Railroad Square Cinema: indie films just off the Hill
Here’s a little-known fact: Yankee Magazine ranked Waterville’s Railroad Square Cinema among the top five best cinemas in New England. While Colby Admissions advertises the cinema so as to boost Waterville’s small-town allure, only few students of the College actually take advantage of this quirky local establishment. In an era dominated by commercially-driven cinema conglomerates, Railroad Square Cinema is definitely worth discovering.
Railroad Square Cinema first opened in 1978 in the old Beverage Warehouse, where the popular, offbeat pizza parlor, Grand Central Café, now stands .
A group of film aficionados, named Alan Sanborn, Ken Eisen, Lea Girardin, Gail Chase and Stu Silverstein, originally opened the cinema. The group members joined forces to start the business after meeting by chance at a mutual friend’s Christmas party.
In the beginning, the Square only showed films on one screen, and used 16mm film, cheap equipment and army surplus projectors. “Sometimes the springs would pop off while the movie was showing, so we’d have to crank the take-up reels manually,” Sanborn recalled.
In 1981, the owners decided that it was time to renovate the theater. The group bought new equipment for the Square and expanded the space so as to allow for the construction of a small café. “It instantly became kind of like a community center,” Sanborn says. “People came to mingle, meet friends and talk about movies.”
Disaster struck in 1994 when a fire burned the place to the ground. The Iron Horse bookstore next door to the theater set up a donation jar for the Square, and an anonymous donor left a $1,000 check. “We were sitting in Burger King when we heard about the check,” Sanborn said. “We realized [that] we had to rebuild.” The owners received many more donations from the local community. The Square’s doors were shut for just nine months. After that period, the theater re-opened in its current location, on the opposite side of the once-vacant lot.
“There’s never been a time when it wasn’t a struggle, when we were like, ‘Yeah, there’s nothing to worry about!’” Sanborn said. “We’ve been through a lot with the arrival of VHS, cable TV, DVDs and now online video streaming. But we’re still around, [we’re] still doing it!” he said.
Sanborn and his wife, Sam, work full-time at the Square; their kids grew up playing in the projection booth upstairs. It was their daughter Serena’s idea to make the walls of the bathroom into giant chalkboards where people can draw and sign their names. “If a customer’s offended by something someone else has written [on the wall], we just say, ‘Well, wash it off and write something yourself!’” Sanborn said.
The cinema’s interior décor is certainly unusual: a shiny hand-crafted metal counter links the small ticket office, old-school popcorn machine and the large selection of drinks and snacks, including home-made dessert bars for $3.50. The walls are covered with movie posters and local artwork, and there’s a couch in one corner that is covered in a brightly striped throw, imbuing the space with a welcoming, homey feel.
For the Sanborns, the best part of working at the Square is meeting and developing relationships with people who live in and around Waterville. They have a devoted clientele and aren’t worried about the competition posed by big conglomerates like Flagship Cinemas. “We have totally different programming, so it’s not really an issue. We specialize in foreign language and off-the-wall, independent American films,” Sanborn said. “Some films are just clearly [intended for] our audience, and we’ve seen some of the same people [coming in] for thirty years now.”
Ken Eisen, a 1973 graduate of the College, is in charge of the Square’s eclectic program. “[The schedule features a] combination of films that will appeal to enough of an audience to keep the doors open and films that I feel really should be shown and seen,” he explained. Eisen also works for Shadow Distribution, a distribution company that he co-founded in 1994 that “distributes great and unusual independent American, documentary and foreign films to theaters and venus around the country, including Oscar nominees The Weather Underground and Under the Sun and major successes like The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill and Earthwork,” Eisen said.
The owners of Railroad Square Cinema strive to preserve an authentic movie-going experience for their patrons. They still splice together the reels of film (usually six reels for a 90-minute film) in their protection booth, a wood-floored room above the small but busy Sanborn office. The Square also hosts the annual Maine International Film Festival, a tradition that its owners started in 1998. The festival boasts a program of 100 films by 50 film-makers shown over the course of ten days each July.
The Square sells delicious popcorn, home-popped in sunflower oil and covered in real butter. The Square’s $1 movie nights on Wednesdays are open to Colby students and faculty. Check out next Friday’s all-night event: six “cinematic walks on the wild side” for $10. Visit railroadsquarecinema.com for more information.