The closed Milbridge Theatre has inspired a grassroots initiative to create a community and performing arts center for the Downeast region. PHOTO COURTESY SUSAN BENNETT

Movement afoot to transform old movie house

MILBRIDGE — If the core of a home is the kitchen, the beating heart of a community — especially in rural areas — is often a movie theater or performing space.

Residents of Milbridge are hoping to revive their 1930s-era movie theater, which closed following the death of the last and longtime owner, Dave Parsons.

Parsons purchased the Milbridge Theatre in 1978 and operated it every summer until his death in December 2014.

Either restoring portions of the theater, or tearing it down to build a new one, has become part of an overall economic development effort in town.

An architectural rendering by Robert Harden of Southwest Harbor
An architectural rendering by Robert Harden of Southwest Harbor

Crystal Hitchings, regional planner for the Washington County Council of Governments, has established a GoFundMe site asking for contributions toward the effort.

So far, about $5,000 has come in, which has helped jump-start the fundraising project.

“Many ‘firsts’ have occurred here, first kiss, first date, first love, all very important stuff!” Hitchings wrote in her appeal. “Adults and families relied on the theater for entertainment and gathering together, as opportunities in this small community are sometimes rare and often a distance away.”

A native of Cherryfield, Hitchings returned about three years ago after working in community development in Oregon, Washington state and Alaska.

“It seemed like the next step in developing my career,” she said of her new position in Downeast Maine.

Her first big effort was helping to establish recognition of the “Bold Coast Scenic Byway,” stretching from Milbridge to Eastport and Lubec.

“It turned into a lot more economic development than I anticipated, which I like,” Hitchings said. “I like to talk about helping people understand the value of the lifestyle we have here.”

She helped shepherd the award-winning Bold Coast Scenic Byway Corridor Management Plan, a four-year effort involving hundreds of contributions from residents.

Milbridge, Hitchings said, is the next logical focus since it serves as the gateway to the 125-mile Bold Coast driving route through active fishing communities, working forests, family farms and blueberry barrens.

When visitors come to Downeast Maine in particular, she said, they want to meet local residents and experience the culture firsthand.

Another goal is to help businesses diversify in order to make them viable year-round.

A blueberry farm in Roque Bluffs, Hitchings said, built a few cabins to host guests as a way of boosting income.

“The more we band together and tell our story, the more it becomes a destination,” she said.

Hitchings said there is no price tag yet on the theater project, but the estimated cost of buying the building is $50,000; a digital projector is $60,000, and the overall cost of the project might be somewhere in the neighborhood of $300,000 to $400,000.

The goal is to have the building look much as it does now and to have it blend in with the homes around it. The architect is Robert Harden of Southwest Harbor.

The existing building, which has extensive rot and mold, would have to be made handicapped-accessible. There would be a larger stage with dressing rooms for theater productions.

Plans call for a café and small dance floor.

Historic and culturally significant theater artifacts will be preserved, including lobby elements and architectural details.

Hitchings said the theater seating is intact, although it will need to be reupholstered.

There will be a permanent display of photography and movie posters to commemorate the history of the theater and its dedicated owner.

Hitchings said the current talk is to have films make up about half the programming: family-oriented movies, an adult night, special screenings, possibly film festivals.

The theater productions might include community and school drama productions; summer youth intensives in music and theater; traveling shows and local as well as visiting performing artists.

The space also could be made available for meetings, educational speakers, special events and other community gatherings.

Hitchings is busy writing grant applications — among them a federal Community Development Block Grant, which would require a match.

Jacqueline Weaver

Jacqueline Weaver

Reporter at The Ellsworth American
Jacqueline's beat covers the eastern Hancock County towns of Lamoine through Gouldsboro as well as Steuben in Washington County. She was a reporter for the New York Times, United Press International and Reuters before moving to Maine. She also publicized medical research at Yale School of Medicine and scientific findings at Yale University for nine years.[email protected]
Jacqueline Weaver

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