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Colonial get the full treatment! 18 Jul 2006 10:42 #12971

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can you tell that the reporter has a thing for the movie biz?
Local News

Colonial captures movie magic


BELFAST (12:39 p.m., July 12) - High above a theater called "Dreamland," in a cramped booth that reaches 94 degrees in the summer, Edward Young stands next to a projector, watching the coming attractions through a tiny window.

The projector here at Belfast's Colonial Theatre dates back to the 1940s, though the sound system is much newer. The machine rattles and clicks as film rolls through it, stretching from a large metal platter nearby. A piece of masking tape on the massive black wheel of film labels it Nacho Libre.

Down below, people from all over the county chew popcorn and giggle at the gags in the previews. They are unaware of Young and the reporter interviewing him in the projection booth.

There are only a few seconds between the end of the coming attractions and the beginning of the main feature. In that time, Young must change the lens on the projector. This involves a series of quick, practiced movements. Something is loosened, the lens is removed and another is fastened in its place. He must fine-tune the focus on the new lens before the movie starts.

He explains that some projectors have carts on the front so you can just rotate from one lens to another, but the Colonial's have to be changed manually.

"This is a bit more hands on," he said.

The lens has to be changed because the previews are in one format - CinemaScope - and the movie is in another called "Flat." The "Flat" film has a wider picture. The movie industry widened the picture years ago to offer something that small, boxy televisions couldn't.

Young and other members of the Colonial Theatre's staff talk about the old projectors with what seems like real affection, the way a pilot might talk about a favorite plane.

"This is the most reliable piece of machinery I've ever worked with," he said, while working with one of the other projectors at the theater.

Young notes that the lenses are the most expensive parts of the projector. He has to be quick, but careful when changing them.

"They are high quality," he said. "It's a long distance to throw light and have it stay in focus."

We think of movies as modern marvels of technology, utilizing the latest in digital sound and computer animation, but almost all movie theaters rely on very old, yet very reliable technology. What goes on in the projection booth has not changed radically in 50 years.

The movie industry and its stars seem ubiquitous in the culture, but that, too, is misleading. Colonial co-owner and Belfast Mayor Michael Hurley points out that there are only about 4,000 theaters operating nationwide.

"It's a small industry considering how much oxygen it takes up," Hurley said.

He said a convention of restaurant owners might draw thousands whereas those in the business of showing movies remain part of a fairly select group.

The Colonial Theatre in Belfast is a mix of the old and the new. It is a historic landmark for the city, but under the ownership of Therese Bagnardi and Hurley, it has gone from a two-theater building running a video store out of its lobby to a fully-renovated three-screen establishment.

Hurley argues as well that in an age of competing mediums, the theater remains vital and not merely a piece of history.

"In the past 11 years (since the couple purchased the theater) they have increased Internet, TiVo, DVD, pay-per-view, videogames, cell phones," he said. "It's huge! But movies have remained. They have stuck it out."

Hurley argues it is the only place people can go and have an experience where they laugh or cry in a room full of total strangers.

"At the base of all this is the human tradition of story-telling," he said. "This is a very highly-developed form of story-telling."

The history of The Colonial

The Colonial's story begins in April 1912 when it opened with a performance by the Belfast Band and a minstrel show. The Colonial's Web site notes that it opened on the same day the Titanic set sail.

"When the curtain went up Tuesday night at the opening of the new Colonial Theater by the Belfast Band Minstrels, the audience was not doomed to a disappointment," The Republican Journal reported April 11, 1912. "The house was packed from the orchestra to the back row in the gallery, and many were standing who could not obtain seats. As the curtain rose, a storm of applause greeted the performers."

The curtain itself sounds like a marvel. "The drop curtain is of blue velvet velour with a large shield in the center of buff colored velvet on which is the monogram C-T in blue letters."

The article described the stage and the balcony seating, the dressing rooms and a "smoking" room for the men.

However, this was only the first incarnation of the theater. On Feb. 22, 1923, the headline in the Journal was, "Belfast has a Disastrous Fire."

"While its origin is a mystery, it is thought by those first on the scene ... to have started in the Eaton block on the Colonial side," the article reported.

The article went on to state that it was fortunate there was no loss of life. The Colonial had been crowded for the evening show, a film called Way Down East, when the fire started.

At one point it was hoped that the films themselves could be saved since they were not near the fire, but "hot air explosions" made that impossible. In addition, a member of the Colonial orchestra lost a new set of drums and two pianos were burned.

At the time, the theater was owned by the Maine-New Hampshire Theatres Co. with F.A. Petrich of New York as the local manager.

