BELFAST, Maine — On Mike Hurley’s downtown Belfast office wall, scribbled movie names fill up a whiteboard calendar that shows four months of the Colonial Theatre’s schedule — but beginning on Monday, Sept. 19, there will be nothing but empty white squares.
That’s because the Colonial Theatre, a vibrant art deco movie palace at the heart of the community, is closing next month.
But movie lovers shouldn’t despair. The three-screen movie theater has been for sale since 2015, and co-owners Hurley and Therese Bagnardi hope it won’t be long before a buyer emerges and the Colonial re-opens. Closing the theater that has held pride of place in Belfast since it opened in April 1912, will be a wrench, but it’s just time for the couple to make a change, Hurley, 71, said Wednesday.
“How wonderful it’s been to be a part of this,” he said. “To think of movies as different as ‘Waking Ned Devine’ or ‘Pulp Fiction’ or ‘Amelie’ or ‘Toy Story’ or ‘Shrek.’ I remember so many people pouring into the movies. I’ve loved being a part of it. I love being a part of the community.”
He and Bagnardi, who are married, purchased the Colonial in 1995, on something of a whim. They figured that running a movie theater wasn’t much harder than selling tickets and making popcorn.
“Turned out, we had a lot to learn,” he told the Bangor Daily News in 2015.
They rose to the challenge, first sprucing up the movie theater’s color scheme from dull yellow and brown to the snazzy green, purple and pink it still sports today. They fixed the broken neon sign on the front marquee and then started on the interior.
Back then, the theater had already been converted from a single-screen movie house to a twin-screen. The original screen was cut off in the rear of the building, and Hurley and Bagnardi got the inspiration to tunnel below the other two screening rooms to restore access to the original, which they called Dreamland.
They also restored the lobby, replaced seats, created a new concession stand and switched from film to digital projection when the movie industry required that to happen.
When Perry’s Nut House, another Belfast institution, put some of its treasures on the auction block in 1997, the couple purchased two elephants to liven up the theater’s decor. They put Hawthorne, a trumpeting elephant made of fiberglass, on the roof. Baby Hawthorne, made of wood and much heavier, was carried by local strong men to the lower lobby, where he continues to delight children today.
After Hurley and Bagnardi put the theater up for sale — the list price is $1.3 million — potential buyers have kicked the tires on the business. But none have committed.
Knowledge that the Colonial is closing in September may change that, Hurley said.
“We’re lighting a fire. It’s time — that’s the bottom line,” he said. “We could keep on doing this, but I think if you keep feeding people, they don’t get hungry. Is it risky? Yeah. But we’re sparking a discussion.”
One solution would be for a non-profit organization to buy and manage the Colonial Theatre, similar to how other independent local cinemas are run in communities like Ellsworth, Waterville, Rockland, Bar Harbor and Bucksport.
“In my mind, that is the right, best choice for Belfast, at this point, to have a community-based organization that takes over the Colonial,” Hurley said. “I have so much faith in Belfast.”
The news that the Colonial will close has hit many in the community hard. On social media, the memories spanned generations, with people recalling their first movies at the theater, including ‘White Christmas’ in 1954, ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ in 1974 and ‘Beetlejuice’ in 1988.
Nathaniel Bernier, who lives in Lincolnville, said that the Colonial has been an important part of his life since his family moved to Belfast in 1985. He saw blockbusters there, had his first movie theater kiss there, and took his own children to their first movies there.
“I’ve lived in a lot of places in a lot of different states, and been to countless movie theaters,” he said. “But this one, this tiny little theater, is irreplaceable, unforgettable, timeless and will be sorely missed.”
Denis Howard II of Belfast, who owns Opera House Video, spent lots of time at the Colonial in his life. He worked there for a dozen years, and figures that he saw probably every single movie that was shown in that span of time.
“I just love the place,” he said. “There’s something about the communal feeling of being there when it’s crowded and everybody is experiencing a movie together. There’s a magic to that that is so much more powerful than all the other ways of seeing a movie. It’s a cultural experience.”
Hurley and Bagnardi are planning one last celebration before the projectors are unplugged. Beginning on Friday, Sept. 9, they will show 10 days of free movies, and have asked for the community to suggest their favorite films. They’ve been swamped with suggestions, getting 215 ideas so far — which is an indication of just how much the people of Belfast and surrounding towns love movies, and the Colonial, Hurley said.
Whatever is next for the Colonial, he expects that it will change from what it is right now. Small, owner-operated businesses have their own personalities, he said.
“When people say, ‘Oh, it’s going to be different — you bet it will,” he said.
But that’s OK. Change can be good, he said.
“Therese and I started talking about it a lot. All the memories of so many things. It’s hard to let it go,” he said. “But nothing can go on forever.”