Johnson Hall Theater
280 Water Street,
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Previous Names: Johnson Opera House
Built in 1864, Johnson Hall is the oldest theater in Maine. The historic hall on the upper floor is awaiting renovation, when it will provide a multi-purpose venue with 360 seats. For now, the ground floor has been renovated with a 117-seat black box theater.
When the imposing Italianate building was erected adjacent to the Johnson House Hotel by Benjamin Johnson, the ground floor housed a stable with a hayloft above it, and the high-ceilinged Johnson Hall could accommodate as many as 1,200 persons for “dances or entertainments of any kind,” its publicity claimed.
In 1888 the hall was renovated and renamed the Johnson Opera House. The house was damaged by a fire in 1904, but renovated again and reopened. Movies were soon added to its offerings, and in 1909 it was leased to a Boston vaudeville and movie circuit, the Dreamland Theatre Company. By the late-1920’s the house was being operated by Publix Theatres, the exhibition arm of Paramount Studios, through its affiliate, the Russell Amusement Company.
In 1930, Publix carried out a major renovation which included removing the old galleries and enlarging the auditorium at the expense of the stage. For the first time, the Opera House had a sloped, theater-style floor, but it remained upstairs, and was one of the few American movie theaters still operating that was not at ground level. The renovated theater had about 600 seats.
The Opera House operated as a movie theater into the 1950’s, but on closing the hall was used as storage for a variety store that occupied the ground floor. In the 1980’s a group attempted to reopen the house for movies and live events, but could not get financing. A nonprofit organization was formed to buy and operated the theater, and the gradual process of restoration was begun which continues today.
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