The Stage is Set

A visit to Merrill Auditorium for a Christmas show brings back a flood of memories.

By Shonna Milliken Humphrey
Illustration by Patrick Corrigan

In what is now a tradition, my niece, Blythe, accompanies me to Portland’s Merrill Auditorium just before Christmas for the Maine State Ballet’s performance of The Nutcracker. The first year we attended, she was six, and since a six year old’s behavior is a crapshoot, I was prepared to consider it money well spent if we lasted half an hour.

From our red upholstered orchestra seats, Blythe twisted to absorb the height of the two balconies. Her little neck craned back to see the ceiling, and, I’m sure, the intricate gold scrollwork recessed in even white squares reminded her of a wedding cake or a princess’ gown. I’m sure of it, because on my first trip that’s exactly what I thought.

Growing up in Aroostook County, there was an abundance of good things — big sky, family, and fresh air — but there were no ornate public performance spaces, and there are none for Blythe today. I bought my first ticket to the Magic of Christmas as a college freshman, not knowing what to expect. The discount ticket cost five dollars and I wore a green prom dress. My seat was the highest up, in the very back row of the most remote balcony, and I arrived with other students holding five-dollar tickets, also wearing prom dresses. 
We huddled together, self-conscious, while Handel’s Messiah played, but even in those back row seats, I felt important.

Fast forward to my twenties and me working as a volunteer usher, escorting a class of elementary students just before the 1995 renovation. “They should fix this place up,” I thought with arrogance, noting the peeling paint and the shabby carpet, having, by then, experienced much larger, more pristine performance sites. After the renovation, I invited an attractive man who rode a motorcycle to a free Cowboy Junkies show. We sat in the center, four rows from the stage, and my condescension was still apparent. Instead of appreciating the sweetness of leaning against a leather jacket while Margo Timmins sang directly in front of me, I’m embarrassed to remember looking at the new carpet and thinking, “About time.”

Hal Holbrook tickets were a birthday gift to my father, and Ken Burns introduced me to his documentary about the national park system. David Sedaris spoke during the Maine Festival of the Book, and I returned a couple of years later to hear him again. I once attended The Nutcracker’s dress rehearsal with my mother, sister, two aunts, and a group of family friends. We laughed together, arms linked, all the way up the hill in the freezing November night after eating onion rings at Gilbert’s Chowder House.

The absolute best, though, was when my husband performed as part of B.B. King’s opening act, and I sat backstage on metal gear boxes. Mr. King greeted Travis, my husband, from a wheelchair pushed to the very edge of the stage, and we watched the legendary blues master struggle to stand tall. The audience applauded, and although I saw just the back of B.B. King’s head through a narrow break in the heavy velvet curtain, it was the most extravagant seat in the house.

I love Merrill Auditorium with its quiet and austere significance, a grey and nondescript part of Portland City Hall’s larger presence. If I didn’t know to look down the street, I would probably walk right past it, unaware of the intricate beauty inside.

Having been lucky enough to experience venues across the world with names like Meyerhoff, Criterion, Palladium, and Symphony, my favorite performance space will always be Merrill Auditorium. It welcomed an awkward teenager with the same grace it extended to an arrogant young adult, as if to say, like a kind parent, “You can always come home.”

The best endorsement of Merrill’s impact, though, came from my niece on that first Nutcracker visit. Blythe was impressed with the balconies and the scrollwork, for sure, but when the music began to play and the curtain rose, she turned instinctively toward the stage. Her eyes big and her little jaw hanging loose.

For the full two acts, she faced forward. It was live entertainment at its finest: the dancers, the costumes, the staging, and the music all telling a story with no spoken words. Without electronic or television monitors, my niece stayed riveted. She spoke just after the snowflakes fell. The curtain had closed for intermission, and her worry was evident. She reached up and whispered, “It isn’t over yet, is it?”

Shonna Milliken Humphrey is the author of Show Me Good Land, published by Down East Books.