The silver screen at Rockland’s Strand Theatre has seen it all.
Since the dawn of the 20th century, it has reflected the city and the nation through ever-changing times, hosting flickering, silent film wonders, grim wartime newsreels, science fiction special effects epics and this year’s Oscar contenders.
On Tuesday, the Strand, one of the oldest purpose-built movie houses in the country, turns 100 and folks there are getting ready to party like it’s 1923 all over again.
Daylong festivities will include cake, vintage memorabilia and a screening of Lon Chaney’s grotesque 1923 silent masterpiece “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” Tickets are going for the same price the Strand charged on opening day a century ago: 25 cents.
“I’ve never turned 100 before, so I’m not really sure how to do it,” Strand Executive Director Jessie Davis said, “but it feels great.”
Along with the classic thriller, the Strand Theatre will also screen two other films from its opening year: Harold Lloyd’s “Safety Last” which includes the iconic scene in which the actor hangs from a clock, and Charlie Chaplin’s “The Pilgrim,” featuring his Little Tramp character.
A filmmaker will also be on hand at the birthday bash, recording interviews with Rocklanders about their Strand memories.
“As you can imagine, after 100 years, there’s a lot of different kinds of memories,” Davis said. “For some people it’s where they saw Star Wars, or where they had their first date. I hear a lot about first kisses in the balcony.”
The Strand is also hosting a yearlong series of films curated by its head projectionist Liz McLeod and Turner Classic Movies host Alecia Malone, who relocated to Maine during the pandemic. It will explore films from each decade the Strand has been in operation. Films are not being shown in chronological order and will be grouped by theme instead.
“These are the types of films that either would have shown at the strand or should have shown at the Strand,” Davis said, “and then before each screening either Liz or Alicia will introduce the film, talking about why it was chosen.”
Davis said the Strand is one of approximately 20 of the oldest operating cinemas in the country and the third-oldest in Maine. Belfast’s Colonial Theatre opened in 1912 and Houlton’s Temple Cinema dates back to 1919.
When Joseph Dondis opened the Strand Theatre in 1923, it competed with two other, established downtown theaters, the Park and the Empire. Two storefronts, a cigar store and a flower shop, framed its entrance.
On opening night, it showed the film “My Wild Irish Rose,” about a young man sent to a penal colony in Australia. The Strand also brought talkies to Rockland in May 1927. An early advertisement explained the phenomenon.
“Sound and sight are perfectly interwoven, so that you have vaudeville as well as pictures,” it read.
In the 1930s, the Great Depression hit. With most people broke, the bottom fell out of the movie business and many operations closed. But the Strand managed to do more than just survive.
In a talk to the local Lions Club in the early 1930s, Dondis said Rockland was “the only motion picture location in the country which had shown a profit in 1931 and 1932, although materially reduced.”
In the 1940s, during WWII, movie theaters were considered essential wartime operations for both information and morale. The Strand showed newsreels, sold war bonds and screened military propaganda films.
The theater also featured midnight films, accommodating round-the-clock, wartime production shifts. In 1944, the Women’s Army Corps held a recruiting event at the Strand, which included a fashion show.
By the 1950s, the Strand Theatre’s competition had gone out of business, leaving it the only cinema in town. It remained in Dondis family hands until the early 2000s when a new multiplex on the outskirts of town bought it, keeping it intentionally closed.
This led to a federal antitrust lawsuit which was later settled out of court. The Strand became a nonprofit in 2013. Now, along with movie and live event ticket sales, it stays open with community membership, grants and local business sponsorships.
After the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Strand’s biggest challenge is getting patrons out of their houses and away from their streaming devices, Davis said.
“I just try to remind people that there’s a reason why you go to a movie theater,” she said. “To sit in the dark with your neighbors, it’s an experience. It’s a piece of communal magic.”
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