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My Turn: Let’s bring the Concord Theatre back to life

  • Because of projectors that were once fire hazards, the projection room of the Concord Theater is lined with concrete and has strings attached to trap doors with would burn and seal off the room in case of a fire.<br/><br/><br/>(DAN HABIB/Monitor file)

    Because of projectors that were once fire hazards, the projection room of the Concord Theater is lined with concrete and has strings attached to trap doors with would burn and seal off the room in case of a fire.


    (DAN HABIB/Monitor file)

  • Arthur Aznive walks out of the main entrance hallway of the Concord Theatre, which he recently bought with his brother and hopes to re-open with Barry Steelman.<br/><br/>(DAN HABIB/Monitor file)

    Arthur Aznive walks out of the main entrance hallway of the Concord Theatre, which he recently bought with his brother and hopes to re-open with Barry Steelman.

    (DAN HABIB/Monitor file)

  • The multicolored walls and light fixtures near the ladies' bathroom at the Concord Theater.<br/><br/><br/>(DAN HABIB/Monitor file)

    The multicolored walls and light fixtures near the ladies' bathroom at the Concord Theater.


    (DAN HABIB/Monitor file)

  • The ticket booth of the Concord Theater is now being used for storage--mostly of the letter that once graced the now torn-down marquee (sp?).<br/><br/><br/>(DAN HABIB/Monitor file)

    The ticket booth of the Concord Theater is now being used for storage--mostly of the letter that once graced the now torn-down marquee (sp?).


    (DAN HABIB/Monitor file)

  • Barry Steelman stands on the stage in front of the approx. 400 seats and stained ceiling at the Concord Theater.<br/><br/><br/>(DAN HABIB/Monitor file)

    Barry Steelman stands on the stage in front of the approx. 400 seats and stained ceiling at the Concord Theater.


    (DAN HABIB/Monitor file)

  • Because of projectors that were once fire hazards, the projection room of the Concord Theater is lined with concrete and has strings attached to trap doors with would burn and seal off the room in case of a fire.<br/><br/><br/>(DAN HABIB/Monitor file)
  • Arthur Aznive walks out of the main entrance hallway of the Concord Theatre, which he recently bought with his brother and hopes to re-open with Barry Steelman.<br/><br/>(DAN HABIB/Monitor file)
  • The multicolored walls and light fixtures near the ladies' bathroom at the Concord Theater.<br/><br/><br/>(DAN HABIB/Monitor file)
  • The ticket booth of the Concord Theater is now being used for storage--mostly of the letter that once graced the now torn-down marquee (sp?).<br/><br/><br/>(DAN HABIB/Monitor file)
  • Barry Steelman stands on the stage in front of the approx. 400 seats and stained ceiling at the Concord Theater.<br/><br/><br/>(DAN HABIB/Monitor file)

If you’re walking down South Main Street, just past Endicott Furniture, it’s easy to overlook. The Concord Theatre, shuttered for 20 years now, might strike you as just another empty storefront downtown. But the history of the old movie house is worth remembering. And the theater itself is worth restoring.

Prior to its closing in the summer of 1994, the Concord Theatre was host to more than 5,000 films enjoyed by audiences that exceeded a million paid admissions. Sometimes the lines snaked up Main Street to Pleasant and on up to South State Street for titles like Lawrence of Arabia, Valley of the Dolls, Rocky and Moonstruck.

The one constant during the theater’s 60 years of operation was Theresa Cantin, whose father had converted the former Norris Bakery into a movie theater, along with a partner who had experience with movie exhibition. Cantin began working there when she was barely 20, as a cashier and later bookkeeper. In 1947 she bought out her father’s partner and began handling all the booking and marketing of the films that would play the Concord.

During its first dozen or more years, the Concord typically played westerns, serials and other films chiefly from studios considered by some to be “poverty row” operations, including Monogram and Republic. But the movies had a loyal audience, and Cantin was always amazed by the hordes that would turn out whenever she played a Three Stooges comedy.

