Theater Mural


Theater Mural

The forty-foot mural in the Alamo Theatre auditorium depicts 100 years of motion picture theater architecture found in northern New England.

The mural, dominating the auditorium of the Alamo Theatre, features architectural drawings of seven cinematic venues from the 1890s onward, starting with a seaside casino and ending with an example of the multiplexes that prevail today.

From attractive 1890s seaside casinos to grand movie palaces of the 1920s to mall cinemas of the 1960s and 1970s, the mural shows Alamo Theatre visitors where northern New Englanders have gone to see motion pictures. The images are all of theaters in northern New England, and visitors may recognize local theaters such as the Empire in Lewiston, the Ioka in Exeter, New Hampshire and Maine’s first multiplex, the Cinema in South Portland.

Designed to resemble a chalk board scribbled with the sketches and notes of a visiting lecturer, the mural was designed by Main Street Design of Cambridge, Massachusetts, in conjunction with their work on Going to the Movies, Northeast Historic Film’s traveling interpretive exhibition, currently on view in the Alamo Theatre lobby.

The design team included Polly Baldwin, senior graphic designer at Main Street Design, and Karan Sheldon, project director at Northeast Historic Film. Special thanks to Portland artist Toni Wolf who put paint to wall and Vincent Sansalone for his splendid architectural calligraphy.

The Exhibit
Through the images and interpretive texts, the piece not only reminds visitors that movies have been around for 100 years, but points up the role of the movie house as a symbol of changing times. “The places where we see movies reflect a large part of our social experience,” says Karan Sheldon, who directed the mural project.

“When movie houses were on Main Streets and in neighborhoods, we stopped in casually and often,” she says. “In the early days of moviegoing the screen was often in an entertainment center such as a waterfront casino, part of a festive excursion. Today an outing to the mall for a movie can be a big deal, too, particularly in northern New England where the drive can be 20 miles or more.”

The mural was created as part of NHF’s interpretive history exhibition, “Going to the Movies: A Century of Motion Picture Audiences in Northern New England.” Conceived in 1994 and installed in October 1998, the mural is the product of a team that included Portland artist Toni Wolf and Polly Baldwin of Main Street Design, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Wolf, a Pennsylvania artist who moved to Maine 20 years ago, has painted several public murals in Portland and elsewhere, and was master scenic artist on a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film. Yet she may be best known for exhibitions of her own work, at the Dead Space Gallery, the Barn Gallery and elsewhere in Maine and beyond. Her recent paintings are intensely colored self-portraits that explore dream imagery.

An important source for the mural was a collection of movie-theater postcards, donated by NHF Advisor Q. David Bowers. From these and other images, Sheldon developed a database and a typology indicating changes in structure and function. Once specific buildings representing different eras in movie house evolution were selected, Wolf, NHF, and Main Street embarked on the design process.

Engaging Chalk Talk
The buildings, rendered in chalky white and yellow against a gray background, are depicted in a style that conveys form with the detail of an architectural drawing, but in a looser, friendlier style.

For one visitor, reporter Jeff Hope from the Bangor television station WABI, the freehand drawing style is key to the mural’s appeal. “The hand-drawn look makes it much more interesting to me,” Hope says. “It makes it seem animated.”

But Hope, who produced a piece on the mural for WABI-TV, adds that the drawing style is just part of an effective design. A number of techniques engage the viewer. He applauds the simplicity of the layout and the chalk-like appearance, which suggest the classroom–look here and you’ll learn something.

The mural dominates the auditorium through its size, vigor, and the fact that, until the movie or performance starts, there’s nothing much else to look at. “You can’t help but be drawn to it,” Hope says, “and at least start thinking about it, and start to ask questions.”

Doug Hubley
Moving Image Review, Winter 1998