Belfast’s Colonial Century
A historic theater celebrates a big birthday.
- By: Will Bleakley
Image Courtesy Eastern Illustrating & Publishing Co. Collection, Penobscot Marine Museum
Prior to renovations in 1947 that ushered in today’s art deco façade, neon marquee, and a life-sized elephant statue named Hawthorne in mid-trumpet, the Colonial Theatre was an understated brick venue that shared the spotlight along High Street with Central Maine Power Company (CMP) and Whitcomb’s Café. While the latter businesses have either disappeared (Whitcomb’s) or centralized (CMP), and the major thoroughfare (Route 1) relocated in 1963, the Colonial celebrates its one-hundredth year of operation this month.
Photographed above toward the end of the Great Depression, this eight hundred-seat theater began its run on April 10, 1912, the very day the Titanic set course for New York. It showcased live performances before film screenings and, during the thirties, held such events as “Money Night” where cash and meals were given to lucky ticket holders. On this day, Mulvany Bros. Neon Signs and Awnings of Bangor parked their car in front of the venue to drop off and install the new marquee for the 1936 melodrama Ramona — a love triangle starring Loretta Young that the New York Times called “a piece of unadulterated hokum.”
To the right of the Colonial is the Belfast branch of Central Maine Power. In 1921, the company acquired locally owned Penobscot Bay Electric Company and turned the storefront into a customer service office that offered patrons more than just the opportunity to pay their bills. Customers could purchase electric appliances such as refrigerators and dishwashers and even participate in cooking classes that taught the basics of using an electric stove.
Farther up the street is Whitcomb’s Café, a former Belfast landmark and drop-off spot for the Maine Central Bus Line. Bus drivers and their passengers stopped at this twenty-four-hour café on their way to Bangor to gorge on such items as fried lobster, Welsh rarebit, crackers and milk, salt cod and pork scraps, dropped eggs on fish hash, and eight types of potato dishes ranging from five to ten cents each. The restaurant, Belfast’s finest at the time, may have been better known, however, for its state-of-the-art air conditioning. In the July 1930 issue of the Colonial Theatre News, an ad for Whitcomb’s Electric Café read, “Our restaurant is the coolest stop in town. Dine here and keep cool.”
The Colonial had a similar promotion highlighting its “Arctic Nu Air” that “Keeps You Cool.” Between Whitcomb’s, Central Maine Power, and the Colonial, High Street during the 1930s was certainly the coolest block in Belfast.
- By: Will Bleakley