Jaime Jensen, manager of the Pittsfield Community Theatre, says she saw her first movie, “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” at the theater, which opened in 1915. The Town Council has decided to close and sell the venue. Morning Sentinel file photo by Rich Abrahamson

PITTSFIELD — After years of uncertainty, the Town Council has voted to close the Pittsfield Community Theatre and put it up for sale.

The decision was influenced in large part by the coronavirus pandemic, according to Town Manager Kathryn Ruth.

“Back in June, we had to make decisions on different facilities and items,” Ruth said Wednesday in a telephone interview. “Like (with) the parks and summer recreation programs, I was asked to include the future of the theater.” 

Ruth said the council delayed a decision twice before holding a vote July 7.

“So this started at the June 2 meeting, because people wanted to go forward with different activities,” Ruth said. “Regarding the theater, they (town councilors) moved to table that until there was further guidance from the governor or the CDC (Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention).

And in the meantime, (the council) directed the theater committee to come up with a plan to reopen.”

Ruth said the theater committee never responded to the council’s inquiries about a reopening plan.

With the pandemic showing no signs of slowing down, Ruth said social-distancing standards and restrictions limiting groups to 50 people would hinder the theater’s ability to generate adequate revenue.

“They (committee members) had a wonderful plan for 2020. We were going to have all of these events, large events, which are the moneymakers for the theater,” Ruth said. “(But) you have to fill every seat or almost every seat, and then have full concession, and then the theater can make money. But less than that, with just a few people in the theater, it loses a lot of money.” 

A lengthy discussion at the July 7 meeting resulted in the council’s decision to close the theater for good.

The development caps a long struggle between the town and theater committee about whether the historic venue would continue to operate and remain under town ownership.

The Pittsfield Community Theatre opened in 1915 as Leger’s Theatre and screened silent movies. In 1929, a sound system was installed and it became the Bijou Theatre.

The theater’s ownership changed hands three times from 1962 to 1975, until the town of Pittsfield bought it for $24,000 in 1977.

Last January, a Town Council meeting lasting more than six hours resulted in the decision to cut the theater’s budget by $45,000. Councilors also debated whether to close the theater for a year — or maybe permanently.

In October, the theater committee asked the Town Council to fund the theater for another year to provide time to become a registered nonprofit organization and separate from town ownership. The committee also presented a reduced budget of $96,320, with $62,275 in expected revenue.

In December, the theater’s future was again in jeopardy after the Town Council considered excluding its operating costs, projected at $96,320, from the municipal budget. Instead, councilors looked at providing only $12,295 for basic maintenance.

After extensive debate at a well-attended meeting, the council decided to allocate $73,106 in the 2020 municipal budget to support the theater and provide the theater committee time to become a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. 

The theater committee had a full roster of events and live performances planned for 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic forced the venue to close in March.

Other theaters in central Maine have had to modify or cancel events to satisfy health and safety guidelines set by Gov. Janet Mills.

The 23rd annual Maine International Film Festival, typically held at the Waterville Opera House and Railroad Square Cinema, also in Waterville,  screened a shortened program at the Skowhegan Drive-In Theatre this year.

The Elm at 21 College Ave. in Waterville has postponed all events until May 2021.

The Pittsfield Economic Expansion Corp. has hired real estate agents from Realty of Maine of Bangor to sell the theater at 137 Main St. 

Theater Manager Jaime Jensen could not be reached for comment Thursday, but a post on the theater’s Facebook page expressed the committee’s feelings about the situation.

Good morning to all the theatre supporters out there!!! I want to thank you for walking this walk with me! It is with a heavy heart that I tell you this, the town council has made the decision to not open the theatre and put it up for sale. My hope is that whomever buys it, turns it into the beautiful theatre it was meant to be … a place where memories are made and people are able to share them with generations to come!

Posted by Pittsfield Community Theatre on Thursday, July 9, 2020

Ruth said town councilors were also disappointed to have to sell the theater.

“We’re sad. It’s just unfortunate,” she said. “I feel bad for all of the theaters across the state and the world.”

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