hopeful middle-man, from cutting a separate, more expensive deal with him. Unlike me, it was rather likely that Bud and Louie had some common ground with one another…
Louie took the contract and together we left for his office. Once back at the office, he looked at the contract and began to read it. The magnificently endowed blonde with a wonderfully evident flair for marketing and self-promotion, stood nearby admiring him, waiting for his decision. I waited too. After a while he said he wanted to run this past his attorney because he didn’t understand all the language. I looked at the blonde. She looked surprised and a bit uneasy. She apparently wasn’t used to him not having total control. I realized he wouldn’t want to be embarrassed in front of her, so I told him that I could help him figure out any language that he didn’t understand. After all, I had taught English to 8thgraders and high school students and there was nothing I couldn’t explain about the language I had included in the document he held. What could he say, really? We read it together and he signed it. We had a deal. I returned to Maine. Bud was out of the picture.
A week or so later Gerry and I returned to Chicopee with some friends and a couple technicians we had hired from a reputable equipment firm in New York City on personal recommendation from a friend of mine who owned the Soho Cinema in Norwalk, Connecticut. Driving two large rented Ryder trucks across Massachusetts, our intrepid group convened at The Cabot Theater on Cabot Street and were met inside by another guy suffering from the same lumpy underarm disease that I had recently observed among the men working at The Ding Dong Ice Cream Company. This fellow led us inside the darkened theater and turned on the electricity. Jon and Peter, the technicians, went to work on the equipment and confirmed it was good, reliable, and working. The other four of us went to work on getting the seats out of the floor. We set up our tools for work in the balcony half-light and set about the task of removing a couple hundred seats from the floor.
Each seat was screwed into the hardwood floors with eight, by-now very rusty screws, which refused every effort at retraction. We went to the hardware store down the street for a drill and chisels and began to laboriously drill and then cut the heads off of each screw. After four hours, the four of us had three chairs out of the floor. We went to the local hardware store again and bought saws and blades and tried to plunge-cut into the hardwood floors, but the nails that had been driven throughout the floorboards destroyed the blades. By the end of the day we had seven seats ready to travel with us and we were exhausted.
We went to someone’s friend’s house in the area and slept on the hardwood floors for a couple hours and then went back to the theater on Sunday morning to try again. Gerry and I were quite mindful of the fact that the Ryder rental trucks were rented by the day. They were very big and very expensive. We began to be concerned. Just as our work on the chairs had resumed, a policeman climbed up to the open door on the fire escape and looked in. Then he called to us to come over there. I walked over to him with my friend, Brad Smith, to see what he wanted. He told us we couldn’t work on Sunday because of the Blue Laws that were then in effect, which prohibited work on the Sabbath. He also mentioned that the alley below couldn’t be blocked as it was with our truck. Jon went downstairs and moved the truck up onto the curb. I explained to him why we needed to work. He wasn’t impressed. I took him out onto the fire escape, chatted with him for a while in the light of the beautiful sunny morning and drew his attention to another car blocking the alley below. He left to have it removed and never came back. We went back to work.
Finally, in utter frustration with the seats, Gerry, Meg, Brad and I all lined up in the row behind the row we wanted out, put our feet up on the backs of the seats in front of us and pushed. The seats ripped out of the floor. Only a few were broken or bent by the process. That being the best method for removing the things, we proceeded to have our way with the rest and finally loaded up the trucks and headed off for Maine at midnight. On the way back we stopped at a rest stop on the interstate highway for a bite to eat. Everyone seemed to be operating on a different clock. Some ordered breakfast (it was 2 am), some dinner, some lunch, but when Brad ordered stewed prunes, that cracked everyone up, including the waitress who had brought it to him. Thus refueled we headed on to Brunswick.
