“The Amusement Center of Bar Harbor”

PUblished december 6, 2023 | written by emily cough | edited by bhhs staff
Photo of the Star Theatre.

The Criterion Theatre has long been a beacon of entertainment and culture among our community since its establishment in 1932. Since then, it has continued to be a staple and an integral part of our cultural landscape.

It was created as a veritable Mecca for lovers of theater, movies, and music; filling in the gap of media even the Building of Arts couldn’t provide. The Criterion was built to “lure the town’s [summer] inhabitants,” which only added to the ever-present wealth division in the town (Cooper 1982). Additionally, the Criterion also served as a refuge for the wealthy during the prohibition era, as it featured a secret speakeasy located beneath its premises. This, of course, contributed to its popularity among its patrons.

But for those who aren’t aware, there was also another popular theater in town that predated even the Criterion: The Star Theatre.

Photo of Joel A. Emery.
Joel A. Emery

Built in 1908 and commissioned by Joel A. Emery, The Star Theatre was an impressive 35’x90’ building designed by local contractor and builder Eben K. Whitaker. The theater was equipped with 400 moveable chairs and a “fine dancing floor… so that the building can be [leased] for social engagements” (The Bar Harbor Record 1908).

In 1924, the Star Theatre made waves in the news when it unveiled its brand-new $20,000 organ. Adjusting for inflation, that would cost just over $350.000 in today’s dollars.

The organ was described as “unquestionably the finest theater organ in Maine” (The Bar Harbor Times 1924). The organ’s playing debut occurred for the screening of the film The Covered Wagon in 1923. Pearl Otto, the eventual chief organ player of the theater, performed the inaugural concert.

The Star was for everyone. It welcomed all walks of life, from working-class individuals to people of high-class stature. The theater, according to Peter Cooper, “was a place where shopkeepers and gardeners could sit elbow to elbow with the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts” (Cooper 1982).

After storm doors were added, the theater’s popularity rose further, and visiting the warm theater became more enticing. As one report suggests, the Star was always well-attended; “[the] theatre [was] crowded as usual, every night and the pictures maintain high excellence…the public seems never to tire of this form of entertainment” (The Bar Harbor Record, 1908). Given that the theater stayed open during the winter, it seems Emery had a certain proclivity for providing for the year round community, not just catering to the summer crowd, unlike its 1932 contemporary across the street (The Bar Harbor Record 1909).

Even as the country was gripped by the severe economic hardship of the Great Depression, Star Theatre sought to create an inclusive and welcoming atmosphere, as evidenced by its lowered prices of admission. Anna Ryan echoes this congeniality as she “remembered going to the Star Theatre in the early 1930s as a child. It cost fifteen cents and the Criterion was thirty-five cents, so the kids chose the Star,” (Armstrong 2021).

Photo of two Star Theatre tickets. On the left is a red ticket with the number "75" on the back. On the right is an orange ticket the says "Star Theatre, Bar Harbor, ME. Admit 35 ¢ one. The Management reserves the right to refund amount paid for this ticket and revoke all privileges originally granted purchaser. Globe Ticket Company, Boston."
Star Theatre Tickets

As reported by the Bar Harbor Times in 1932, matinee prices at Star Theatre decreased from 35 cents to 25 cents, whereas for night showings, the admission cost dropped from 50 cents to 40 cents (The Bar Harbor Record 1932). In today’s terms, these adjusted prices would amount to $7.86 dropping to $5.62 for matinees and $11.23 dropping to $8.99 for evening shows, respectively. Pretty comparable to today’s prices at the Criterion!

Yet despite the Star’s commitment to providing affordable, accessible entertainment to the community for more than two decades, its doors were soon closed for good. Just a few short months after announcing the decrease in their prices, an announcement was made that the Star Theatre would indefinitely close. Abe Goldsmith, the theater’s manager, expressed his regret at the decision, stating that “it is necessary at this time.” He continued expressing hope that the Star’s patrons would still be able to find a worthwhile experience at the Criterion, which was also well-regarded (The Bar Harbor Times 1932).

