The Temple Cinema in Houlton is pictured in 2018. Credit: Contributed photo

HOULTON, Maine — A journey that began seven years ago will soon end for the owner of the historic 1919 Temple Cinema in Houlton.

Charlie Fortier, who spent his life savings to buy the Market Street building, posted his last schedule of upcoming movies on Wednesday, noting the theater would close on June 29.

Fortier joins other Aroostook County movie theater owners who made the difficult decision to close their doors. In Fort Kent, lack of attendance closed the Century Theater and The Caribou Theater plans to close within the next few months. Nationally, more than 50 Regal Cinema theaters were shuttered in a bankruptcy filing, including one in Brunswick.

“I feel sad,” Fortier said Wednesday. “My employees are wonderful people and I am grateful to anyone who ever came here to see a film, but  the math is just not there anymore.”

The ride was a good one for Fortier’s movie theater until the pandemic hit. And it’s been a rough go trying to bring the theater back to pre-COVID-19 levels, he said.

“I don’t think I ever saw anyone work as hard to get a business going. He did his best,” said Jane Torres, executive director of the Greater Houlton Chamber of Commerce. “When COVID hit it was devastating to the theater. What a tragedy. The theater has been around a long time.”

The community is sorry to see any business close, but a longtime, cherished business is especially difficult to hear about, said Nancy Ketch, Houlton’s community development director.

A combination of changes — lower attendance, higher wages, higher product costs, difficulty finding staff and Hollywood pressures — made it hard for Fortier to stay afloat for the last three years. And he’s been losing money every month, he said.

It used to be Hollywood would wait a year or longer before films were available to consumers. Now new films are often streamed on TV a month later, Fortier said, which makes more people choose to stay home to watch films.

Fortier never raised his prices and even offered days with free popcorn and reduced rates. But his costs have nearly doubled, he said. When he opened the theater in 2016, minimum wage was $7.50 and now it is $13.80. Popcorn was $24 for 50 pounds, now it’s $39 for 35 pounds.

Fortier, an admitted film lover with a collection of 10,000 films, graduated from Houlton High School and later from the University of Maine at Machias.

Before returning to his hometown, he was director of procurement and cost analysis at Pearson, a British-owned education publishing and assessment service, based in New Jersey.

When Temple’s previous owner, Mike Hurley, was unable to sell the Houlton theater for $350,000, he launched an international 250-word essay contest to pick the new owner. Hurley said he needed to draw 3,500 essay submissions at $100 each.

Hurley abandoned the essay contest when submissions only totaled 1,500. But because Fortier had submitted a letter and offered to pay for the theater, it was his, Fortier said.

The Temple has operated continuously since its inception and has been renovated several times. Fortier has put a lot of money into the building that is also his residence and has several offices, he said.

“People grew up with the theater,” Torres said. “It’s going to break a lot of hearts.”

Although Fortier plans to stay open until the end of June, he said he will hang on as long as he can until that date.

The town has reached out to him to offer help and will stay in touch with Fortier, Ketch said.

“We are hopeful that someone will step up and take his offer to lease the space and keep things going,” she said.

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Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli

Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli is a reporter covering the Houlton area. Over the years, she has covered crime, investigations, health, politics and local government, writing for the Washington Post, the LA...