WALDOBORO — Most tourists and out-of-towners know this midcoast town as the home of Moody’s Diner on busy Route 1. Relatively few venture off the state highway and onto the village’s quaint Main Street.

But the volunteers who’ve spent the past five years renovating Waldoboro’s gem of a theater are hoping that could soon change. Built in 1936 by a wholesale lumber dealer who spent summers in town, the Waldo Theatre’s Greek Revival-style exterior blends with the other historic structures on Main Street, while Art Deco touches inside speak to its days as an elegant movie house.

Wear and tear on the old building, including massive water damage over the years, led to its closing in 2014. At the time, it had mostly been used as a community theater venue. After raising more than $700,000 and doing much of the work themselves, volunteers saw the theater reopen to audiences in June with a production of John Cariani’s play “Almost, Maine.”

With the physical improvements – including new sound and video streaming systems, a new roof, new acoustic panels and lots of new plaster and paint – comes a new, broader mission. In addition to community theater, the nonprofit group running it is also planning to host live music, movies, dance classes, education programs and other community events. Palaver Strings, a Portland-based string ensemble that performs around the country, was scheduled to play there Friday.

Waldo Theatre executive director Kate Fletcher, center, with board members Keri Lupien, left, and Barbara Boardman. The three are holding masks, which they took off for the photo. Volunteers helped renovate the 85-year-old theater, which reopened to audiences this year after a seven-year closure. Gregory A. Rec/Staff Photographer

The next big event to shine a light on the theater’s new look will be the Maine Fall Fiddle Fest, Oct. 15 and 16, featuring a Saturday night concert with Maine and New England fiddlers, including Erica Brown, Matt Shipman, Frank Ferrel and Ellen Gawler, among others. There will also be fiddle workshops, an open jam session and a youth fiddler’s showcase. Some events will be held at other venues in town.

There’s also a slate of family movies being shown at the theater this fall, beginning with “Beetlejuice” on Oct. 29. Masks and proof of vaccination against COVID-19 are required for live performance events at the theater, but only masks are required for the family movies.

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Volunteers, board members and supporters hope the rejuvenated theater will be an economic driver, bringing people to town to frequent shops and restaurants, or maybe start new businesses. They also want the theater to offer a broader array of programming than it has in the past, serving the wider community. Venues fairly close to Waldoboro offering theater, film or music include the Lincoln Theater in Damariscotta, about 10 miles away, and the Strand in Rockland, about 15 miles away.

“Waldoboro is sort of the forgotten town in the midcoast. We feel this organization will give people a reason to come to town,” said Keri Lupien, president of the Waldo Theatre board. “We want to be able to connect people in the community with art and culture.”

Teams of volunteers helped re-upholster original seats at the Waldo Theater, opened in 1936. Gregory A. Rec/Staff Photographer

A GRAND BEGINNING

Waldoboro was incorporated as a town in 1773 and soon became a ship-building center. It’s also known as a place to gather soft-shell clams. It’s a mostly rural town with a village center that never became as large or lively as nearby communities like Damariscotta or Rockland.

So how did a grand Art Deco-influenced movie house come to be built here during the Great Depression? Carroll T. Cooney, a wholesale lumber dealer in New York City who had a home in Waldoboro, wanted the town to have a state-of-the-art movie theater. He hired architect Benjamin Schlanger, who had helped design Lincoln Center in New York as well as theaters around the world. The projection and sound systems were said to be the same as in Radio City Music Hall in Manhattan. The theater opened in 1936, designed to seat 400. After various renovations over the years, it now has 285 seats.

Cooney’s family ran the theater and movies were shown there until 1957. The growth of television meant movie audiences were shrinking nationwide, and the Cooney family sold the building. It stayed closed for about two decades. In the 1980s, it reopened for theater productions and was run by several groups and individuals, off and on, before the cost of upkeep and repairs forced it to close again in 2014.

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Walls damaged by water over the years at the Waldo Theatre, before being renovated. Photo courtesy of the Waldo Theatre

Only a couple years later, people in Waldoboro started talking about ways to save the theater and help make it a focal point of the community once more. One was Lupien, who moved to Maine more than 20 years ago for a job as a wine sales representative. She had her first date with her husband at the Waldo Theatre, to see a production of “Forever Plaid.”

Lupien said she had no experience in theater organization, but as a sales person “I can talk passionately about things I enjoy.” So she began talking about the theater’s potential to whoever would listen.

