The Bethlehem Colonial Theatre

I rank going to the movies among the top five favorite things I do by myself. The Bethlehem Colonial Theatre serves beer and wine at their concession stand. I like beer and wine almost as much as I like going to the movies. David Lynch: The Art Life (2016) was playing for one night only. I braced for lines of hipsters in ironic garb queuing down the front steps debating Blue Velvet or Mulholland Drive (the answer is Blue Velvet). At first I was delighted to find no line at all. The whole auditorium to myself would have been delightful. As I ordered dry red wine, buttery popcorn, and a lovely little raspberry chocolate bar I remembered why so few people were around. Up here in the North, as in so many theater communities around the country, even our hipsters can’t be pulled away from streaming services. I was saddened to think attending a historic movie theater where an intellectual documentary was being shown could be too much for so many. So perhaps letting a viewer see a subject without his camera but quietly smoking, paint brush in hand, would be more fascinating if the venue itself inspired fascination…

The Bethlehem Colonial Theatre

In the early twentieth century Bethlehem was one of the premier summer destinations in the North East. Four trains arrived daily to deposit moneyed city residents to our rustic wildness providing a necessary relief from urban heat and congestion. In 1915 having an electric marquee was a big deal and The Colonial, smack in the center of Main Street, glowed brightly through the dust of the thoroughfare. In the highest elevated town East of the Rockies (+/- 1430 feet) the summer population was so diverse and cosmopolitan, Hollywood used the Colonial Theatre as a test market for their latest films.

Highest Elevated Town

I bought my ticket. I moved through the double doors and imagined a time when people would dress up to see the technological marvel that was moving pictures. The Colonial was special in that it wasn’t a converted grange hall or an opera house that hosted some kind of traveling picture show. The Colonial was built for the express purpose of being a cinema. I looked over the twenty or so middle aged theater attendees quietly chatting. I may not have the place to myself but I was in, I was safe, and once the lights dimmed I would be completely anonymous.

Theaters and libraries are my regular haunts. Their confines usually mitigate unwanted small talk. They frown on outside food and drink. They respect one’s wish to sit alone with plenty of buffer-space to either side, spontaneous greetings and inquiries being reserved for restroom lines and concession stands. Protecting my flanks, I always sit by the aisle near the rear of the theater. (There are only two toilets in the back of the Colonial at this point in their revitalization project. Phase II will provide more public restrooms.) I assess my surroundings and naturally plan for the worst in all things:

  • Should I need to pee, boom, bathroom is right there.
  • Theater fire, boom, exit to the rear.
  • Unwanted theater pal who comes in after the lights dim and somehow finds me despite my hoody and slumped posture, boom, wait for a dark scene, subtlety spill my popcorn, then I Kansas-City-Shuffle to another seat.

The Day Of The Locust (1975) comes to every writer’s mind when thinking about Hollywood. That scene before the anarchy where all the big cars are lining up to drop their famous and fortunate passengers for the film premiere comes to mind whenever I walk up to the Colonial Theater at night. Its front stairs ascend from Main Street’s sidewalks. The electric marquee glows above. The box office protrudes out into the sheltered entrances to the three hundred seat house. Hanging chandeliers light the auditorium. Acoustic panels depicting scenes of mountains and flying Ibis cover the house walls to compliment the theater’s Egyptian facade. The Colonial unites recreation, art, community, and culture under a single roof. -An aged roof.

The Bethlehem Colonial is over 100 years old. The Friends Of The Colonial, a non-profit headed by Stephen Dignazio as Executive Director and House Manager, got together with individuals, businesses, and the community to form The Campaign For The Next Century, which aims to broaden programming, improve audience experience, and create a more sustainable organization. These folks have already raised $650,000 of the necessary $800,000 (estimated). The Colonial was built for film and the new projector, speakers, and sound board coupled with the locally sourced acoustic panels get the job done for viewing anything from Jimmy Chin’s Meru (2015) to Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel (2014). The seats are all original to the theater and refurbished for comfort. The floor has been reinforced in front of the stage to host excited concert goers and their bouncing revelry. The Colonial members and supporters who “understand the importance of the arts to economic development” are proud of Campaign Phase IA where some of the most impressive improvements have occurred behind the stage.