The newspaper clipping stated that members of the community were saddened by the loss of the theater.

However, the Colonial would rise from the ashes in a relatively short period of time. While it was being rebuilt, the theater operated temporarily out of the Belfast Opera House, according to the Colonial's Web site. Later, it re-opened at its present location.

"Opening night at the New Colonial Monday evening, Jan. 14th, was a gala event for all concerned," The Republican Journal reported Jan. 17, 1924. "... At the first show there were about 700 and also a large attendance at the second. The audience included many from the surrounding towns, especially from Searsport and Stockton Springs."

The new Colonial featured a $10,000 organ that was played opening night by Mrs. Florence C. Fernald. A new manager, Mr. Thompson, presented her with a bouquet of red and white carnations.

"The curtain, done by B.L. Nichols of Portland, has a scene that the public will never become tired of. It is the sentinel rock of the Yosemite Valley in the background, with a most picturesque foreground of rocks, streams and flowers."

"The picture program including the International's review of world events in 1923 and Mary Pickford in Tess of the Storm Country, were entertaining and very distinctly thrown upon the stage screen."

The Colonial's Web site notes that "After WWII, the theater's exterior was renovated into its current appearance with an Art Deco stuccoed front. During most of its life, the theater was owned by the Kurson family which operated theaters all over New England from their base in the Boston Theatre District."

For many years, John Grant ran the Colonial. He started working at the theater as a young man, according to Bagnardi. One day, when Grant was in his 20s, the theater manager had to go into the hospital for an operation. The manager left Grant in charge of the theater, thinking he would be returning soon, and then died in the hospital. From then on, Grant just kept running the Colonial. Eventually the out-of-state owners asked him on the phone, "How come we never talk to so-and-so anymore," and Grant told them what had happened, but he remained in place as the local manager.

New owners, elephants and the road to Dreamland

In March of 1995, Therese Bagnardi and Michael Hurley purchased the Colonial.

"I said, why don't you buy the theater," Hurley said of the conversation with his wife. "Three days later it was under contract."

He said the bidding was very competitive with several parties vying for the right to take over the theatre.

John and Mary Grant were there for the cutting of the film ceremony along with Mayor Page Worth as the theater was passed on to the new owners. Bagnardi and Hurley purchased it from the last of the Kursons, who at the age of 80 years old were ready to retire, according to the Web site.

At that time, there was a video store in the lobby. The new owners tried moving that part of the operation downstairs and then decided to get out of the video business altogether.

"There's a difference between people who go to the movies and people who watch videos," Hurley said.

There were two screening rooms at the Colonial when the couple purchased it. The Colonial was originally one large theater with a stage and an orchestra pit. In 1947 the stage was cut in half and the orchestra pit ripped out.

The Colonial's Web site explains, "In the early 1970s the theater was shortened by abandoning the stage and moving the screen toward the audience as energy costs skyrocketed and attendance dwindled from the threat of television, video and cable."

Bagnardi said the previous owners had shut off part of the building to cut down on heating costs.

"The Colonial was 'twinned' into two movie theaters in 1984," the Web site states.

She explained that Hurley had the idea of digging a tunnel under the sloping floor of the existing two theaters to reach the closed-off portion of the building which housed the stage.

The tunnel was dug and a new screening room with an old-fashioned stage and balcony was constructed. It was now a three-theater building. In July 1996, the Journal reported, "After a long slumber, the Colonial's third theater was revealed to the public Wednesday amid much glitter and glitz."

The Colonial's stage was restored, a colorful art deco-style carpet was put in and people could once again watch a movie from a balcony with brass railings. The new screening room utilized the original grand stage and curtain.

"Dreamland" was born.

The new owners were bored with identifying the screening rooms by number alone, according to a write-up hanging in the lobby, so they named the three screens after other theaters that had operated in Belfast's history.

The newly-renovated third theater was named "Dreamland" after a theater that operated briefly in Belfast during the early 1920s. The other screening rooms up front were renamed "Star" and "City."

It's worth noting that the first tickets ever sold for the Colonial in 1912 were sold out of the Star Theater's box office.

The opening of Dreamland was celebrated with another grand bash featuring live music, poetry, vaudeville acts and a showing of The Red Balloon. Audience members dressed for the event in gowns and tuxedoes.

The theaters were now renovated and re-named, but the decor of the Colonial was not yet complete. In 1997, the world-famous Perry's Nut House went out of business and many of the eccentric items within were auctioned off. Perry's had an extensive collection of taxidermied animals from the PT Barnum Circus and it had two elephants. One was made of fiberglass and there was a smaller one made of wood that was hand-crafted in 1938.