Barbara Boardman, who has worked as an architectural and landscape designer, was another local resident who was drawn to the theater and its plight. At first, she thought she’d volunteer in some small way, maybe cleaning debris out of the building. But she ended up joining the board.

“I had never been involved in theater in any way. For me, it was just driving through the village and seeing that building shut down and falling down,” said Boardman. “I just thought it was such a shame.”

What started as group of concerned citizens became a nonprofit, which took over the theater and began raising money and getting help and advice from people in Waldoboro and nearby communities. The group’s advisors include a composer, the town manager, an electrician, construction professionals, a theatrical sound designer, architects and a film studies professor.

They also include John Stirratt, bass player for the nationally-known rock band Wilco, who lives in the area and whose wife, Crissy Stirratt, is on the board. Another advisor is Ron Phillips, retired chief executive officer of Coastal Enterprises, a Maine-based community development corporation. Phillips’ wife, Suzanne Cooney Phillips, is the granddaughter of the man who had the theater built, and her parents ran it when she was a child.

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“They’ve done a superior job, not only resurrecting the theater and its aesthetic, but in terms of programming as well,” Phillips said.

One of the areas at the Waldo Theatre that had been damaged by water over the years, but has been repaired. Gregory A. Rec/Staff Photographer

RISING AGAIN

One of the first big fundraisers for the renovation effort was a 2018 benefit concert featuring Stirratt, the Maine Rock Youth Orchestra and several other acts. The show raised more than $30,000.

To run the theater day to day, the board hired Kate Fletcher of nearby Warren, whose daughter had been in a play there before it closed. Fletcher also had worked in arts administration for more than 25 years, including at Long Wharf Theatre and Elm Shakespeare Company in New Haven, Connecticut, as well as The Strand in Rockland and Maine Media Workshops and College in Rockport.

Fundraising began in 2018. The board set a goal of raising $700,000 for the improvements and opening in 2020. Hundreds of donations, large and small, came in from businesses and individuals around the region and the country, including from Cooney family members. In early 2020, an anonymous donor pledged $43,000 if the community could raise another $157,000 by the end of the year. Fletcher said. That challenge was exceeded, with more than $182,000 raised. The $700,000 total includes a $200,000 construction line of credit, as well as grants from various foundations.

The beginning of the pandemic created obstacles for the renovation. Teams of volunteers had to wear masks and be kept to small groups while working to remove plaster or debris, Fletcher said. To reupholster original seats, the theater held a “de-upholstery day” where a couple of volunteers would unbolt seats and take them outside. In the parking lot, volunteers worked at various stations, ripping off old fabric and stuffing and putting new fabric onto the seats. More than 200 volunteers worked on the theater during its renovation, Fletcher and others said.

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The newly renovated Waldo Theater on Main Street in Waldoboro, which had been closed since 2014, reopened to audiences in June. Supporters hope it will be an economic and cultural boon to the town. Gregory A. Rec/Staff Photographer

Many of the theater’s original features were retained and repaired, including curved sidewalls that help with acoustics. But many areas of the walls had to have fabric-covered acoustic panels replaced, because they had been so heavily damaged over the years by water leaking in. A new roof was a major addition to the theater during the renovation.

When the renovation was winding down, it became clear the theater would not open for live shows in 2020, so cameras and other equipment were purchased to livestream shows. The theater held seven livestreamed concerts from its renovated stage last year, Fletcher said.

The theater now has 285 seats, in a large balcony and on the floor, but Fletcher said because of COVID-19, the theater will probably only sell 150 to 200 tickets to Fiddle Fest, and will require masks and proof of vaccination for all live performance events for the foreseeable future. On the family schedule, after “Beetlejuice,” are “Rear Window,” “Elf” and “The Muppet Christmas Carol.” Next year, the theater hopes to host more of everything, Fletcher said, including films, plays, concerts and events.

One of the livestreaming concerts done from the theater last fall featured Palaver Strings. Josie Davis, a violin player in the group who grew up in Waldoboro, praised the acoustics and sound system of the theater. As someone who had been there before it was renovated, Davis said, she felt “inspired” to see what it had become.

“It’s really beautiful and a wonderful space for live music,” said Davis. “I think this could be a really focal point for the community. Waldoboro is often overlooked, and this could bring people in.”


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