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

Last modified: 2/6/2014 12:00:58 AM
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.)


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