Rebirth Of The Dreamland -June 2012
by: Joshua H. Balling
photography by: Jim Powers
For nearly a century, the Dreamland Theatre was a hub of cultural activity on South Water Street, Hollywood soundtracks echoing from within, flickering images of celluloid fantasy projected onto its floor-to-ceiling screen and the smell of hot buttered popcorn wafting toward the waterfront.
But that all changed in 2003, when it was closed during a failed attempt by a new owner to convert it into an upscale residential and entertainment complex. For the next four years, it stood silent, a dark and deteriorating shell. Following a second sale in 2007 to a nonprofit foundation intent on resurrecting the once-proud moviehouse, the building was torn down and in its place slowly rose a new structure, boasting a 320-seat movie theater on the ground floor and a smaller 147-seat space upstairs with state-of-the-art digital projection and sound equipment.
At press time, the Dreamland was preparing to reopen, and from June 20-24 will host the 17th Nantucket Film Festival, which used the former theater as its hub and primary screening venue for much of its early life.
“It’s taken a lot of different people a long time to put this together,” said general manager Jonathan Anastos, who grew up in and around the old Dreamland, his great-uncle one of the theater’s four original partners. “It’s been a difficult puzzle to get done.”
But get done it did.
“We are so excited to see The Dreamland come to life after four long years of thinking, planning, designing and less than two years of construction. What we started with was literally a firetrap sitting on a broken foundation. We rescued all the reusable pieces, saved them, and have reintroduced them into a green and sustainable facility for the 21st century, where they live and breathe again, protected by LEED-level construction guidelines and a geothermal heating and cooling system,” said ReMain Nantucket founder and summer resident Wendy Schmidt, president of the Dreamland Foundation board of directors.
“Since 2008, our board and staff has managed to raise more than $31 million out of the $34 million budget for the project in the worst economic climate since the Great Depression. This is remarkable, really. Our donors are large and small, and share our vision of a year-round movie theater and performing-arts center in the heart of town. I think about the vitality of our downtown throughout the year, and envision a positive ripple effect from The Dreamland throughout the local economy.”
Patty Roggeveen, the foundation’s executive director, agreed.
“Nantucket needs a place to celebrate the performing arts. In fact, they need more than one place. The Dreamland should be a jump-start to invest in facilities for what is already a thriving performing-arts community on the island. Our founders and supporters embrace a vision that believes the arts are vital for a community. It’s that kind of vision that gives success to a major project like this,” she said.
The new theater is a marvel of modern technology with an historic pedigree. Many of the materials from the original Dreamland, including roof trusses, windows and structural supports, were not only reused but clearly visible in the new building. The main theater was designed with stadium seating and a small stage, backstage area and green room for lectures, concerts and live productions. The “studio” theater on the third level has movable seating and the same high-end digital projection equipment as the main theater. A wood-floored deck with sweeping views of Nantucket Harbor on one side and the downtown skyline on the other is located off a meeting and function room on the same level.
“For years, the Dreamland was the heart of downtown Nantucket, particularly for kids. It was a safe place for them to go at night. For the last seven years we haven’t had that. To me, it feels like our Nantucket is back again,” Anastos said. “It’s exciting for me to be a part of this new beginning.”
Schmidt agreed. “As a destination and gathering place in every month of the year, The Dreamland will be a magnet, and people coming to events, classes, meetings, movies and more will be here in town for dining, shopping and socializing. Visitors to our venue will be looking for accommodations,” she said.
THE EARLY YEARS
But the history of the Dreamland goes back much further than its recent trials, tribulations and ultimate resurrection.
The building that originally housed the theater began its life with a much different purpose in mind, constructed at 76 Main St. in 1831 as a Quaker meeting house by the Hicksite faction of the Religious Society of Friends.
