After gently admonishing them for being up so late, Mavis Staples brought a few young audience members up on stage for a hug at The Criterion Theatre last Friday. ISLANDER PHOTO BY NAN LINCOLN

Preach! Mavis Staples takes Criterion to a new level

Legendary gospel and R&B singer Mavis Staples took her audience at The Criterion Theatre “to church” last Friday night with an electric performance that brought folks to their feet again and again and had them dancing in the aisles.

The diminutive singer with a big voice and an even bigger heart — judging by the topical, sometimes troubling, but always embracing nature of her songs — did more than royally entertain the audience in the sold-out venue.

Dwight and Nichole, who opened for Mavis Staples at The Criterion Theatre Friday night, also brought some heat. ISLANDER PHOTO BY NAN LINCOLN

She also, according to the theater’s Executive Director Tamara Crowley, took the theater itself around a metaphoric corner to a better place.

“I feel that every live performance we host here is a sort of love letter to the community,” Crowley said after the show, “but this one, this magical night proved to us we were right about the potential of this theater has as a year-round cultural, entertainment and educational center. It was about as good as it gets.”

Music lovers from as far afield as the Deer Isle peninsula, Bangor and Lincoln braved the drive and the cold to take advantage of the opportunity.

“We cast out a wider marketing net,” Crowley said, “hoping that if we offered this kind of excellent experience, people would come from a distance to see it. The response has been overwhelming.”

There have been other successful shows since Crowley came on as director nine months ago, including last spring’s performance by David Crosby. She expects that the Judy Collins appearance this coming July also will fill the 800 seats.

“One of these shows can generate enough profit,” Crowley said, “to fund an entire year of children’s programming here.”

But of course, the community can’t support one of those big-ticket items every weekend, so the theater is constantly on the lookout for new acts and new ways to serve the community with the help of booking agents and some savvy staff and board members.

And as important as filling theater seats is, it is not the only measure of success.

“Last summer, we had a young singer-songwriter Brett Dennen, here,” she said. “I had never heard of him before, but happily some of our younger staff members are more in the loop about the current music scene and recommended him.

“Well, I consider it one of our most successful shows even though we only sold 300 or so tickets,” she continued. “The audience was almost all young people, Brett put on a terrific show, everyone had a wonderful time, the theater made a small profit, and more importantly, we introduced The Criterion to a whole new generation of young people as a place where wonderful things happen.”

An even younger generation has been making new memories at The Criterion through collaborations with the Acadia Community Theater and the Barn Arts Collective.

“I like to imagine that one day, one of these kids, inspired by their experience at The Criterion, will be premiering their own movie or play here,” Crowley said. “This is what I get really emotional about.”

She said they have engaged the participation of the business community by asking for comparison data for show nights and nights when there are no shows at the theater. Some restaurants report a 180 percent increase when The Criterion’s marquee lights up.

“It’s great when you’re asking a business to sponsor an event or for a donation to be able to show them actual numbers why it’s not only a nice thing to do, but makes financial sense, too.”

She and other staff members also have been furiously writing grants. Soon, she said, they will launch a capital fundraising campaign to buy new sound and lighting systems.

“If we’re going to be booking these high quality acts,” she said, “we have to offer them the professional quality technology they require to put on their best show.”

She said the new systems, which will cost around $60,000, also will improve the sound clarity for the films and offer ADA-compliant equipment for people with hearing or sight impairment.

Also in the works are collaborative efforts with the Abbe Museum, coming up with ideas to pair with a vintage car rally and race in June, and booking more talent and films.

That, along with drafting an annual report and organizing a “spring cleaning” project for March, is keeping Crowley, the four full-time staff members, the expanded board and a host of volunteers pretty darn busy these days.

The rousing success of Friday’s concert seems to have energized Crowley to the point where if slaying dragons were part of her job description, she’d be busy polishing her armor.

“As good as it’s been,” Crowley said, with the confidence of such a dragon slayer, “It’s only going to get better.”

It’s safe to say no dragons will dare to interfere with the movies and two live events scheduled for this month: Martin Sexton on Feb. 15 and Grammy winner Marc Cohn on Feb. 24. For a complete schedule of events and information about becoming a Criterion member, visit

Nan Lincoln

Nan Lincoln

The former arts editor at the Bar Harbor Times writes reviews and feature stories for The Ellsworth American and Mount Desert Islander.

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