On the Maine Turnpike somewhere north of Biddeford, I was pulled over by a State Trooper. It was 3:00 am. No one was on the road. It was a warm summer night. I couldn’t have been speeding because the truck had a governor which kept it under 60 mph. The officer approached my door as he would a cornered, but still lethal jungle cat, with his hand on his half-drawn weapon. He looked absurdly nervous when he told me to get down from the truck. I asked him why and he withdrew his weapon from its holster. I gave up on that line of inquiry and came down. He wanted to personally check my cargo, so we went to the back and I opened up the cargo bay to reveal a chaos of disassembled Century projectorparts and other miscellaneous booth equipment. He had no idea what all this unrecognizable stuff was so he asked to see a bill of lading (remember them?). I didn’t have one, but assured him that my partner, Gerry, would soon be along with the truck full of seats, which at least looked like seats and he could thus determine that we hadn’t just ripped off the local Sears warehouse, which was his concern.
A few minutes later, Jon, Peter and Gerry, came barreling down the road. I waved. Toked up pretty well, they all waved back and continued down the road about a half mile before someone realized I had wanted them to stop and that the policemen standing next to me probably shared my interest. They stopped. Gerry popped out into the dark and began to run back down the highway in the breakdown lane. The officer jumped into his car and drove up the road toward him without any lights on. When he reached the spot where Gerry was jogging by, he spoke into a loud speaker and said, “Everything’s all right. Get back into your vehicle.” Gerry nearly messed himself because he hadn’t seen or heard the car coming (and he was stoned), but he managed to recover gracefully, returned to his truck and wecontinued on our way home.
All the way back to Brunswick we saw local and State police watching us from exits along the way. It was mildly amusing and a little weird. When we got to Brunswick, we stopped for a quick dessert at the local truck stop called “The Miss Brunswick Diner” where another round of slap-happy group-hysteria was elicited by the dramatically sloped pie shelves in the old refrigerator. We waited with high anticipation for the first pie to let loose, whereupon we expected they would all slide to far end of the shelving into a large mass of pumpkin, lemon meringue, chocolate chiffon, apple and strawberry mush. Failing that, we ate most of them and left.
I pulled my truck into the Tontine parking lot, faced out onto Maine Street, turned off the engine, and waited while Gerry and Jon went to the rental agency to retrieve Gerry’s car, our transportation home.
Brad, Meg and I sat in the cab and watched the Brunswick police troll up and down Maine Street. Four or five of them drove past us, first up, and then down the empty 4 a.m. street. This too was slightly amusing and a little weird. Gerry soon returned and drove his Ryder truck into the side parking lot entrance. When he did, no less than six Brunswick squad cars instantly converged on us, blocking both entrances and creating as much motion, noise, and flashing light-drama as they could.
I was really tired and running short of patience. Gerry was trying to back his truck up to the back of mine so that the contents would be secure for the remainder of the night and I went out to help him get as close as possible. A cop came up to me demanding my name, address, license, and other irrelevant details of my identity, which I had no interest in providing at the moment. I directed a great deal of exasperated energy into telling him to move out of our way and wait until we were finished parking. He was amazingly compliant. Once the trucks were parked, we told him that we would be back in the morning to unload these trucks and he could get all the information he wanted then, but for now we were all going home, without showing identifications. And we did.
Gerry and I built the Cinema based on a plan I drew up on our dining room table. We divided up the planning and contacting duties and worked 18-hour days, every day, throughout late August, September and October to finish it. Gerry once miscalculated the amount of concrete we would need to raise the floor. He forgot to take the cube root of his square-foot estimate before calling the contractor which resulted in a an estimate of 16 concrete trucks worth of concrete – enough to fill the room to its 16-foot ceilings. He recalculated. We all had a good laugh, visualizing the result of his miscalculation had we not caught the error in time – after all, the concrete company would have been delighted to simply fill the order, even it did result in the production of a very large brick inside one corner of the Tontine.The fire inspector came by one day. He said the Town Building Code required an exchange of fresh projection booth air every three minutes and insisted that fresh air could only come from the outside.