Executive Director and House Manager, Stephen Dignazio

Stephen took me on a tour of the facility. I imagined myself an enigmatic folk artist in faded jeans and a white pearl snap shirt unbuttoned to my sternum displaying really cool necklaces and a street musician’s tan. Stephen told me how they finally have a piano room and I was temporarily ripped from my fantasy.

“We used to have to tie this piano up against the wall when it wasn’t used, now we have a space to wheel it out of the way and to store other items,” Stephen tells me proudly. He is right about storage and a lack of clutter, at one hundred years old, having been re-done in almost every way, the stage and back stage area look neat and tidy and ready to host high end acts from around the world.

He takes me through a back stage door and we tour the new bathrooms and the green room where artists will stare into a large mirror lit by a parade of round white light bulbs. Falling back into my fantasy I wanted to sit and stare deeply at myself muttering, “you’ve got this, two more shows man,” and then I wanted Stephen to ask me why I did it all and what made the long hard road worth it. I was going to respond that it wasn’t about me or my fans, “but the journey man, it’s all bout-”. We would get cut off by a stage manager poking his head through the green room door, “two minutes,” he would say and then disappear. I would take my old road-warn cowboy hat off the hook next to the makeup counter that I used to host a half eaten pork sandwich and a half drunk glass of wine. “Two more shows,” I would stoically mutter to Stephen as I walked out on stage to the rising curtain and brightening lights. Tossing my guitar strap over my shoulder – leather, dangling braids silently slapping the side of my weathered guitar – I’d mutter something to the crowd that sounded super cool and a little dark, “wrote this in jail in N’Orleans…”

The dressing room, green room, and restrooms all lead out a back door to a beautifully designed stone loading ramp for easy stage access. Above these expansions is a large unfinished room that may contain the future of the Bethlehem Colonial. Stephen has been an academic, a poet, a performer, and more. Now he is managing a theater. Eventually he will move on to his next pursuit as active minds are want to do after a time. The large space upstairs is the un-carved block that will one day house the offices of the next Executive Director and House Manager. Upgraded equipment and facilities, improved guest experience, and a new popcorn machine are only the beginning. In the next hundred years, as Bethlehem grows, the Colonial will be the refurbished venue that will house the new ideas in film, song, laughter, and performance for miles around.

300 house seats

Charm can not be purchased nor installed with power drills. Character is not gained by adding ascot nor antechamber. There is a focus on authenticity in today’s popular outlook (and by outlook I mean judgement). Long after building the Colonial it is said that Carl Abbot was on the night train to Boston around 1926. It is also said that he negotiated the sale of his theater to a local-well-known in the bar car during that late night commute. Stories like this could be the plot lines of films shown at the Colonial. In the seventies and eighties the Colonial Theater showed its share of pornographic films as was the way of the times. Some circles believe that Justice Potter Stewart was informed by the seedier era of the Colonial Theater while he was a resident of Sugar Hill. Stewart was made famous to film buffs by his concurrence in 1964’s Jacobellis v. Ohio where he stated, “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description (hard core pornography); and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case (Louis Malle’s, The Lovers (Les Amants) (1958)) is not that.” And with that Stewart stated that art films are not porn and that porn is something folks will know when they see it. These are the historical anecdotes that can not be made up but must be preserved.

Stephen and the Campaign are extra psyched for the performance on August 11, 8 PM. You know how there are songs that only sound right when they are played at full volume in your car on your way to work? You shriek along at the top of your voice completely confident that you sing just like Adele. There are other songs that require those fancy headphones you discreetly kept after your ex moved out a year ago; you darken the room, maybe light a candle, and switch on airplane mode before settling in to feel the music. There is that Chris Stapleton song about whiskey that compels you to provide a short pour to every lady in the room… Then there are songs that require plenty of space and loose fitting clothes. On August 11, Banda Magda will perform at the Bethlehem Colonial and your hips, even if they aren’t usually utilized for more than walking and interfacing with pants, will sway hard and with involuntary rhythm.

