ISLAND FALLS, Maine — The new owner of a 127-year-old opera house in Island Falls plans to restore the building that was central to townspeople for so many decades to a vital community space.
The southern Aroostook town of Island Falls was once a vibrant community with plenty of jobs as people worked in tanneries and the nearby factory for the National Starch and Chemical Company. It also boasted the Island Falls Opera House, originally built in 1894 to feature live theatrical performances, before switching to silent and eventually sound films in the early 20th century. The starch factory and tanneries are gone, and the opera house closed in the 1960s, mirroring the economic decline of the town. But the opera house has a chance at revival.
Chris Hartin, owner of Hartin’s Home Comfort Solutions in Island Falls, has acquired the building, and hopes to restore it to its former stature — as a place for townspeople to gather and to hold cultural events that could attract people from other places.
“[We want to] bring some life back and some community-oriented type functions from time to time, maybe a free movie when we get the screen in,” Hartin said. “The ultimate goal though was to keep it from falling into the wrong hands, somebody that might tear it down.”
The building, owned at the time by Gregory and Donna Knopp, was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1984. The building was described in the nomination form as “the kind of multi-purpose buildings which used to exist commonly in many of Maine’s smaller communities but which have now virtually disappeared.”
Local and traveling entertainment companies would visit the opera house in its early days, such as the Boston Comedy Company and the Bowdoin Glee, Guitar and Mandolin Club. Balls, lectures and revivalist meetings were also commonplace, making the opera house a public gathering place for a variety of functions.
In 1910, the Opera House began showing the first silent film reels, with wild west and comedy films priced at 5 cents for admission. From there, the building began to function as the town’s movie theater, while continuing to be a community gathering place.
Becky Drew, who was born in the late 1940s and is a member of the Island Falls Historical Society, remembers when the movie theater served as the primary entertainment for the town’s children. She saw her first movie, “The Wizard of Oz,” there when she was 9, and as a teenager would sometimes sneak in to see more mature movies.
“Much courting was done in the red leather seats. Handholding, sharing popcorn and such was part of growing up in those years,” she said. “The lobby was a great place with candy and popcorn and drinks in paper cups that often served as flying comments when the film broke or the bad guy was not appreciated or if the romance got a bit heavy.”
But with increasing access to other theaters and the addition of televisions in homes, the theater closed its doors in 1965. The building has changed hands several times since and has begun to fall into disrepair, with inadequate heating that has led to plaster peeling off the walls, as well as water damage from broken seals around the chimneys.
Having fixed up several older homes in the area over the past years as part of his business, Hartin said a restoration of the opera house constitutes a personal life goal.
“This is probably going to be my last big project,” Hartin said. He and his family plan to live in the house adjacent to the theater, located within the same building.
A revival of the opera house could help breathe new life into Island Falls, a smaller community of about 800 people located between Patten and Houlton, and often bypassed by people traveling between the two towns on Interstate 95.
While there are few remaining in the town who can remember the opera house’s glory days, a revival of the building might lead to increased interest and business within the local area.
“I think it’s a wonderful thing they’re doing in purchasing and reviving it,” Town Manager Jutta Beyer said. “Anything would be welcome at this point to get more visitors and people here.”
Hartin hopes to have the building restored in time for summer. One addition to the building already is a new “Island Falls Opera House” sign, placed above where Hartin is planning the new entrance for when townspeople can once again enjoy a unique small-town version of entertainment.
“It was quite a town once upon a time, but hasn’t been much since 2009 when the factory closed,” he said. “So this should maybe be getting us back on the map a little bit.”