Bar Harbor’s Criterion Theatre opened at 7 o’clock p.m. on Monday, June 6th, 1932. The lavish opening night lasted from 7pm until after midnight, and drew nearly 2,000 people to two separate shows, each of which featured a speech by Julien Emery - chairman of the Board of Selectmen, live music by a seven-piece orchestra, vaudeville acts, and a screening of “Arsene Lupin,” starring John & Lionel Barrymore, and Karen Morley. In the opening ceremony, a large basket of flowers was given to George & Ethel McKay, and congratulatory telegrams from stars such as Greta Garbo, John Gilbert, Joan Crawford, and John Barrymore were read aloud. Harry A. Smith, “well known in Portland and New York theatrical circles,” was the director of the opening shows.
George C. McKay, Sr., founder of the Criterion Theatre, had previously served a one-year term at the Bangor jail beginning in August of 1923, sentenced by US District Court justice John Andrew Peters for violating the Volstead Act (for bootlegging). His friend Daniel Herlihy, the "Rum King" of early 1920's Bar Harbor, was sentenced to federal penitentiary in Atlanta, Georgia for a one-year term. Their indictments, along with that of Malvern Greenhouse owner John Stalford and several other bootleggers from the Southwest Harbor area were pursued by deputy customs collector Howe Higgins, District Attorney Frederick R. Dyer, and Maine Governor Percival Baxter, who promised to rid Maine of "the whole brood of liquor offenders" in his 1923 inauguration address.
For the record, it must be noted that Mr. McKay went on to become an upstanding citizen of Bar Harbor, as a member of St. Saviour's Episcopal Church, the MDI Lion's Club, and the Hayseeders. He and his wife, Ethel Thomas McKay, also served as gracious hosts for sundry local events at the Criterion, including those for the Civilian Conservation Corps (C.C.C.), the Relief Association (for Depression-era unemployed), the annual "Community Santa Claus Fund" drives, the March of Dimes, The American Legion (Post 25), Amateur Vaudeville Shows, Brownie Troop #17, and the Jackson Memorial Laboratory.
Resplendent with Art Deco decor, and boasting a floating balcony, a state-of-the-art Graybar “Inter-Phone” system, and a basement “speakeasy,” the Criterion Theater was a marvel of design and modernity in its time. It is one of two existent Art Deco theaters in Maine, and the only one that retains its original auditorium, without having been split or divided.
Roy G. Blake was hired in 1933 as Projectionist by George C. McKay, Sr. and the Criterion's first Manager, Richard Wellman. He had previously served as Projectionist at the Comique Theatre in Camden and the Star Theater in Bar Harbor (both silent film theaters). In the mid-1950's he served as Criterion's Manager, and was a member of the Bar Harbor Congregational Church.
Betty Jane “B.J.” (Noyes) Morison and her husband Peter G. Morison bought the Criterion from George C. McKay, Sr.’s daughter, Dr. Marguerite McKay Dwyer and her husband Dr. Clement Story Dwyer in 1966, and maintained ownership until 2001. B.J. was known for her intolerance for tomfoolery in the theater, and would demand that people spit gum into her open palm while she collected tickets at the entrance! She and Peter regularly hosted the MDI Film Club at the theater, and welcomed the lifting of the Motion Picture Production Code, which was replaced by the MPAA Film Rating System in 1968.
The theatre was sold two more times between 2001 and 2014, first to private ownership and then to a nonprofit organization. Unfortunately, due to financial hardship, the theater was closed for some time towards the end of this iteration. Fortunately, in late 2014 one of the theatre's former owners, Michael Boland, rallied forces and organized a new nonprofit entity, bolstered by a generous $2 Million donation from an anonymous donor. Work began immediately thereafter to restore the theater to its former glory, including repairing major structural issues, installing a digital projector, reupholstering the seats, matching the original carpet, wall panels, and sconces, re-painting the ceiling, and incorporating many other thoughtful details.
Today, restoration and renovation are nearly complete! The 1932 Criterion Theatre is yet again a shining jewel of Art Deco design, proudly featuring world-famous live performers, local acts, expertly-curated films, and community events throughout the year as MDI’s cultural hub.
THE 1932 CRITERION THEATRE IS SEEKING PHOTOS OF THE THEATRE’S INTERIOR & EXTERIOR FROM THE 1930’S THROUGH THE 1990’S, AS WELL AS PERSONAL STORIES ABOUT THE THEATRE FROM THIS PERIOD FOR ITS ONGOING ARCHIVES PROJECT. IF YOU HAVE ANY PHOTOS OR STORIES TO CONTRIBUTE, PLEASE CONTACT OUR DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR AT: firstname.lastname@example.org - THANK YOU!
George C. McKay
Founder of the Criterion Theatre