By ADAM DRAPCHO, LACONIA DAILY SUN
LACONIA — There's an empty floor where the rows of seats once stood, and the concession stand is gone, but there were more than enough memories on Wednesday to fill any voids that currently exist at the Colonial Theatre on Main Street in downtown Laconia.
While the demolition phase of the historic theater's rejuvenation project has been completed, and while it awaits the engineering and renovation phases, the Belknap Economic Development Council has opened the doors to the theater for public tours during Wednesdays in August.
As the stroke of noon approached on Aug. 17, a line of people stretched down the sidewalk and to the corner of Canal Street. Justin Slattery, executive director of the BEDC, said that turnout for previous tours has been similarly robust.One final tour remains, from noon to 1 p.m. on Aug. 24.
The theater opened in April 1914. Its colorful frescoes, marbled floors, ornate plasterwork and gilded finishes fashioned by Italian artisans placed it squarely among the grandest entertainment venues in New England. After the World War I, live performances steadily gave way to motion pictures, and in 1983 the auditorium was partitioned, horizontally and vertically, into five theaters, shrouding the finishes behind blank walls.
The theaters had been dark for many years, leaving the 20,000-square-foot property an increasingly unfortunate eyesore in the middle of a downtown that seems to be rebounding from a period of depressed economic activity. There are now a selection of new restaurants, and a new coffee shop, ready to serve theater goers. So, it was widely celebrated last year when the city and the BEDC announced a partnership to acquire the property for $1.4 million and embark upon a $15 million renovation, aimed at restoring the theater to near its original design, and returning it to the role of the downtown's premier entertainment and culture center.
The crew from Bonnette, Page & Stone Corporation carefully removed the partitions and furniture that divided the Colonial into several small theaters, while leaving the ornate details of its original design intact. It seemed that every person in attendance on Aug. 17 was reliving memories of the theater's prior grandeur.
"My grandfather, Dexter Royce, was the first projectionist here," said Rebecca Ekholm. Her grandfather worked in the projection booth for about 20 years, until the mid-1950s. "I used to come here every Saturday," she said.
Lucinda Burack was happy to see the theater returning to its original layout.
"I remember when they broke it up into four theaters. It was so appalling," she said.
For Claudia Wright, the Colonial was where she found her first job, as an usher – or, in those days, an "usherette." She toured the theater on Wednesday with her son, daughter-in-law and grandson.
"We had to wear little blue skirts and a white blouse, and they supplied us with a jacket," she said. Her job was to take movie goers' tickets, show them to their seats, and to scold young viewers who propped their feet up on the seat in front of them.
"It was fun, because I got to go to the movies for free," said Wright. Her favorite film from that era was the 1957 romance "April Love," starring Pat Boone and Shirley Jones.
Philip Lagueux, who toured the project on Wednesday with his wife, Bunny, might have been one of those kids scolded by Wright. His family moved to Laconia when he was a boy in the 1950s, and he recalls being able to take in a show with only a single coin.
"I'd get a quarter and come to the movies, buy popcorn and everything for a quarter," he said. "Fifty years ago, it was a beautiful theater," Philip said.
Bunny added, "They're going to make it beautiful again."
The weekly tours of the Colonial Theatre's renovation progress have been well-attended. There will be one more tour available, noon to 1 p.m. on Aug. 24. (Adam Drapcho/Laconia Daily Sun)
Claudia Wright, at left, worked as an "usherette" at the Colonial when she was 16. She's shown here with grandson Chris Wright, daughter-in-law Lin Wright, and son Dennis Wright. (Adam Drapcho/Laconia Daily Sun)
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