SKOWHEGAN — Matt Dexter, 36, owns a plumbing and heating business. His wife Misty, 40, is a physical therapist.
Now, the Dexters from the Franklin County town of Strong are owners of a piece of Skowhegan history and a centerpiece of downtown business — the historic 1929 Strand Cinema. They purchased the three-theater complex in September from the previous owner, John Moore, owner of Narrow Gauge Cinemas in Farmington.
“We were looking for something supplemental — I want to work inside where it’s warm and dry. I was sick of being cold every winter,” Matt Dexter said. “We were kind of interested in the movie thing once it came along — we never thought about it until there was an opportunity.”
The Dexters, parents of three young children, said they have business and real estate experience and have never run a movie theater before, but they are willing to give it a go as an investment opportunity.
The Strand Theater on Court Street is a classic movie palace with marble walls and terrazzo floor, a composite of marble, quartz, granite, glass, in the lobby and 25-foot ceilings. There is a red brick facade and the original 1920s marquee and narrow box office.
The main theater seats 425 people, while the other two theaters, added in 2005, each seat 145.
Beyond the obvious appeal of having a vintage movie house downtown, visitors recently said it is the ticket prices, first-run, digital quality films and location that keeps them coming back.
On Sunday, during the run of “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” more than 220 tickets were sold for the 1 p.m. showing alone.
“I love coming here because it’s very inexpensive, convenient and they have nice popcorn — that’s a plus,” said Jennifer Kunz, of Canaan. “I remember coming here when it was only one theater and I like the fact that they have three now.”
Paula Whittemore, of Cornville, said she and her husband, Jason, have been coming to the Skowhegan Cinema, now The Strand, for more than 20 years.
“It’s beautiful here and it’s affordable for a family,” Paula Whittemore said. “When we have all the kids with us we can afford it and it’s local.”
Tickets are $6 for adults and $4 for children under 12 and people 60 and older. Mondays and matinÃ©es also are $4 for all seats. At mainstream movie theaters in Maine, ticket prices average $7-$10 for adults and $6.50-$7.50 for children.
Except for the seasonal Skowhegan Drive-in Theater, the closest movie theaters are in Pittsfield, Farmington and Waterville.
“We’re going to keep those ticket prices and see what operating costs look like,” Matt Dexter said. “I don’t have any intention of going up. We want to keep the locals staying local; I don’t want them driving to Waterville. We try to keep them home with the low price.”
The theater was last known as The Strand in the early 1970s. When Moore purchased the place in 2003 he said he wanted to retain the vintage architecture. He added comfortable seats, put in a new sound system and restored the murals in the original classic movie theater to retain the vintage look.
“I tried to capture the essence of the old-fashioned theater, while adding all the amenities and technological advances of a modern theater,” Moore said at the time. “To that end, we have digital sound, Klipsch speakers and 48 inches of leg room between the rows.”
Moore did not respond to requests for comment on the sale of the theater to the Dexters.
Matt Dexter said the original theater seated about 930 people, but the seats were wooden and narrow, with little leg room. The new place has fewer seats, he said, but the comfort level is a big draw.
Two retail spaces, one a lawyer’s office, the other a real estate office, were transformed into restrooms and the theater’s new concession stand during renovations in 2005. There also is an apartment upstairs, above the movie theater.
Jeff Hewett, the town’s director of economic and community development, has said the movie theater is an anchor for businesses in downtown Skowhegan, attracting moviegoers to local shops, restaurants and other businesses.
Town Manager John Doucette Jr. agrees.
“I think it’s very important to Skowhegan,” Doucette said. “I think it’s great for economics because it brings people downtown during weekends and at night. Another thing is that it’s alternative to give to the kids so that they’re not on the streets; they’ve got a place to go and see a movie and don’t have to travel to Waterville and spend all that money on gas. It’s all part of the economic development aspects of it.”
The Dexters plan to offer hot chocolate, coffee and popcorn in the lobby for Skowhegan’s Holiday Stroll Dec. 6-7. Ticket packages and gift certificates also will be sold on the street in Skowhegan for the holiday parade on Friday, Dec. 6 and during the annual holiday business Stroll itself on Saturday.
The theater will screen the movie “Frozen,” by Walt Disney Animation Studios, through Dec. 10.
The Dexters said they plan to add restrooms in the balcony in the spring, so visitors don’t have to come down to the lower level. A second concession stand will be opened for special promotional weekends, such as the Fourth of July, for hot dogs and other nontraditional movie theater food. A fourth movie theater also is planned for sometime in the future, they said.
“We’ve got big plans,” Matt Dexter said. “We have the room available to build a fourth theater down the road, but that would be quite a ways down the road. The potential is there if this does well.”
And there’s one more attraction for The Strand Cinema in Skowhegan, Paula Whittemore said.
“You can’t forget the whole ghost story part of it,” she said. “The fact that it’s haunted. It is one of the top 50 haunted places in the state.”
The theater is listed in ghost books and on several websites, including hauntedplaces.org, for being home to a very angry apparition.
“The phenomena surrounding the place are said to have begun in 1978 when an apartment was added to the building,” according to the hauntedplaces website. “Workers took the brunt of the ghost’s anger.”
The website states that workers were shocked by electric tools that were not plugged in. Tools were thrown about and stains were splattered all over newly painted walls. A shadowed apparition is reported to have thrown a piece of balcony ceiling tile into the sets. Hand prints also have been found on the movie screen.
Matt and Misty Dexter, however, shrug off the ghostly tales. They’ve never seen a ghost at the theater and didn’t think much of it.