What's in a Picture?
A Peaks Island Gem
Known today for its coastal bike paths, charming houses, historic World War II batteries, and the world’s only umbrella cover museum, Peaks Island once had a rowdier reputation. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, summer visitors referred to this Casco Bay island, just three miles from mainland Portland, as the “Coney Island of Maine” because of its amusement park, boardwalk, four-story hotel, and historic Gem Theater. A former roller rink, the theater was purchased in 1898 by the Casco Bay Steamship Company and renovated into a summer stock playhouse; later it became a dance hall and movie theater. As a way to counteract the rise of railroads, the Steamship Company offered a special package deal that included a round-trip ferry ride and ticket of admission for just twenty-five cents.
The theater imported professional touring companies from New York City and featured performances by the famed Barrymore family, but it was the building’s odd style that had people talking. Built in the shape of an airship (or dirigible) hangar, the theater was outfitted with marine paraphernalia that was “a frequent source of comment” according to a Lewiston Daily Sun article after the Gem burned down in 1934.
One of the theater’s most devoted fans was Hollywood icon John Ford. Ford, the Irish-American director of The Grapes of Wrath, The Searchers, and How Green Was My Valley, developed his love for film while working as an usher at the theater throughout his childhood summers. Even after establishing himself as one of Hollywood’s best directors, he frequently returned to the island and became known as the “Mayor of Peaks Island.” Although there’s no zeppelin-size hangar housing a skating rink-dance hall-movie theater looming over the island’s shorefront anymore, thanks to Ford, the Gem’s legacy endures. — Will Bleakley
COLLECTION OF MAINE HISTORICAL SOCIETY