When I pointed out that if that were the case, and we installed a system which would change the booth air 20 times every hour with fresh outside air, it would always be the same temperature inside as it was outside and I had been lead to believe that Maine winters could be very cold. He put his hands in his pockets and insisted that none-the-less such was the Code requirement, and the air had to come from the outside regardless of such nice points regarding thermal environments. I disagreed. He took his hands out of his pockets and still insisted. I still disagreed. We debated the finer points of the definition of fresh air for 45 minutes. He moved his hands around a lot, but never put his palms up (other than to scratch his palm several times). I was hoping for the classic show of resignation…it never came.
I finally decided to call the Maine State Fire Marshall to ask his opinion of the issue. He told me to put the local fire official on the phone. Colorful invective flew from the speaker. We could all clearly hear both sides of the conversation, which was short and embarrassing to the local official. He hung up, and looked again at the place we were proposing to poke a big hole in the wall for fresh air to come in fromthe Mall interior. He said that would be acceptable if we put a fusible-link ¼ inch steel plate over it. We had to have one custom-made for the purpose. It’s still there… closed.
Later, I read the code myself and found that it was still based on the anticipated use of open carbon-arc lamps and highly flammable nitrate films, which hadn’t been in public use for nearly 20 years and were, in fact, outlawed for the purpose and stored in large steel and concrete vaults. We petitioned the Town so that we wouldn’t have to install a toilet in the booth to comply with this outdated code and they agreed it wasn’t necessary. As it is, that fusible-link fresh air intake isn’t either. It’s there to ventilate the ozone from the carbon-arc lamps which we don’t have and to seal off the booth in case of fire so it can burn by itself for a few hours while the Fire Department endeavos to cross the street in order to put it out. The projectors use 1,600 watt quartz-halogen lamps. We use a motorized ventilation system to keep them cool and that keeps them running for years, which is good because the lamps cost nearly $900 each.
The Eveningstar opened for business on 02 November 1979, a week later than the expensive, over-large, one-sided calendar we had printed had advertised. The fire inspector (same guy with the moving hands and confusion over code semantics), who worked directly across the street and had seen the plans from day one, showed up the day before the calendar’s published opening date and informed us that we couldn’t open until a special steal fire-door had been added to seal off the projection booth (so it could burn by itself for a few hours while the fire department crossed Maine Street…). The door had to be specially ordered and took nearly a week to get to us. So, we had a couple unhappy customers even before we were open, but few afterwards.
The first two pictures exhibited to anyone were shown at a private party for friends and cooperating business owners. They were “Heaven Can Wait”, followed by “Slap Shot” the cast for which included a lot of hockey players from the neighboring town of Topsham. Back at the rented house we shared withsome Bowdoin College students on Orrs Island, Gerry fell asleep in the shower on the night of the party and I fell asleep in the living room waiting for him. We got to our own opening night party about an hour and a half late, but it didn’t matter. My sister, Heidi, was there playing hostess to everyone, passing out bottles of champagne to all comers. All throughout the first film corks popped and people joyfully partied on.
