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Mount Desert Island: Shaped by Nature

Movies Come To The Island

Criterion & Star Tickets, Bar Harbor, ca. 1935
Criterion & Star Tickets, Bar Harbor, ca. 1935Item Contributed by
Northeast Harbor Library

As Bar Harbor evolved into a premiere vacation and leisure destination, it was only a matter of time until the movies came to town. In 1913, the first silent moving-picture theater was built on the island. The Star Theatre, owned by J.E. Emery, was largely a pine-and-paint building, modest but not without bucolic charm. The theater held about 620 and entertained the wealthy and the working classes alike. Shows ran six days a week, three shows a day. Tickets were reasonably priced and Down East Magazine described the experience at the time as “cheerfully rustic, informal, and unpretentious.”

Star Theatre Advertisement
Star Theatre AdvertisementItem Contributed by
Northeast Harbor Library

The theatre featured silent-film movies with live accompaniment on a $25,000 Robert Morgan 4-manual organ. Pearl Wescott (nèe Otto) was the organist for the theatre the entire time it was in operation. Her playing was so popular that she was often asked to perform at private dinner parties.

The theater lasted less than 20 years and closed in 1931. There was a brief but unsuccessful attempt to bring the Star back as a B-movie house in 1936 after which the space was reinvented as a nightclub, bowling alley, and a retail furniture store. In the end, the building was demolished but the memory of the Star Theater lives on through Pearl Wescott's 4-manual organ, which was donated to the Hauck Memorial Auditorium at the University of Maine in 1969; and the white and gold Star Theater sign, currently in the care of Mr. Raymond Strout of Bar Harbor.

Ritz Brothers at the Criterion Theatre, Bar Harbor, ca. 1932
Ritz Brothers at the Criterion Theatre, Bar Harbor, ca. 1932Item Contributed by
Northeast Harbor Library

The Criterion Theatre arrived quickly on the heels of the Star Theater, but with a different goal and impact. George P. McKay, a local entrepreneur, noted for bringing the first bus system to Bar Harbor, recognized that there was a growing market for a decidedly upscale motion-picture venue the island. McKay raised somewhere between $150,000 and $250,000 (through a combination of stock sales and bootlegging ventures) and within five short months he erected the building that still stands on Cottage Street today.

Unlike the naked pine-and-paint stage set look of the Star, the Criterion boasted a luxurious art deco design, rich with velvet drapery, silk panels, and elaborate glass chandeliers. Upstairs there was a floating balcony with private boxes that could be reserved by the islands wealthiest summer guests. The best seats were considerably pricier than at the Star but on Saturday afternoons, one could see a cartoon double-feature for only 15 cents.

The opening of the Criterion in June of 1932 was a stellar night in Bar Harbor. Arsene Lupin and five Vaudevillian acts christened the new theater and before long, the Criterion became the center of upscale entertainment activity for summer colonists. It was not uncommon for limousines to arrive at the theater's open doors, carrying the likes of Evalyn Walsh McLean (whose husband was the heir to the Washington Post), Edsel Ford, or various members of the Rockefeller family.

In the decades since its opening and through several different ownerships, the Criterion has maintained a summer schedule of films as well as a variety of local and touring concerts, theater and special events. Much of the original interior detail survives. The building is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places and continued restoration efforts are in progress. It remains an extraordinary and valuable part of the Island's history.

Film Crew for Queen of the Sea, 1918
Film Crew for Queen of the Sea, 1918Item Contributed by
Northeast Harbor Library

To learn more about the Criterion Theatre in Bar Harbor, you can visit its website here.

Young Mermaid from Queen of the Sea
Young Mermaid from Queen of the SeaItem Contributed by
Northeast Harbor Library

On Location

During the days of early cinema history, Mount Desert Island was also a coveted "exotic" shooting location. One of the most interesting of the films created here was Fox Studio's 1917 feature Queen of the Sea, an oceanic adventure starring Annette Kellermann. The shoot drew crowds of locals and visitors ogling at the scantily clad mermaids, impressive diving tricks, and special effects. There were over 125 actors and crew on the island and they shot scenes off Ocean Drive, on Scatterlee Beach, and on the rocks and in the water at various locations around the island's perimeter. Sadly, no known copies of the film exist today and yet, many wonderful still photographs of the filming of Queen of The Sea survive in both public and private collections.

Despite its scenic beauty, Mount Desert Island and the Northern Atlantic were highly challenging filming environments. Fog, rain, and dramatic tide changes forced changes in plans and locations regularly. In addition, the rocky coast and frigid waters resulted in exhaustion and frequent injury to cast and crew. During work on the French filmmaking pioneer Maurice Tourneur's movie Woman (1918), John van den Broeck, a 23-year-old Dutch cinematographer, slipped and fell from a cliff to his death at Schooner Head. His body was washed out to sea.