An immense structure for its day, it was a place of quiet reflection, worship and the occasional political debate, hosting meetings in support of the abolition of slavery and women’s suffrage. It escaped the Great Fire of 1846 unscathed, and in 1852 was converted into the headquarters and primary hat factory of the Atlantic Straw Company.
Around 1880, it began a new life as a roller-skating rink known as Atlantic Hall. The main portion of the two-story building, once a gathering place for serious-minded Quakers, was now filled on a regular basis with peals of laughter and the spectacle of both novice and accomplished skaters circling the floor.
In 1883, it was moved to Brant Point to become part of the new Nantucket Hotel. When completed, the hotel was 260 feet long and four stories high, with Atlantic Hall making up a large portion of the central part of its ground floor.
Enjoying a successful and lucrative run for more than a decade, the hotel slowly fell into disrepair as the tourist business began to decline in the late 1800s. In 1905, it was sold to Boston businessman Edwin F. Atkins for just $3,000. Within a year of the hotel’s purchase, the Improved Order of Red Men fraternal organization bought the Atlantic Hall section of the building, placed it on a series of barges, and floated it across the harbor, erecting it on South Water Street where it was used for gatherings, silent movies and live theatrical performances, including “polite” Vaudeville.
In 1907 Smith and Blanchard’s Moving Picture Show opened on the ground floor, and in 1911, the theater was run by Folger and Hull with Vaudeville on Wednesday evenings for 20 cents admission. The theater was renovated in 1922 and new seats installed, bringing the capacity to just over 600.
The theater began to show silent movies on a more consistent basis through the 1920s, and in 1926, a business certificate was issued for the Dreamland Theatre Company in the names of four men: Emile Genesky, Orison Hull, Eugene Perry and John Anastos. It was a unique partnership for the time, because it consisted of men of the Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox Greek and Jewish faiths.
As the “Golden Era” of Hollywood captured the American imagination, nights out at the Dreamland became a staple for year-round Nantucket residents. New movies arrived on the island Wednesdays and Saturdays during the winter via Railway Express, and there were occasional matinees. It was noted in the press of the time that the island’s vacationers would sit on the right side during the summer months, while year-round residents would occupy the middle and left sections of the theater.
Music for the films was provided by piano player Bill Blair, who also served as the island’s part-time fire chief. In 1930, however, the theater installed a Western Electric sound system, and Blair was out of a job.
In 1947, the Dreamland Theatre Company purchased the building from the Redmen, and it remained a hub of island activity throughout the middle part of the 20th century, hosting Annual Town Meetings where Nantucket’s governmental business was decided, and regular dances on the weekends on the upper floors.
For years, the theater used two large black cast-iron projectors that dated back to 1938, but eventually switched over to a more modern projector. A concession stand was eventually added to meet the demand of hungry movie-goers, requiring the removal of approximately 100 seats. Shortly before its sale in 2003, a Dolby surround-sound system was installed to give the theater the latest in audio and picture technology.
Town clerk Catherine Flanagan Stover, Eugene Perry’s great-granddaughter, has fond memories of the old Dreamland.
“It was a great place. You usually went there on your first date. I know I did. There was a popcorn stand on the corner, run by Arthur Hayden. They used to have dances upstairs, it was a real community thing. I have a bucket of old tickets, dance cards.”
But Stover’s memories aren’t all about first dates and dances. There was also work, lots of it. Her late father Charles Flanagan started at the theater in 1944 as a janitor and usher under the oversight of his father, Charles Patrick Flanagan, when tickets sold for 44 cents, 4 cents of which went toward a World War II wartime tax. He eventually worked his way up to running the projector.
“My grandfather would be there every night when there was a movie. He’d stand at the back and make sure everything was good. If people were smoking, or acting up, he’d go down and stand at the end of the aisle and just point at them. He never kicked anybody out. He always gave people another chance,” Stover recalled. “The couples in the back, if they went there on a date, tucked back on the side where it was dark and quiet, he never bothered them. Dad used to run the projector as a rule, and if he was late in starting the movie, my grandfather would walk by the concession stand, look up at the projection booth, then look down at his hand, and it would start right up.