Shortly after we had opened I went down to the Town Clerk’s office to register the name, Eveningstar Cinema. Now the name had a special significance to me, a private meaning. I was trying to get some sense of closer or completion on my relationship with Dawn so I was thinking of the other end of the day, Evening, which after all is when movies are typically shown, and I had decided to add ‘star’ to it because the stars have always given me a sense of perspective during bad times and movies feature them; hence Eveningstar. The Clerk looked at the name and broke into a big smile. “That’s amazing. How did you know to pick such a significant name?” she asked. I looked at her, amazed myself, andasked what she meant. “The name’s significant, isn’t it?” she asked. “Yes” I said, “but how could you know about that?” “Oh, I’m kind of an amateur historian and I’ve just been reading about her in the Town records.” Really? I thought “she” had gone to Cape Cod for the summer and I had missed the news of her arrival… I had no idea what the Clerk was talking about…
It turns out that Brunswick’s Town records, which go way back to the earliest settlement in Brunswick in the early 17th century, contain a great many references to the friendly and helpful native peoples who lived here then. These natives lived near where the Town Common currently is and had a burial ground near where the Tontine Mall sits. They had been so helpful in assisting the early settlers who had come to this region, that their names had been recorded in the Town records. Two particularly helpful folks from that tribe were its chief and his wife. Her name, when translated into English, is Eveningstar”, one word, just as I had named the Cinema over 300 years after she had been buried under its space…
For the first two years Gerry and I wrote, designed and manually laid out a calendar of films. We started with as many as 6 different features a week on a 5-week calendar, but eventually trimmed that to 2 per week on a 15-week calendar to cut costs. We focused on so-called art films. People stood in line out to the front door (a theater plus another half full) and came from as far away as Camden to the east and Portsmouth, New Hampshire to the west to see some of the rarer features we presented. We had no air conditioning to start with so the first June we opened the fire exit down front to the left of the screen. That door opens on the rear parking lot. Every time a car drove in, its lights would flash across the front of the theatre. Moths joined the audience and played tag across the screen. Our patrons were great. They came and they didn’t complain about anything. We were off and running, worried constantly about how we were going to cover the enormous, unanticipated hardware bill we had racked up with Brunswick Maine Hardware, but happy to be in business and confidant everything would work out. We had great films followed by great attendance and we began to imagine having weekends in Paris and New York with our ladies the following year.
Gerry and I had no money. I’d sold my car, which was uninspectable, so we were down to sharing his. We worked every day of the year at the theater and were always seen together everywhere – partly because we lived way out of town and had only one car between us, partly because neither of knew anyone else. The rumor began to circulate around Town that we were gay. We had some fun with that, even got dates with a couple of women in the area who had had bad experiences with ‘straight’ men. They felt comfortable with the two of us, believing we were gay and therefore of no threat. They both nearly had strokes during dinner when they found out we weren’t. It was worth a laugh though unfortunately neither of the women shared the merriment. By the end of our first full year, 1980, we were $76,000 in debt created by the need to make up for serious under capitalization at the start. Business was booming, but the prices we charged were too low and we had had to add many things we had not budgeted for, like an air conditioner/heat pump and a new sound system. Operationally though, we had turned in one of our best and most profitable years. We just couldn’t tell, because every dime that came in went to cover the construction costs we had racked up in the summer of the 1979. We drew about $7,000 each that year, though we had netted the equivalent of over $54,000 in 1995 dollars (roughly $165,000 in 2011 dollars, adjusted for CPI-calculated inflation, which is understated).
The first few pictures’ sound came from a 1960’s vintage mono amp and was one of the first things we replaced. We borrowed enough money from the local commercial bank to install a large new York heat pump/A.C. unit on the roof for our late 1980 summer season and in 1982 added a new, state-of-the-art Kintek 5-channel stereo system which gave us the best sound in the State of Maine. I kept that reputation until the Cinema was sold in 1996 by upgrading and maintaining our sound systems and it was very recently completely upgraded again by the current owner. The theater boasts a full set of matched surround speakers, huge left/center/right speakers behind the screen along with a gigantic JBL sub-woofer installed a couple years ago to replace a smaller one. We can move air in there. It’s great for concert movies, which were popular in the beginning, but just as good for crisp, clear dialog. In 1982, amarquee was added to the roof of the Tontine Mall, facing the Maine and Pleasant Streets intersection. Up to that point the only advertising we’d had was from the papers and our calendar.
In 1981 Gerry’s dad died and he returned to Chicago to help his ailing mother. There he became involved with a large theater circuit and eventually ran the Chicago Film Festival for them. After that, he retired from the film business. Today he’s married with a son and practices nursing in the Chicago area. For reasons I hadn’t given much thought to, I assumed all the debt when Gerry left and took on a new partner, in the person of the wife of an old high school buddy. Her name was Jane, his was Dean. Jane loaned her new business $42,000 from an insurance payment on a bad accident she’d had and then proceeded to drive herself and her husband into bankruptcy by spending all the rest and then some on credit cards. In 1986, with the help of a dear friend, I bought her out and assumed sole ownership of the Cinema, which continued until I sold it in 1996.