There are entire genres of music understood to be super-cool and reserved for favorite college professors who host elite dinner parties. It’s the soundtrack for your mom’s new boyfriend while he does Tai Chi and surfs and is totally cool with you smoking in your room. It’s listened to by the much older kid in the neighborhood who only buys vinyl and lives alone in his grandmother’s house and drives a van and always wears sunglasses that belonged to his dad. Banda Magda combines all of those genres into a six-plus-piece multi-national group fronted by a female vocalist squeezing an accordion, a horn section backing up three or four guitars, and bunches of percussion with a piano. The songs I have been listening to for research sound like Frida Kahlo threw a party for The Buena Vista Social Club when some songs from a Tarantino soundtrack showed up with beer, then the orchestra that helps Radiohead with all their crazy-genius broke down out front and decided to stick around after using the bathroom, but not before texting Lana Del Rey to bring over some haunting chips and dip.

A new one from Alejandro Jodorowsky, the surrealist Chilean filmmaker that brought you El Topo (1970) and The Holy Mountain (1973) is exciting Stephen and the Campaign this season. El Topo (the mole) is a road trip movie experienced by the viewer through the confusion of a bad-trip-hangover where our protagonist might be god, is dressed as a gunfighter, and vanquishes foes along a journey that is amazing to watch and yet one would never want to live. We are not watching a good guy. The bad guys are very very bad at times. There isn’t a ton of hope throughout the film, and yet I have seen it a dozen times and have never wished to turn it off. The Holy Mountain tells the story of an Alchemist (played by Jodorowsky himself) who wants to be immortal, has to unseat some gods, makes a handful of friends who represent planets, and encounters a Virgil-esque guide who has a personal assistant. The imagery is grotesque but, again, important and not worth tuning off. The new film to be shown at the Bethlehem Colonial is an autobiography of sorts called Endless Poetry (2016). Click here for showtimes.

With a history dating back to Golden Age Hollywood, an electric marquee, changing hands once in a bar car, and again to bring her beauty and history into the twenty first century, the Colonial Theatre stands proudly in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Should you propose building an art theater with an Egyptian facade in a mountain town with a population of 2,500 residents today you may run into a hiccup or two. The Colonial is thus so unique and magical, yet small and strangely located, it almost goes unnoticed to the thousands of cars passing through Bethlehem on Route 302. It was built in the time and for the speed of the Stanley Steamer and the Grand Hotel where wives and children spent the summer while fathers and husbands came up from the cities on the weekends. It lasted through sexual revolutions and digital revolutions. The grand hotels are gone for the most part, the days of “going motoring” are past. Theaters are few and far between and art cinemas even more rare. To paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart, I shall not today attempt to define the kind of theater to be embraced within the shorthand description of oversized, commercial, overcrowded, free of charm, lacking history, without character, and corporately run and owned, located across from a Cracker Barrel, and attached to a tasteless mall just off a congested interstate, but I know them when I see them, and the Bethlehem Colonial Theatre is not that.

2 Responses to “The Bethlehem Colonial Theatre”

  1. Art FlescherJune 22, 2017 at 6:45 pm #

    Matt,
    This is a wonderful piece – thank you. My wife and I are transplanted New Yorkers who fulfilled a lifelong dream by relocating to the White Mountains in retirement. We’re strong believers in the importace of the arts as a community resource and have begun volunteering our time at the Colonial. So glad to see you recognize the Colonial as a wonderful and partially hidden jewel. I encourage folks to experience the venue for themselves, whether it be for a movie or a concert, and maybe become members if they like what they see.

  2. N. Eric Van Leuven, MDJune 23, 2017 at 9:39 am #

    As a projectionist at The Colonial, I am reminded each time I enter the projection both that this is the same both where the projectionist showed a silent Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton film….FIRST RUN…in the late teens/early 20’s. So nice to soak up the history in this place. Saw Tom Rush/Jonathan Edward their last year, and the AMAZING Richard Thompson (played w/Fairport Convention in the 1970’s) last weekend. We are all SO INDEBTED to Steven Dignazio for his mammoth efforts, as well as a bunch of very dedicated, wonderful volunteers who cover not only projection, but concession, ticket sales, ushering and security at the live events, clean-up, and the multitude of other duties that a venue such as this requires. And the Board, too, is an incredible group of people. So happy to hear you enjoyed yourself. Get the word out! This is an AMAZING place!!!

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