The Curtain Comes Down on Belfast’s Colonial Theatre

But not before one final farewell run.

The Colonial Theatre in Belfast, Maine
By Kathryn Miles
Photographed by Benjamin Williamson
From our December 2022 issue

They came by the dozens, carrying fleece blankets and homemade snacks. They snaked through the line at the concession stand, buying Junior Mints and canned cocktails. About 150 patrons in all, they filled Dreamland, the largest of three screening rooms in downtown Belfast’s storied Colonial Theatre. This was no ordinary Sunday-night feature. These guests, many of whom were born and raised in Waldo County, had grown up at the Colonial. And now, after years of an unsuccessful search for a buyer, the theater was about to close its doors for the first time in 99 years.

Therese Bagnardi, the longtime owner of the Colonial, greeted patrons in the lobby. She’d dressed for the evening in a bright-green go-go dress and rhinestone tiara. “We’re trying to focus on the fun,” she said, standing in front of a framed display of newspaper clippings about the theater that ran from floor to ceiling. Nearby, theater manager Kyle Walton was attired in khaki shorts, bright-red sneakers, and a giant, mascot-like box of popcorn.

Belfast’s High Street, in the mid-1960s. Hawthorne, the elephant statue on the theater’s roof since 1997, was then at Perry’s Nut House, across the Passagassawakeag. Courtesy of the Belfast Historical Society.

Built in 1912, the original Colonial opened its doors the same day the Titanic set sail from Southampton, England. Designed in the style of grand old opera houses, the single theater showed silent movies and hosted everything from community musicals to boxing matches until it burned to the ground, in 1923. Ten months later, the Colonial reopened at its current location. In the years since, it has hosted nationally recognized sopranos, beauty pageants, and more monster-movie matinees than anyone can count. During the Depression, the owners gave away free turkeys. Each Christmas, right up through last year, the theater offered free holiday films. Midcoast residents first saw footage from Pearl Harbor, after the Japanese attack, on newsreels at the Colonial. Fats Domino played there too.

“It’s the saddest day,” said longtime Belfast resident Janis Hogan, who brought her two adult daughters to the closing. “There is so much history here. We’re losing a lot.”

The number of movie theaters in the United States has shrunk in the past 25 years: from about 7,800 to 5,800. The pandemic hit cinemas hard, particularly independent and art-house venues. The Colonial had a foot in both the indie and the blockbuster camps. In 1996, the year after Bagnardi and her husband, Michael Hurley, purchased the theater, they ran everything from Toy Story and Mars Attacks! to adaptations of Jane Austen’s Persuasion and Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders. They also renovated the entire theater, restoring its art-deco décor and hanging posters that nodded to the wide-ranging repertoire: Bride of Frankenstein, The Devil Is a Woman, Maine Girls (Boy Crazy! Boat Crazy! Booze Crazy!).

A 1968 boxing match at the theater. Courtesy of the Belfast Historical Society.

In the 10 days leading up to this final screening, the Colonial showed 36 films, all free of charge. About 2,500 patrons came to watch old favorites like It’s a Wonderful Life and Forrest Gump. “We wanted people to know it’s about community, not the money,” Bagnardi says.

For the very last screening, she chose The Last Picture Show, a bleak account of a down-at-the-heels, fictional Texas town described by Roger Ebert as having “no reason to exist.” But Belfast is no such place, Mayor Eric Sanders told the audience before the projector began to roll. “Tonight, we are here to celebrate love, kindness, and the heartbeat of a small town,” he said. “That heartbeat will go on.”

Then, the lights dimmed one last time, at least for now.