From 1979 to 1981, the Eveningstar showed ‘art’ films exclusively and developed a core audience it served until 5 February 1996, when I closed it to concentrate on the Essay Contest. In July of 1982 we showed our first commercial, first-run picture, ‘An Officer And A Gentleman’. The Naval Air Station here had its annual Air Show, which attracts upwards of 200,000 people to the area and we gave out 7,000 leaflets there to advertise the film. We ran 5 shows a day and created a huge gross, which carried the film along for many weeks. Despite the enormous success of the film, it broke the pattern of weekly changes our patrons had grown accustomed to and we heard about it, so we went back to art pictures, showing them consistently with only one or two commercial pictures mixed in during the summers of 1982 to 1986.
We developed a pattern of showing commercial first-run pictures once or twice a year, selecting them carefully for quality and consistency with our normal programming. Films like ‘Gandhi’, ‘The Color Purple’, ‘The Killing Fields’, ‘Silence of the Lambs’, and ‘Dances With Wolves’, ‘The Mission’ wereshown first run. When the major film companies got the idea in the mid-80’s that money could be made from foreign films (largely due to the success of ‘Das Boot’ which we showed in its original German and ‘La Cage Aux Folles’, shown in its original French), they began to disrupt the normal film-buying practices in Europe and quickly destroyed the smaller ‘art’ distributors by throwing money after films they didn’t know how to distribute, in the process taking distribution rights away from the companies we had been doing business with for years. 1986 to 1990 was a mess. I booked more commercial films during this period because there was so little reliable art product made available, and because I had finally taken a job to supplement my income. Art films require local marketing, like the calendars and programs Gerry and I had produced, but I didn’t have the time to produce them any longer and the consistency of the art film quality was beginning to get shaky, too. Warner Brothers released pictures like ‘Dangerous Liaisons’, ‘Crossing Delancy’, ‘The Accidental Tourist’, and ‘Clara’s Heart’ during this period and we became their selected outlet in the area, giving us the right of first refusal on all of their
first-run pictures. We kept that arrangement from 1990 up until the ‘alternative’ or ‘art’ market began to recover under the leadership of strong new independent film distribution companies like Miramax, New Line, Fine Line Features, Gramercy, and Sony Picture Classics. (Note: this history was originally written in 1995; of the aforementioned distributors, only Sony Pictures Classics remains in 2011)
In 1995, the Eveningstar began the move back to its roots, with occasional first-run product thrown in just for fun, but still I lacked the time to produce the necessary local advertising program and that simply must be done to succeed in the alternative market. Brad had loaned the Cinema a large sum to help it re- equip with new sound equipment in 1991-92. Since he needed the money back, and I wasn’t coming close to finding the time to run the Eveningstar properly, it was decided in early 1995 to mount an Essay Contest to give the Eveningstar away to a new owner with the passion and the time to run it the way it deserves to be run. The Contest consumed all of my time and resources for a year. In the end, it failed to draw enough responses (another story for another time) and the Eveningstar was put on the market. Several contestants tried to buy it, but the landlord shuttered the doors for three months in March of
1997 (did I mention that the Contest had consumed all my resources?) and it was then sold to a local entrepreneur for debts in June of that year. John owned and operated the Eveningstar until the late summer of 2010, when it changed hands once again – and each time there was a dog there to oversee the change. Barry Norman is now the proud and capable owner/operator of the Eveningstar Cinema and, as I did for John before him, I continue to assist by booking the selections he wishes to offer his patrons.
I see the Eveningstar Cinema continuing its long history of innovation and cultural enrichment under the fresh energy of a new owner. I see the Eveningstar continuing to contribute to the growing cultural resources in the Bath/Brunswick are, just as it has since its beginning. When we opened in 1979 there were only 2 or 3 restaurants in the downtown area. We attracted people from all around to the wide selection of offerings they couldn’t find anywhere else and they came for dinner in Town too. Now there are more than a dozen thriving restaurants within walking distance, one of them just upstairs in the Mall.