Once she took over, however, she wanted to elevate the quality of films shown. First up: the Oscar-winning classic The Best Years of Our Lives, soon followed by the renowned ballet film The Red Shoes.

Fierce competition

Not everyone was pleased with Cantin’s efforts. The Capitol Theatre, now the Capitol Center for the Arts, and The Star Theatre, around the corner on Pleasant Street, were part of a chain owned by Joseph P. Kennedy. Maine-New Hampshire Theatres Co. was accustomed to getting the “cream of the crop” films turned out by the major studios, including MGM, 20th Century Fox and Paramount. On top of that, the studio representatives and salespeople were not accustomed to dealing with a woman, and Cantin had to struggle to earn their respect.

In the decades that followed many of the more memorable films – some big money-makers and other beloved by many – lit up the Concord’s 30-foot screen. They included Around the World in 80 Days, The Seven Year Itch, Exodus, Cleopatra, Lilies of the Field, Planet of the Apes, 2001, Woodstock, The Exorcist, The Towering Inferno, Young Frankenstein, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Annie Hall, Saturday Night Fever, Grease, Animal House, 10, The Shining, 48 Hours, Arthur, An Officer and a Gentleman, Splash, The Karate Kid, Die Hard, Big, The Piano and The Crying Game.

There were certainly “clinkers,” too, as Cantin referred to films that failed to ignite at the box-office or were just embarrassingly bad. She once referred to herself as a “human piñata” after enduring a string of angry comments after playing an especially bad film.

Of course, she, too, spoke her mind. Actor David Niven remarked, after winning an Oscar as Best Actor, that it wouldn’t change him because of a humbling experience at the Concord Theatre. Niven and his wife were in town visiting their son who was a student at St. Paul’s School and decided to take in a movie. Cantin, who admired and enjoyed the actor, immediately recognized him and praised his acting talents. She added, however, “Unfortunately we don’t play many of your films here because they don’t draw flies.”

Cantin’s sisters, Rena and Laurie, helped at the theater as did her brother, Maurice. There were also several union projectionists that worked part-time. I worked at the Concord Theatre during its last 27 years of operation and have never seen anyone work harder than Cantin. It was during those years that I accompanied her to Manchester to see Candy, an X-rated movie that she was being urged to show in Concord. We were aghast at what we saw unfolding on the screen. Cantin pulled out her rosary beads and began to pray. I knew then that Candy would never play the Concord. The next day she called the salesman to inform him that she wouldn’t even play it in the large dumpster outside the theater.

Hard times

By the mid-1970s, the Capitol Theatre had stopped playing movies. Although Cinema 93 had arrived, Cantin soldiered on, outlasting the two drive-in theaters that had been popular in the ’50s and ’60s with local audiences. But when she turned 80 in December 1993, she began to tire of the fight. She had also developed macular degeneration, which was depriving her of the pleasure of watching the films that had been such a vital part of her life.

The arrival of the chain theaters in Concord made it more and more difficult to obtain good movies, and so without so much as a backward glance, Cantin decided that enough was enough. Andre, a small picture based on the true story of a seal and a young girl, was the last picture show in that summer of 1994. Andre remained on the marquee for some months until the marquee itself began to disintegrate and Cantin had it removed.

Twenty years later, what’s next for the Concord Theatre?

Concord has a rich history of individuals stepping up to save pieces of our history. The City Auditorium revitalization and the Capitol Center for the Arts are only two examples of our community getting behind a project because we understand what saving it can mean on many levels. The Concord Theatre, with 499 seats, could easily be refitted with about 300 newer seats allowing for more leg room and become a welcome smaller facility for organizations that don’t need the 800-plus seats of the Audi or the Capitol Center’s more than 1,200. The theater’s location on South Main Street certainly lends itself to the burgeoning changes taking place in that part of town and would meld with the current film, theatrical and artistic anchors already there.

