People gather at the Criterion circa 1937 to see Walt Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.” PHOTO COURTESY OF THE 1932 CRITERION THEATRE

1932 Criterion Theatre turns 90

An inside look of the Criterion in the late 1930s.

BAR HARBOR — The 1932 Criterion Theatre, the only Art Deco theater in Maine that has retained its original auditorium, celebrates its 90th anniversary this month. 

During the first week of June in 1932, George C. McKay Sr., who had served time at the Bangor jail for bootlegging roughly 10 years prior, founded the Cottage Street venue. After cleaning up his act, McKay went on to be a reputable resident of Bar Harbor, becoming involved at St. Savior’s Episcopal Church and the Mount Desert Island Lion’s Club.  

Along with his wife Ethel, McKay hosted various events at the Criterion, which, included gatherings for the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Relief Association (for Depression-era unemployed), the annual Community Santa Claus Fund drives, the March of Dimes, The American Legion (Post 25), Amateur Vaudeville Shows, Brownie Troop No. 17 and The Jackson Laboratory.  

Featuring Art Deco decor and a balcony, the 760-seat venue has hosted countless events and movies over the years. Throughout the handful of times it has been bought and sold, it has undergone various stages of renovations. With a donation of $2 million from an anonymous donor in 2014, previous owner Michael Boland organized a nonprofit and allowed for a major structural restoration. 

Managing Director Taylor Valarik has completed renovations on the Criterion Theatre’s green room.

With a former state-of-the-art Graybar “inter-phone” system and a basement speakeasy, the Criterion was a 1932 novelty. While management has sought to keep many of the novel touches, the theater has since been upgraded with more modern equipment.  

In the 1950s, its basement speakeasy, complete with a tunnel that leads to a neighboring establishment, was replaced with a green room and boiler room. “It was gross down there,” said Managing Director Taylor Valerik, who recently replaced the floors and painted the walls. The basement is now used as a space for performers to prepare and relax between sets. 

The theater’s rehabilitation is now almost complete.  

During 2019 and 2020, capacity restrictions and pandemic protocols forced the theater to close. The venue reopened in the summer of 2021. While maintaining compliance with state COVID-19 regulations, the theater has since been playing movies, holding live shows, hosting festivals and renting out the space for private events.  

Though memberships and other donations remain critical for keeping the theater afloat, Valarik said the organization needs to also use the space to generate revenue. “Even if someone wants to play Xbox on the big screen for a couple hours, anyone can rent it,” he said.  

This late 1930’s photo of the Criterion shows the theater promoting American comedy trio The Ritz Brothers on its marquee.

And now, instead of having to come to the window to purchase tickets for events, theater goers may use the Fandango app. 

The venue this summer is scheduled to host Cody Jinks, a Billy Joel tribute band, Soul Asylum Acoustic, the Bar Harbor Music Festival, Molly Hatchet and comedian Bob Marley. 

In addition to various summer shows and movies, the venue this month will host an event to celebrate its 90th anniversary. The event details, when they become available, will be posted on the 1932 Criterion Theatre Facebook page and on its website, 

Ninah Rein

Ninah Rein

Writer at Mount Desert Islander
Ninah Rein, an MDI native, covers news and features in the Bar Harbor area. She is glad to be back in Maine after earning a bachelor's degree in San Diego from the University of California.
Ninah Rein

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