The Towns’ first natural food store opened here because of the Eveningstar’s presence. Gerry met an old high school acquaintance of mine on a trip we took to Connecticut one Christmas way back and invited her to Maine. She came, she stayed, and she opened Morning Glory Natural Foods down the street with Susan Tarpinian, who still owns it to the best of my knowledge. There were no art galleries when we opened, now there are two or three on Maine Street alone, and good ones at that. A wonderful married couple who practiced chiropractic medicine came to Brunswick in the early 80’s and attended the Eveningstar. One night they told me they had been looking for a place like this for years; had traveled all the way from Washington, D.C. looking for a town to support their practice (back then chiropractic services were not widely available). They believed that if Brunswick would support the kind of programming we show at the Eveningstar, it would support them, so they stayed, and it did (these were the Hagertys, Kevin and Susan, since moved on). Several other chiropractors followed, as well as many other alternative healers of every sort. In the years since we opened, Brunswick became a cultural oasis in Maine, a touch of Cambridge north of New Hampshire and it feels good to have been a part of that process.
I started school as a scholarship pre-med student and ended up with a psychology major and a degree in teaching. I’ve always wanted to be in a career that contributed to the lives of others. That seems critical to my peace of mind. When I finished building the Cinema and began to work behind the counter every night, I caught myself asking, “ How does this relate to anything I ever imagined myself to be? How does this contribute?” It was our early patrons who gave me that answer. Dozens told Gerry and I that they had stayed in Town because we opened the Eveningstar here, others simply thanked us repeatedly for doing so.
After a while I discovered something useful and perhaps, important – a movie theater can be like a wonderful classroom for grownups. In it, once the lights go down and the image and sound come up, they can surrender to the experience of wonder and magic that great movies create in ways they cannot
replicate in any other area of their lives. And for those couple of hours they can be transformed by imagery, ideas, and dreams that may continue to live within them for the rest of their lives and may even transform them and the relationships they have with others, making this a better place for everyone. The insights of great directors, screenwriters and acting talent can transform the mundane into the meaningful, adding fresh perspective to the life of the viewer. And after all, what does a great teacher do anyway, but give you a broadened perspective within which to find personal significance, joy and new wonder. Much film, like much TV, music, literature and other forms of culture, expresses little of redeeming value; serving the purpose of stimulating and distracting an audience rather than uplifting, informing and transforming them. Many people go to the movies to escape rather than find new meaning in the challenges of life, but great films, like great literature can be powerful mechanisms for personal growth and development, giving the viewer enrichment and reward rather than mere relief and distraction. The Eveningstar has always tried to provide the kind of films that nourish the spirits, stimulate the imaginations, and move the hearts of its patrons. Over the years its devoted patrons have proven that there is, despite all evidence to the contrary, still an enduring market for the values of compassion, personal enlightenment, and community, which has been the Eveningstar’s stock in trade. I’d like to thank them for that.
The shared experience of the movie theater must not be lost. It must be cherished and perpetuated wherever people continue to care about the nurturing of culture and the use of stories well told to transmit from one generation to another the lessons gained by the experiences of living. If we cannot learn to distinguish better between those forms of cultural expression which are merely stimulations and distractions and those which have the power to inform and uplift, and if we lose the means to control which of these we experience most often, then the moneyed interests will control our destiny as a people and a nation, for they understand too well that the image of a bullet to the head is internationally understood and therefore a profitable image, whereas films like ‘Bed of Roses’, ‘The Grass Harp’,
‘Driving Miss Daisy’, ‘City of Joy’ and their spiritual kin sing a higher song in frequencies beyond the range of the careless, untutored heart. Independent, hometown cinema can be that place where children and adults alike can learn to hear that high chorus of goodness, compassion and understanding, which would like to draw for us a future filled with joy and peace. The Eveningstar has served these purposes for 31 years. With a new owner, perhaps it will serve them even better over the next 31.
Chocorua, New Hampshire