“From the time I could walk, I remember my father and uncle Bob used to clean the theater every day. That was the initial job they had. We all cleaned around the theater, we all did yard work, painting, we were the free labor, and the Anastos kids too,” Stover said.
“If you were a member of the Perry/Flanagan/Stover family, you had a job at the Dreamland Theatre. My first job ever, at the impressionable age of 4, was to stand on a wooden box to fill all the empty slots in the candy machine with packages of Chuckles, Skybar, Necco Wafers, Good n’ Plenty and Milk Duds. For the princely sum of a nickel, you would have enough candy to get you through at least half the movie, plus the cartoon and newsreel.
“My second job at the age of 6 was to help my grandfather count nickels from the candy machine. I was stunned by how quickly he could zoom through the pile, counting them by twos until he had $2 worth. It was then my task to roll them into the blue wrappers. Maybe you got paid, but sometimes you didn’t, especially if you asked, ‘How much?’ ”
In the summer of 1993, after he’d worked odd jobs around the place for years, Anastos was handed the keys to the castle by Flanagan, the start of a decade-long run as general manager that ended with the building’s sale to Boston developer Haim Zahavi. His relationship with the Dreamland has came full circle, however, as he was hired by the foundation earlier this year to run the theater again.
“(Flanagan) had taught me the ropes, but by mid-summer 1993, it was ‘here you go. You’re on your own’,” Anastos recalled. “It was scary. I didn’t know a thing about the movies other than taking tickets. I didn’t know the ins and outs, how the projector ran, but slowly I got to learn everything. The first year there were a lot of mishaps, things happened, but it was part of the deal. People rolled with it. Everyone has the stories of seeing the film burned on the screen, the projectionist’s worst nightmare. It was a fun place.”
THE LAST PICTURE SHOW
Until 2003, when the four families who controlled the theater sold the building for just over $6 million to Zahavi, who announced grand plans to convert it into a multi-use venue including a theater and performing-arts space, luxury condominiums, a restaurant, lounge and underground parking.
Anastos and Stover watched in dismay as he shuttered the moviehouse, gutted the building, and faced one set-back after another.
“It was painful, to say the least, to see that the building was being destroyed,” Anastos said.
Stover agreed. “We were really hoping that Mr. Zahavi was going to do what he said he was going to do, keep it as a theater. It was the only reason we sold to him. It was devastating to see what happened to the old girl.”
Zahavi eventually threw in the towel, after a litany of permitting problems and a number of his investors and contractors placed real-estate liens on the property. After a deal to sell the property to Rick Ulmer, owner of Foood for Here and There and The Rose & Crown bar and restaurant, fell through in 2007, Special Town Meeting voters also turned down a proposal that the town buy the property for $9 million. The future of the once-proud moviehouse was very much in doubt.
Fortunately for Nantucket movie-goers, the Dreamland wasn’t the only moviehouse in town.
The 100-seat Starlight Theater, today run by Mark Watson and his family, was opened in 1974 by Rob Mitchell and has shown movies year-round for nearly four decades. The Sconset Casino also shows a weekly schedule of movies on the east end of the island throughout the summer, and the Nantucket Atheneum has added films to its schedule on a regular basis.
RISING FROM THE ASHES
In October of 2007, a group of seasonal residents – headed by New York financier Philippe Laffont, hedge-fund manager and Boston Celtics part-owner James Pallotta and former Starwood Hotels and Resorts presi- dent and CEO Barry Sternlicht – stepped up and purchased the building for $9.8 million from Zahavi and formed the Dreamland Foundation.