Bagnardi recalls discussing it with her husband: "Mike said, 'you have to buy these elephants' and I was like, 'why?' and he was like, 'because they're cool.'"

Bagnardi said people were chanting at the auction, "Buy them, buy them."

Hurley remembers that he wanted the fiberglass elephant for the roof of the Colonial in hopes of annoying Code Enforcement Officer Bob Temple. "I put it up to boil his blood," Hurley said with a laugh, adding that there was no code to prevent him from doing so.

As the auction continued they came to the "baby" elephant, which was a piece of solid wood folk art. Hurley said there was "spirited bidding" with people from Belfast rooting for Hurley to win the elephant. He said people went so far as to boo the people bidding against him.

In the end they got the "baby" elephant and moved it into the downstairs of the Colonial. Hurley noted that it was a massively heavy piece, saying he had to call in a bunch of weightlifters from Ed's Gym to move it in. "Six huge guys carried him in there," Hurley said.

The other fiberglass, code-officer-proof elephant was placed on the roof with a crane.

Perry's Nut House has since re-opened under new management.

Meanwhile in the projection booth

For the most part, the projectors are the same as they always were. According to Hurley, few if any theaters have moved into the digital age. He said it would cost more to convert one screen to digital than it cost to buy the Colonial in the first place.

He praises the simplicity of the old technology, noting that when a projector lost a pin during Pocahontas he was able to fix it using spare parts he found stored at the theater.

Hurley worries that if the process is computerized it will be easier for some computer hacker to bootleg a copy of the film. There's little danger of that with a heavy, padlocked can of film reels.

The sound systems have been updated. Bagnardi said that figuring out the right volume for the movie can be just as hard as it is for people watching DVDs at home. During the action sequences, the noise of the explosions knocks people out of their chairs, but then during the quiet talky scenes, people can't hear the dialogue. She said she sent a "thank you" letter to makers of the first Pirates of the Caribbean film for striking a perfect balance.

In the old days there were two projectors in the booths. They performed a change-over when each 20-minute reel ended. One projector would be playing the first reel and the other would be loaded up with the second reel. At the right moment the second one was turned on, overlapping with the first and then the first one was shut down and loaded with the next reel.

Now all of the reels are combined into one mega-reel on a large metal platter and change-overs are no longer needed. The platters system has been around for years, and Hurley said it was developed for drive-in theaters.

The show must go on

Hurley said the biggest challenge in this business is running "a three-screen theatre in a 10-screen world." He said so many movies are produced at a time now that it can be a tough decision from week to week which movies to book at the Colonial.

He said he and Therese pick the movies, sometimes arguing about which ones to book.

In the old days, he said, people were lucky if they saw two or three really good movies in a year. Now people can't find the time to see all the good movies. He adds that he hears people now and then saying that movies are not as good as they used to be, but he disagrees. If anything, they're better today, according to Hurley.

"You've got to be good to face all of this competition," he said.

Hurley said he books all the films, calling companies including Dreamworks, Paramount and Sony. The movies arrive in padlocked canisters, delivered by truck, often at night. If there is a problem and a delivery is late, he said the film companies will fly the films into Bangor International Airport and take them by cab to Belfast. Sometimes a cab might pull in from Boston to deliver a film.

"The show must go on," he said.

Right now, the theater is in the middle of the big summer season.

"Summer keeps getting earlier and earlier," Hurley said. "It's into May now."

He said the serious films start coming out in October in anticipation of the Academy Awards which require that a movie open by Jan. 1. Hurley said that's why you see some movies opening for limited release in New York and Los Angeles. They're just hitting the Oscars deadline.

Hurley said it is just as busy in December as it is in the summer, so the theater is not dependent solely on tourist traffic. He added that Belfast doesn't roll up its sidewalks when the summer is over.

Hurley doesn't seem to be bothered by people's behavior in the theater. He said it's part of the job to make sure people aren't making too much noise.

He adds that it's the wrong business for someone who does not enjoy working around kids.

Movie theaters are really the first place kids can go that aren't controlled by authority figures in the way that schools and churches are, Hurley notes.

"Kids we were throwing out of the theater are now coming back as adults and saying 'Can't you quiet those kids down,'" he said with a smile.

Why work in this business?

"I love the people," Hurley said. "You see a real broad variety of people."

Hurley, who has also run other businesses including The Belfast Café, is quick to add that he gets to see the people at the movie theater, but he doesn't have to take any blame.

"If the movie is no good, they don't blame you," he said.

For more information on The Colonial Theatre, check out [url=][/url]

Daniel Dunkle can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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