BELFAST — Hawthorne the elephant has been waiting for his closeup for about 25 years.

The life-size fiberglass creature has been sitting atop the historic Colonial Theatre in downtown Belfast since the late 1990s, helping draw attention to the only movie house in town. It’s the only first-run movie house within 45 minutes of town, for that matter.

In September of 2022, the theater went dark when longtime owners Mike Hurley and Therese Bagnardi decided to retire and put the building up for sale. For months, it looked like the theater might just stay dark – as so many historic movies houses across America have.

But a group of locals formed a new, nonprofit group to keep the theater running and expand its uses to more live entertainment and civic events. The hope is to make the theater a vibrant center of local community, the way movie theaters in small towns were in the days before TV and streaming. The group is called the Hawthorne Theatre & Arts Collaborative, named for the elephant on the roof.

“Belfast is kind of tight-knit, especially in winter, and the Colonial is a magical place where people have come together for a shared experience for years,” said Alice Seeger, board president of the Hawthorne group, and owner of Belfast Fiberarts next to the theater building. “It was just so sad when the lights went out. ”

The new ownership took over in October and will reopen the theater this weekend, with movies beginning Friday and an open house for the public on Saturday afternoon. There will be a ribbon-cutting, free soda and popcorn, giveaways and prizes, and activities for kids. There will be a professional photographer taking pictures of people with Baby Hawthorne, a smaller version of the rooftop elephant, in the lobby. People can also meet with board members.


The six-person board also includes the theater’s executive director, Kyle Walton, as a non-voting member. Walton saw his first film – Disney’s “The Rescuers Down Under” – at the Colonial when he was 5 or 6 years old. Walton, 38, says the theater is important to the town because the nearest first-run movies theaters are at least 40-45 minutes away, in either Thomaston, Augusta or Bangor. So going to see a two- or three-hour movie can “turn into an all day affair,” Walton said.

Community members who’ve helped re-open Belfast’s Colonial Theatre, left to right: Bill Catania, Libby Catania, Amanda Cunningham, Kyle Walton, Alice Seeger and Spencer Stephens. Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

Opened in 1912 and rebuilt after a fire in 1924, the Colonial is also important because of its role in the city’s history. With a population of about 7,000, Belfast was a thriving seaport in the 1800s, when so many of its historic red brick buildings were built, and then later became a poultry producing center. In recent years, its beautiful seaside location away from busy Route 1 has helped turn it into a tourist destination, and a destination for people moving to Maine since the pandemic.

Walton said he didn’t want to see the Colonial become a casualty of the city’s changes.


Walton had worked in concessions at the theater as a teen, then left town to study filmmaking and later worked in TV news and public relations. He came back to Belfast during the pandemic and got hired by the Colonial’s owners to manage the theater, which had closed for a time but reopened in 2021.

Then in September of 2022, Hurley announced the theater would close and be sold. Hurley, 72, is a former Belfast mayor and city councilor who owns several other businesses in town. He said he just decided it was time to get out of the movie business. He and Bagnarde had owned the theater since 1995.


The Colonial Theatre in the 1920s, in downtown Belfast. Photo courtesy of Kyle Walton

The theater was built as a single auditorium but, at some point, was converted into three auditoriums with a screen each. Two of the auditoriums are in the front of the building, with about 125 seats each, while the 150-seat Dreamland auditorium, with a balcony and a stage, is in the back.

Being a longtime Belfast resident, official and local business proponent, Hurley was hoping for “authentic buyers” who could become part of the community. He put it on the market for $1.3 million and got interest from several parties, including one that owned comedy clubs.

But he thought the idea of a nonprofit group made up of locals would be best and was encouraged when people in town started pursuing that idea. He had seen over the years that the nonprofit model worked for other historic theaters in small Maine towns and cities, including the Criterion in Bar Harbor, the Strand in Rockland and the Center Theatre in Dover-Foxcroft.

Still, he needed a buyer to make a reasonable offer, and $1.3 million is a lot of money for a new nonprofit with no collateral.

The Dreamland auditorium, the biggest of the three screens at the Colonial Theatre in Belfast, Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

Enter Bill and Libby Catania, who opened a spiritual retreat in June called the Limina Renewal Center in nearby Searsport. Bill had worked in hospitality and public-facing businesses most of his life – his family had run hotels and restaurants on Cape Cod.

Through friends, the Catanias met and talked with Boston-area filmmaker Anne Continelli, who had made a documentary on efforts to save the Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline, called “Citizen Coolidge,” and was working on a film about the efforts to save the Colonial called “The Big Picture.”


After hearing about the theater’s history and importance to the town over the years, the Catanias wanted very much to be involved with keeping the theater open.

“It would be such a big loss to Belfast. Movies and theater and the performing arts are very important here,” said Bill Catania. “It’s the place where the community has come together for so long.

The Catanias decided to loan the eventual purchase price – $1 million – to the nonprofit group, with Bill as one of the board members. With the nonprofit as the theater’s owner, it will have an easier time raising money for operations or future expenses, board members say.

The Big Picture Trailer from 20American on Vimeo.

For the opening weekend, the theater will show the new film “Priscilla,” based on life of Priscilla Presley, Elvis’ wife, as well as the new “Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes.” Also on the bill will be a recent indie film called “Re-Opening.” Appropriately enough, it’s about a community group reopening a theater.

Board members would like the theater to host live theater productions, poetry performances, children’s programming and educational opportunities.


“We want to make it more accessible to the community for events,” said Seeger. “We want people to feel like they are part owners of the space.”

With the theater under new ownership, Hawthorne the elephant seems to have a more secure future. He too is part of Belfast history. Hurley bought him in the late 1990s when Perry’s Nut House – a well-known candy store and Midcoast attraction founded in 1927 – was auctioning off some of its decor.

The new ownership also means that Continelli’s movie about the Colonial has a different storyline now. While she had been documenting the challenge of saving the theater, she plans now to focus on the efforts of the nonprofit and its ability to foster community involvement. She feels like she might follow the story for a couple of years.

She says she’d like to also follow two people – one maybe a longtime Belfast resident and the other a newer transplant – and see how the Colonial impacts their lives.

“Belfast has townies, families that have been there for generations and the people who’ve moved in more recently,” said Continelli, who visits Belfast often and has a family member with a home there. “I’d like to follow two people and see how the theater brings them together.”

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