Nearly 45 years ago, a group of Maine cinephiles began showing foreign films on government 16-millimeter projectors in an old Waterville liquor warehouse. They hadn’t set out to make money or gain recognition. They just loved movies and wanted to share the movies they loved with other people.
Decades later, Railroad Square Cinema and the Maine Film Center, the nonprofit that grew out of these DIY cinematic experiences, will be moving into the brand new $18 million Paul J. Schupf Art Center next month, alongside art galleries, a Café and the center’s parent organization, Waterville Creates.
For co-founder Ken Eisen, who was part of the ragtag group of movie nerds who screened Ingmar Bergman and Bernardo Bertolucci films in a working-class Maine factory town in the late 1970s, it’s hard to fathom just how far it all came is.
“If you had told us back then that something like this would happen when we opened our tiny little theater with the $15,000 we had scraped together, we would have thought it completely ridiculous,” Eisen said. “All we wanted back then was to stay open for as long as possible. And here we are. It’s kind of incredible to think about.”
For decades, the Railroad Square Cinema has been a beacon for movie lovers throughout eastern and central Maine. Even well into the streaming media era, everyone from college students to retirees headed to Waterville to catch the movies you just can’t catch at your local mainstream multiplex. If you live less than an hour from Waterville and want to see the latest film from directors like Pedro Almodovar, Wes Anderson or Richard Linklater, you most likely go to Railroad Square.
That’s still true even after streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon revolutionized the way people watch movies and the pandemic closed theaters for much of 2020 and 2021.
Mike Perrault, executive director of the Maine Film Center, the organization founded in 1998 that now operates both the cinema and the Maine International Film Festival, said art house and independent cinemas are community-building spaces as well as forums for the cinematic arts.
“Art house cinemas enhance the cultural life and economic vitality of their communities,” Perrault said. “Railroad Square Cinema has embodied these values for so many for 44 years, and this is just the beginning of what the Maine Film Center plans to do for decades to come.”
Few independent movie theaters remain in Maine, including the Reel Pizza Cinerama in Bar Harbor, the Eveningstar Cinema in Brunswick, the Narrow Gauge Cinema in Farmington, the Magic Lantern in Bridgton, the Harbor Theater in Boothbay Harbor, and the Alamo Theater in Bucksport – the latter two are programmed by Eisen and the Maine Film Center. The Colonial Theater in Belfast closed indefinitely in September and is awaiting a new owner for the cinema. Several multipurpose theaters also show films, including the Strand Theater in Rockland, the Center Theater in Dover-Foxcroft and the Criterion Theater in Bar Harbor.
The new Maine Film Center will have three movie theaters, with the main theater room — affectionately dubbed the Railroad Square Cinema — seating 115 and offering both enhanced laser projection and Dolby sound, as well as the ability to project 35mm films. The other two cinemas offer 43 and 22 seats respectively. It will also be a much-improved home for the Maine International Film Festival, the 10-day festival held every July in Waterville that was founded by Eisen and Co. almost 25 years ago.
The Paul J. Schupf Art Center is the culmination of years of work by Colby College, Waterville Creates, the City of Waterville and a number of donors to revitalize the city’s downtown area. Other projects included in the effort include the Bill and Joan Alfond Main Street Commons, an apartment complex housing about 200 Colby students; the Lockwood Hotel, now open to the public; and Greene Block + Studios, an events and arts program space.
The old three-screen Railroad Square Cinema at 17 Railroad Square in Waterville opened in 1995, shortly after its original location across the street burned down. The cinema is showing its latest film on November 23 with a screening of Casablanca, preceded by a farewell party. Prior to the final day, the theater will screen a range of classic and indie films, from Harold and Maude to Do The Right Thing to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and an interactive screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It will reopen on December 17th in the new premises.
For Eisen, who has spent thousands of hours at the movies but now splits his time between Maine and Argentina with his wife Karen, saying goodbye to old theater is bittersweet — but as they famously say in Casablanca, it really is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
“It’s a strange feeling, to be sure. There are a lot of good memories,” he said. “But for me it’s about so much more than art house films or independent films. It’s really about community.”