It would be a tragedy to lose another piece of our rich history, a place where movie stars, presidential candidates, local politicians, doctors, lawyers and a genuine cross- section of our city once gathered. The Concord Theatre deserves to stand with the other shining endeavors we have not allowed to fade into a distant memory.

(Paul Brogan lives in Concord.)

Legacy Comments12

interesting historical piece, but why doesn't it mention anything about Barry Steelman or Arthur Aznive who appear in the photos accompanying the article? Are they planning to do something with it or not?

I believe the pictures used were Monitor archive pictures taken about a dozen years ago prior to Barry's involvement with Red River. I think they chose to use those pictures since there are no recent available for use.

Paul, I have been interested in doing something with this space for a very long time now. I am a young entrepreneur and would love to work with you over the summer if you intend on moving forward with the idea of doing something with the Old Concord Theatre. I have been looking for information about this theatre for a long time and am so glad to have found this article. Though I do agree with the other commenters that the theaters location is not ideal for another theatre, I think there is great potential with the nostalgia (I think you all underestimate the power of memory and the emotions connected with it) factors to bring in new and old customers. Anyways, I would LOVE LOVE LOVE to do something with this space. If anyone else wants to as well please contact me.

Nice to hear from a private entrepreneur who is willing to invest their time and money in a project they believe in. No city/state/federal grants, no non-profit company so they can just pay themselves on the backs of the tax payers. That is the idea, right?

Thanks for your interest and enthusiasm. Would love to chat sometime. Please e-mail me at pebrogan@gmail.com. Thank you.

I say, find an investor and let's run a quality cinema on Main Street. Give the merlot lovers across the street a run for their money. Have a diversity of films versus high minded, emotional, boring crap right across the street. Show classics and classic remakes as one show for instance.

Nice idea, but once the pangs of nostalgia wear off, reality sets in. Thomas Wolfe said it best "You can't go home again." Life in Concord prior to the arrival of Loudon Road was much different and the Concord Theatre along with the Capital Theater were part of it. The Concord, albeit a little worn around the edges, wouldn't be the same without the sister's. This was my favorite theater in the mid 60's thru early 1970. The last movie I saw there was Woodstock, and then came the end to an era. Now we had Loudon Road and Cinema 93, only until the multi-screen theaters came along. The rest is history.

And then uh, came along uh the uh-Red-uh-River-Theeeeaterrr. I think if you viewed Woodstock (high no doubt) at the Concord Theater you probably fit in with the pretentious folks who let out an orgasmic gush when the latest low budget, artistic mush is announced on the marquee of the Red-uh-River-uh-Theeeeaterrr.

The troll strikes yet again. A simple comment on the Concord Theater. Leave it to you add your worthless two cents. I can't think of anything I am less likely to do than go to the Red River ( you say it's a theater). If you equate the Concord Theater with pretentiousness, then you are even more uninformed than I know you to be.

GCarson - itsa's logic is goes like this: Red River Theatre is pretentious. Liberals are pretentious. Ipso facto, RRT is a bastion of liberals, and mocking RRT is the same thing as mocking liberals. See? Everything is political, and everything is an opening to bash liberals. Everything.

So what movie did David Niven and his wife see that night? According to: http://www.suncookvalleysun.com/pittsfield/2011/8_10_11/ " “Around the World in 80 Days” (Academy Award and Golden Globe Award) Starring David Niven, . . . and Robert Newton *(2004, remastered from 1956) will be shown. Movie length: 182 minutes.(from 6:00 to 9:00 p.m.) The movie . . . will be shown in the Josiah Carpenter Library Children’s Room " " * aka : Blackbeard, The Pirate, arrr!

Paul, Nice piece on history. I think the cost to do the project is in the Millions of dollars just to update the building and equipment. I am sure that is why Red River was built across the street... sometimes looking back is fun but there are reasons why things change. Just ask a grandchild.

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