The deal was orchestrated by another summer resident, Peter Palandjian, chairman and chief executive officer of Intercontinental Developers, a Brighton, Mass. real-estate development company, who later stepped down from the board. The group was later joined by Schmidt and Nantucket Film Festival board members John Johnson and Kathy Penske. Roggeveen, former director of the Nantucket Community School was named executive director. Newer board members include Nantucket Film Festival co-founder Jonathan Burkhart, “Hardball” host Chris Matthews and his wife Kathleen, Leslie King-Grenier, Maureen Hackett, Angela Raynor and Bill Liddle, Charley Polachi, Charles Ryan and Burwell Schorr.
“I can’t state often enough that The Dreamland is a not for-profit enterprise. The funds collected from ticket sales, concessions and the rental of our spaces are intended to fund the mission of The Nantucket Dreamland Foundation, which is to provide community arts programming throughout the year,” Schmidt said. “If we are successful, we will do minimal fundraising in future years, and rather use our platform to help other island nonprofits become more successful, collaborating with them to enhance their program offerings through using the technology and facilities at The Dreamland.”
THE LONG AND WINDING ROAD
The new Dreamland’s road to completion has been a long one. In March 2009, deconstruction work began, as bulldozers ripped off the back half of the building, exposing the area where moviegoers once sat and projectionists worked.
But later in the year, after initially proposing a 21,000 square-foot building, the foundation scaled back its plans to a structure roughly 15,000 square feet in size as a way to cut costs while preserving the theater’s major elements. The foundation’s architects found a way to incorporate into the new design both theater spaces as well as nearly all the pieces of the original structure which were preserved after it was dismantled.
After several months of debate, the Planning Board and Historic District Commission approved the new plan in 2010, and last March, the building’s structural steel frame began rising over South Water Street. Work continued until mid-summer, when all exterior construction must be halted in the downtown district.
It resumed last fall, and by last month, the work was complete except for some finishing touches and final inspections, and a new chapter was set to begin in the Dreamland’s long and storied history.
The Dreamland staff, headed by Roggeveen and development director Melissa Murphy on the foundation side, and Anastos and director of programming Donald Dallaire on the operations side, are finalizing a full schedule of programming that includes not only first-run movies, independent films and documentaries, but lecture series, live music and small theatrical works, although the stage and backstage area are too small for set-driven or large-cast productions. The Dreamland will continue to host its children’s theater camps in the summer, while offering its meeting and function spaces upstairs to the island’s nonprofit, civic and business groups. Anastos added that he’s interested in exploring ways to work with the Starlight on scheduling movies so islanders have the most cin- ematic options possible.
The building has been wired for the simulcast of live events like opera and theater from far-flung stages around the globe, and includes space for an editing studio where the Dreamland hopes to host an artist-in-residence program for world-class filmmakers.
“Thanks to the generosity of recent new donors, we will open the theater without debt, as a gift to the Nantucket community. Movies, the ‘singing and dancing’ that was on the original marquee, musical performances in acoustically-excellent space, speakers, conferences, exhibitions, classes, parties and celebrations – the possibilities are unlimited in a building wired for state-of-the-art connections with to-die-for views from the upper floor,” Schmidt said. “We’ve already got an exciting lineup of special events happening this summer, in our shakedown year. We will learn a lot as we operate, but our team is committed, well-trained and totally focused on delivering the best possible experience to our patrons and supporters.”
Has all the work been worth it? For Mystelle Brabbée, artistic director of the Nantucket Film Festival, the answer is an unqualified yes.
“There is no question we are excited to return to the Dreamland, a place that was the home of the festival in its early years, that’s now a state- of-the-art facility where we can screen films from big Hollywood studios and host major events. For nostalgic reasons, I’m excited to be working with Jon Anastos again. It’s going to be an exciting year for us to have the majority of our films downtown, in town, where we’ll naturally see festival-goers walking around. It will really feel like there’s a festival happening. There are a lot of unknowns, but a lot of possibilities. It’s going to be exciting.”
Joshua Balling is the associate editor of Nantucket Today, and the assistant editor of The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.