Following Joel Emery’s passing in 1933, the Star Theatre was subsequently sold to his brother Oscar Emery. After holding ownership for a time, Oscar sold the theater to Criterion proprietor George McKay, who reopened it under the name Geo. C. McKay’s Star Theatre. But despite both establishments operating under the same ownership, their respective lineups of film screenings were distinct from one another. The Criterion Theatre featured more prominent and premier films, while the Star Theatre primarily showcased “B-productions and serials” (Armstrong 2021). This distinction in their selections of films further exemplified the divergent nature of each respective theater.

On October 6, 1938, it was announced in the Bar Harbor Times, after a year of being closed, that McKay’s Star Theatre would be converted into a “modern hotel… [featuring] ten sleeping rooms, a large dining room, a cocktail lounge, and [a] completely equipped kitchen.”  Although moving pictures wouldn’t be shown at the location anymore, on “Wednesday and Saturday night[s], dances [were] held every week, with music by Brewer’s Orchestra (The Bar Harbor Times 1938). The establishment’s switch to a hotel and entertainment venue marked the end of its career as a film theater.

For three years, the new Star Nite Lounge remained as a hotel and event space, but was eventually sold to Thomas D. Mourkas, a Greek immigrant who converted it into a bowling alley. Mourkas operated the Bar Harbor Bowling Academy from 1942 “until October 1947, at which time he sold it” (Hebert 1951).

The Bar Harbor Bowling Academy ceased operations in 1955, which marked the permanent end of the venue’s use as a recreational space. Over time, the property changed hands between numerous owners, including Helen B. Emery, who inherited the structure from her husband Oscar Emery. The building was later owned by Bernard “Bun” Cough, who purchased it in 1959 from Lyman Company, and renovated it after a period of neglect. In 1972, after converting it to a new space used for his furniture store across 12 years, Cough sold it to Morton Sachsman (Armstrong 2021). Later on, the building was repurposed for various commercial operations, until today, where it stands at 44 Cottage Street Peruvian Link, an alpaca garment and accessory store.

Although the tenure of the Star Theatre may have been brief, its impact on the sense of community and shared entertainment culture in Bar Harbor was undeniably significant. The establishment’s legacy stands as proof of the importance of communal gatherings in small-town America, allowing for diverse interactions between members of the community who may not have otherwise crossed paths with one another. The Star Theatre’s brief yet poignant life serves to inform us of the power of shared storytelling, bringing people together to engage and create memories together throughout a common experience.

From the very beginning, the Star Theatre was a proponent for the hard working locals. Reasonable prices and a modest atmosphere that encouraged neighborly affection made it truly “the amusement center of Bar Harbor” (The Bar Harbor Record 1915). In a world that relies on technology, we sometimes forget the small town charm of a recreational space and the joy of interacting with your neighbors that comes with it.

At the Historical Society, we’re reminded daily of the importance in preserving Bar Harbor’s rich past. Consider joining as a member so you can help us maintain our legacy and protect Bar Harbor’s history! Head to “Join” or “Donate” on our website to join us!

Reference List

Armstrong, Brian. 2021. A History Lover’s Guide to Bar Harbor. Arcadia Publishing.

The Bar Harbor Record. 1908. “Moving Picture Palace,” March 11, 1908.

The Bar Harbor Record. 1932. “Star Theatre Lowers Prices,” June 15, 1932.

The Bar Harbor Record. 1908. “Around Town,” November 11, 1908.

The Bar Harbor Record. 1909. “Around Town,” February 3, 1909.

The Bar Harbor Record. 1915. “Star Theatre The Amusement Center of Bar Harbor,” January 6, 1915.

The Bar Harbor Times. 1924. “Star Theatre Has New $20,000 Organ,” July 9, 1924.

The Bar Harbor Times. 1932. “Star Theatre to Close,” September 14, 1932.

The Bar Harbor Times. 1938. “Star Theatre Now Being Remodeled Into Modern Hotel,” October 6, 1938.

Cooper, Peter. 1982. “The Theater in Bar Harbor’s Changing World.” Salt Magazine, January 1982.

Hebert, Richard A. 1951. Modern Maine: Its Historic Background, People, and Resources.