Excerpted from the history in Salt Magazine, 1982
From its drab exterior, The Criterion looks like countless other small town movie houses. But once inside its darkened lobby amid the faded splendor of the theatre's original art deco motif, there is no mistaking The Criterion for an ordinary theater.
When it first opened its doors nearly a century ago, The Criterion was hailed as one of the finest showplaces in New England. The year was 1932, and Maine, like the rest of the nation, was still mired in the Great Depression. But inside The Criterion, with its silk-paneled walls and velvet draped loges, its ornate glass chandeliers and grey-suited ushers, one could escape – for a few hours, at least – the uncertainties of the outside world.
For a town of 4,000 year-round residents, it was a remarkable place. But Bar Harbor in the early 1930's was not just another small New England town. The extraordinary natural beauty of Mount Desert Island and Acadia National Park, with its lush mountains and fabled rock-bound coastline, made Bar Harbor an ideal summer sanctuary for some of the wealthiest and most powerful families in America.
For the most part, the "summer colonists," as the privileged summer visitors were called by local residents, lived quietly, whiling away the days in ocean-side estates that were staffed by as many as twenty-five "locals," or on their well-appointed yachts, also manned by locals.
In the evenings, there were private cocktail parties and dinners at the exclusive Bar Harbor Club. Afterwards, they stepped into their chauffeur-driven limousines for the short ride to The Criterion.
The only theater in town before The Criterion was the Star, a place which appeared to be the creation of a frustrated Hollywood set designer. The gray stucco façade rose in a series of right angles like a sawed-off pyramid, crowned with a large white star.
Inside the pine-paneled auditorium, silent pictures danced across the screen as the music from a formidable Robert Morgan pipe organ filled the room. "That was an era of gracious living," recalls Mrs. Wescott. "We had two Bar Harbors, winter and summer. The summer people, Bar Harbor catered to them because they were bread and butter. For three months it was bread and butter. Very gracious living."
The Star was a place where shopkeepers and gardeners could sit elbow to elbow with the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts. But it was a far cry from the elegant theaters of Philadelphia, Boston and New York, to which the summer colony was accustomed.
The absence of a theater appropriate to the tastes of Bar Harbor's elites did not go unnoticed by George P. McKay, a local entrepreneur who ran a small cottage on Main Street. A handsome, dapper man, McKay was a gregarious sort who always had a smile and a drink to offer friends. He would often tell the story of how he stepped off the ferry from Hancock "leading a cow with 40 cents in his pocket."
But soon he established himself by forming a trucking business which catered to summer residents – McKay was no ordinary entrepreneur, he was a man of vision and ingenuity. George McKay Jr. recalls him "always just dreaming about things. My mother was in constant fear of what brainstorm he might come up with next. He could see things that needed to be done. Every day it was something different."
One of the things he thought most about was creating a theater that would lure the town's moneyed inhabitants. Although McKay had accumulated some wealth from his business enterprises, he lacked the funds to finance a project on the scale he envisioned. So he formed a corporation and sold shares to other prominent citizens of the town.
Among the shareholders was Ralph Masterman, a local attorney, John Stolfoid, who owned stables and greenhouses, and Dan Heurley, who owned the Dreamland dance pavilion, one of Bar Harbor's hottest night spots, as well as a local boxing arena.
There were those who whisper that McKay acquired funds through another source as well – rum running. If McKay was, in fact, a bootlegger, one thing is certain: he was not alone. In the years preceding the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, bootlegging was rife along the entire coast of Maine. And there was no better place suited for the trade than Bar Harbor, an island port with a populace that could well afford to pay the price for illicit liquor.
"There was nothing cheap about him. He was a rough and ready fellow, a free hearted man, and he was generous with his liquour with any bum as long as they didn't make trouble." It was common knowledge that the kingpin of the Bar Harbor bootlegging trade was Heurley, a close friend of Mckays and one of the chief backers of The Criterion. He was also one of the few operators who met up with the law – an occasion which won him an expense-paid trip to the federal penitentiary in Atlanta.
In June of 1932, McKay's moment of triumph finally arrived. The opening of The Criterion was greeted with a chorus of acclaim from area newspapers. "Criterion Theater, Bar Harbor Showplace, Opens Monday," read the banner headline over a full page spread in the Bangor Daily News.
According to the news, the theater was erected in five months at a cost of $150,000, although other sources place the cost as high as a quarter million dollars. McKay spared no expense in creating his movie palace. The Criterion was a stunning blend of art deco elegance and modern technology. The velvet lined seats were equipped with phonograph jacks so that the hard of hearing could wear headphones, and the walls contained a network of brass pipes which were connected to a vacuum system.
"There would be on Cottage Street a whole line of cars, you know, Lincolns, and then the Cadillacs, all the big cars, chauffeur driven. And you used to have a doorman out there calling cars; you had to, you know.
"The Ford children always came to the movies. The chauffeur would drive them over with the governess. In later years, Happy Rockefeller always came with their children. She was an extremely pleasant person, very. She'd come to the candy counter and stand, waiting in line with the kids.
"They were just ordinary people," Dr. Dwyer says of the wealthy and famous that frequented the theater. "They came summers and you accepted them as part of the town. You see, where you're all seeing all these hotels, those were all great big summer cottages.