The Universal Notebook: From the Star to the Eveningstar

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Back in the 1960s, I spent many a Saturday afternoon sitting in the dark in the Star Theater with every other teenager in Westbrook. It was a communal cultural experience of collective imagination, at least for the boys.

We would all watch Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason in “The Hustler” and then head for Barry’s Billiards to pretend we were Fast Eddie Felson. Or we would watch Steve McQueen in “The Cincinnati Kid” and then play marathon poker games imagining ourselves to be card sharks. I’m not sure what the girls imagined. They were probably too busy fending off dates with roving hands to indulge in such cinematic fantasy.

The Star Theater, where local-boy-made-good Rudy Vallee once worked as a projectionist, was an artifact of the Age of Innocence, a downtown brick block of a movie house built in 1912. It shut down just about the time I graduated from high school and was torn down in the 1970s just about the same time I left town.

For many years as an adult, I did not go to the movies at all. As a young parent I couldn’t quite figure out why anyone would want to sit in the dark with a bunch of strangers watching a movie you can’t pause while you go to the bathroom, get a beer or walk the baby.

As empty-nesters, however, dinner and a movie makes a nice evening out, so my lovely wife Carolyn and I occasionally take in a movie at the Nickelodeon in Portland, Nordica in Freeport and, now that we live in Brunswick, the Eveningstar.

The Eveningstar Cinema in the Tontine Mall has been a fixture on Maine Street since 1979, a 100-seat independent art-house theater fashioned from what was once the garage of a car dealership. The Eveningstar is one of the local amenities I value most in Brunswick, so when I read in The Forecaster it might be closing, I was naturally alarmed.

Last week, I went downtown to talk with Barry Norman, who has owned the Eveningstar since 2010. He said things are not quite as dire as he described them to the newspaper in June, when he was upset about an inability to secure financing for a multi-screen facility as well as problems with film distributors and a dwindling audience.

I followed Norman up into his dark, cramped treehouse of an office/projection booth above the ticket/concession counter to talk about his problems.

Norman, 60, is an animated, enthusiastic man who, prior to becoming a theater owner, made a few films of his own, the best-known of which is “The Deadbeats,” a short film about a thief who becomes a bill collector. The film was inspired by Norman’s own career as a debt collector and it has become a cult favorite because it features a young Melissa McBride before she starred in “The Walking Dead.”

Norman told me how he went looking all over the country for an Art Deco movie palace with velvet curtains and chandeliers, but he ended up buying the Eveningstar because he liked Brunswick and he likes things that are not what they first appear to be.

Norman programs the Eveningstar with new releases that primarily appeal to older women with a penchant for history and all things English. Bowdoin College students don’t go to the Eveningstar anymore than Colby students go to the Railroad Square Cinema in Waterville. If he could show a film like “The King’s Speech,” or, better still, “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” with Judi Dench and Maggie Smith every night, he’d be a rich man. Carolyn and I enjoy the movies Eveningstar shows and we’d go more often than once a month, but 6 p.m. weekday showtimes are not designed for folks who are still working.

When I asked Norman if he had considered going the nonprofit route like Railroad Square Cinema, he told me about facing a coup when he ran the Rome, Georgia, International Film Festival. He doesn’t want to put himself in a situation where, “I could be ousted on a moment’s notice.”

Nope, Norman said, his immediate problem is pretty simple: “I need more screens.” And that’s a problem he can only solve with the money banks have so far refused to lend him.

Norman’s long-term problem is that his audience is dying.

“This is the last generation that wants a communal experience,” Norman said, “what I like to call a heightened sense of experience.”

That’s exactly what we used to get at the Star, and probably what we are trying to recapture 50 years later at the Eveningstar.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.

  • Ted Markow

    Barry’s a good guy and I appreciate having Eveningstar in my community. And although my wife and I have seen many films at Eveningstar, we are selective about which ones we see.

    It’s a tough call, seeing that another small business is struggling in the Tontine Mall: Bart & Greg’s DVD Explosion. And they aren’t necessarily in direct competition, as people who want the theater experience, like my wife and me, will still go to the theater. It’s just that sometimes we want to see something that isn’t playing at the theater. And this is the nature of change: we now have choices we once didn’t have.

    Having said all that, I think Barry is sadly correct: we are the last generation that wants a communal experience. What with Netflix and Hulu and “smart” phones constantly in front of so many young eyes (and many not-so-young eyes), communal experiences of the real kind seem to be on the wane. And when we lose interest in community, we lose touch with what makes us human…as we are now seeing.

    Anyway…I wish Barry well and hope he can hang on long enough to retire here. He’s earned it! (Scooter too!)

  • David R. Hill

    OK, here’s my dated reminiscence — going to the Saturday matinee for 25 cents to see a double feature of B-movie westerns/horror/space films with the real objective being to win a Remco Crystal Radio set door prize. Instead I won a Necchi Junior Miss toy sewing machine. Should have been a scene out of “A Christmas Story.”

  • Little crow

    Another example of what great writer Ed Beem is when he’s not on politics (but that’s my prejudice seeping in).

    I remember school vacations at the Wakefield (Mass.) Theater 35 cent matinee, where the place would be full of kids acting up while older teenagers would roam the aisles with flashlights telling us to get our feet off the seats or get kicked out. Some examples of the films would be “Pirates of Blood River”, a gross-out film about piranhas, or “The Three Stooges Go To Venus”. It certainly was a communal experience.

    If you look at the older movies from the 30’s and 40’s, you’ll notice many films would be sure to include something for all ages and types, as the filmmakers knew that most towns had one movie house and everybody would be there. This is where stars like Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland got their following. Too bad that’s gone.

  • Queenie42

    Back in the late 1940s my brother and I would take his red wagon and collect bottles to finance our Saturday afternoon movies. For ten cents we saw a newsreel, a cartoon, coming attractions and a double feature. The price went up to twelve cents by the 1950s but we sure got a lot of bang for our coins. Science fiction movies were my favorite. I only had to leave early once, I got so scared.
    The Rex Theater in Norway, Maine is now a bottle redemption center, but the memories of that dark, smelly, rat infested (they cleaned up the spilled popcorn and penny candy) will always be a special place. I never got bit by a rat but I got the movie bug.
    The Eveningstar is a special place. And the popcorn is the best! Good luck to it.