For seven years, the doors to the Waldo Theatre ― a once state-of-the-art moviehouse turned community theater in downtown Waldoboro ― remained closed as the building fell into serious disrepair.
But in June, 85 years after the theater welcomed audiences for the first time, the doors of the Waldo Theatre were reopened to the public after a yearslong restoration process driven by community members who wanted their local theater back.
The theater hosted a play that ran for six performances, two concerts and a dance recital, as well as a screening of the 1952 classic “Singing in the Rain,” this summer. And it’s just getting started.
After being closed for seven years, the theater’s director is excited to expand on offerings this fall ― including hosting the Maine Fall Fiddle Festival ― and gauge what type of programming the community would like to see.
“We’re propagating a performing arts center. We start with things that we know and are familiar with and that we know people love,” Waldo Theatre Executive Director Kate Fletcher said. “What we learn from that, we will take and grow the programming. That’s really what we’re doing because we haven’t had an audience in seven years and things change in seven years.”
The Waldo Theatre opened in 1936 and long served as a community hub in Waldoboro. But in 2008, due to a lack of leadership and fundraising, the theater entered a period of decline before shuttering its doors entirely in 2014.
The theater, which was placed on the National Historic Register in the 1980s, was named as one of the most endangered historic places in Maine in 2017 by the Maine Preservation organization.
Around the same time the theater received this endangered designation, a group of community members came together to revive the theater’s board of directors and launch a $700,000 fundraising campaign to renovate the building with the intention of reopening it as a performing arts space.
By the end of 2020, the non-profit organization behind the theater, Waldo Theatre Inc., had reached the funding goal. With that money, the building’s failing roof has been replaced, the foundation has been waterproofed, the interior was completely restored and technology upgrades ― like the installation of a new audio system ― were made.
Maine Preservation’s website now lists the theater’s progress as “in motion.”
From the 600 individual donors who contributed to the fundraising campaign, to the approximately 200 volunteers who helped haul away debris or paint the interior, Fletcher said the revitalization wouldn’t have been possible without the community.
“They helped us bring it back to life,” Fletcher said.
Restoring and opening a historic theater is a big feat on its own. But the COVID-19 pandemic dealt the organization additional challenges.
In March 2020, as the pandemic upended normal daily life, the theater had to cancel an off-site event at a local high school. However, two Maine-based musical acts ― Palaver Strings and the Oshima Brothers ― were scheduled to play at the theater later in the year, and Fletcher was determined to find a way for the show to go on.
“I didn’t want to cancel on them. I knew that so many artists were out of work [because of the pandemic,” Fletcher said.
Ultimately, the theater had to pivot to making the shows virtual events, rather than in-person ones. Between the spring and summer of 2020, the theater was outfitted with technology that would allow the performances to be live-streamed from the venue.
In November, the Palaver Strings performed the first concert in the venue since the space had been revitalized. The Oshima Brothers’ December show was also live-streamed from the venue.
There were no in-person audiences, due to pandemic restrictions, but the concerts were live-streamed on YouTube and people from Maine and beyond were able to tune in and connect, albeit remotely.
“What was a huge wonderful surprise was people would comment on [the YouTube stream] in real time,” Fletcher said. “For the first time in a long time we had community.”
Over the winter and spring, several more remote concerts were hosted at the theater.
In June, the theatre opened to in-person audiences for the play “Almost Maine.” It was the first time audiences were able to view a performance live from inside of the newly renovated theater.
The state had lifted many pandemic restrictions by that time, but capacity for each show was still limited to about 100 to 150 people, Fletcher said, and audience members were asked to wear masks.
With the theater being closed for so many years, Fletcher said it was wonderful to finally welcome audiences back in.
“It was almost like an outer body experience just watching it fill up with people,” Fletcher said. “I was just so excited that people could see it.”
As the Delta variant has driven cases back up, Fletcher said the theater has adjusted its requirements. While masks were not required at a concert held in July, that has changed. Audience members and volunteers will now be required to wear masks while in the theater, Fletcher said.
Overall, she said audiences don’t seem to mind having to wear a mask if it means they can enjoy things like going to their local theater.
With summer fading into the rearview, Fletcher is looking toward a full fall schedule including numerous movie screenings and concerts. The Maine Fall Fiddle Festival, a day and a half long event, will be held at the theater and two other Waldoboro locations on Oct. 15 and 16. The multi-day event is one that Fletcher hopes becomes an annual fixture for the theater and the community as a whole.
“Besides nostalgia, besides wanting to participate in and see theater, and see films, I know people in the business community are hoping the Waldo will be an economic driver as well,” Fletcher said. “The Maine Fall Fiddle Festival is something that could really attract folks regionally.”