Nonprofit to run Criterion Theater; Organization aims to lure plays, live acts to Bar Harbor landmark

This story was published on May 09, 2007 on Page A4 in all editions of the Bangor Daily News

BAR HARBOR – A landmark downtown art deco theater has been sold to new owners and has a new nonprofit organization to run it.

The Criterion Theater, built in 1932, changed hands last week when local residents Anthony and Erin Uliano purchased the property from local restaurateur Michael Boland for $1.4 million. Rob Jordan, a local town councilor, will be executive director of the Criterion Theater and Art Center.

Jordan, taking advantage of Tuesday’s good weather to re-paint lettering on a rear door to the theater, said the Ulianos have given the nonprofit a 99-year lease for the building and a 10-year window in which the organization will have the chance to buy it from them outright.

“They secured the mortgage, which enables us to get into the place while we’re raising money,” Jordan said. “Our major fundraising is going to start in June.”

By this fall, the group hopes to raise $1 million of its eventual capital campaign goal of $3 million, he said.

Colin Capers, who has managed the theater for Boland, will stay on as full-time film manager during the summer, but Jordan hopes to bring more theatrical productions to the Criterion stage and to rent the theater out for private functions. Jordan said he has extensive theater experience from his college days and more recently has helped run the drama program at Mount Desert Island High School.

Erin Uliano said Tuesday she and her husband intend eventually to sell the theater to Jordan’s organization for $1.4 million, the same price they paid for it. Uliano, who has a degree in historic preservation, said she and Anthony Uliano will serve on the nonprofit’s board and, in the meantime, hope to restore some of the old art deco features to the building. The theater’s rare flying balcony, which has no supports directly underneath it, is one reason why it is important that it be preserved, she said.

“The building’s in fantastic shape,” Uliano said. “There’s no real other way to do it besides putting together a nonprofit group.”

Jordan commended Boland and Capers for their operation of the facility, but said some improvements will need to be made to realize its full potential as a live performance theater. He estimated that lighting and sound improvements will cost about $100,000.

“It never made sense as a business,” Jordan said. “It only made sense, unfortunately, to do it as a nonprofit.”

Jordan said he does not anticipate competing directly with The Grand, a nonprofit theater 20 miles away in Ellsworth, or with other theater troupes on Mount Desert Island. In the summer, the island is busy enough that the theater should not have to draw people from off island to fill up, he said. And it should be relatively easy to put on different types of productions that other area groups do not stage.

“I see it as complementary,” he said.

Boland, who purchased the theater earlier this decade from longtime owner Betty Morison, agreed Tuesday that it was a challenge to turn a profit off the building. Having it owned and operated by a nonprofit is key, he said, because it will enable the theater to get grants for both productions and for building maintenance.

Boland said he and Capers successfully converted the theater from being just a seasonal movie house into a more versatile space. In the past several years, the Criterion staged its first-ever opera and brought live music back to the venue after a three-decade hiatus, he said.

Boland said he is confident the Ulianos will be good owners and will make good on the eventual goal of selling the building to the nonprofit operating entity.

“The sooner we can all get together and raise the money as a community, the better,” he said.