Screening independent films in Central Maine
Railroad Square Cinema in downtown Waterville burned down in 1994 and was rebuilt with over $150,000 in donations.
In the late 1970s, five friends living in the Waterville area—Ken Eisen ’78, Gail Chase, Lea Girardin, Alan Sanborn and Stu Silverstein—bonded over a shared interest in film. Unfortunately, the foreign and classic films that they wanted to see weren’t being shown in central Maine.
After graduating from the College, Eisen “was obsessed with seeing as many films as possible…I would travel long ways just to see a film,” he said. “So I thought, this is what I want to do with my life, I want to show movies.”
The five friends, along with Alan’s wife Sandra “Sam” Sanborn, considered their options: they could create a film society or show films on the upper floor of a bar downtown once a week. Quite soon, however, “it became really clear…that the only way this was going to work was if we started a cinema,” Sanborn said.
The group of friends eventually created Railroad Square Cinema, an ‘art-house theatre’ in downtown Waterville that offers viewers “the best of American and world cinema,” Sanborn said.
While the Railroad Square Cinema has a strong reputation in the larger community today, the road to its creation was initially rocky. The group spent several years trying to find a venue in Waterville that could serve as a theater. Their primary requirements for the space were that the ceilings be high enough—that is, at least 12 feet—and that there be a large surface available for use as a movie screen.
“And then we found a place in Railroad Square,” Sanborn said. The original location—across from its current location—had been a retail beverage warehouse, a big, open space. “We started construction, did all the work ourselves” and hired some plumbers and electricians, Sanborn said.
On October 5, 1978, Railroad Square Cinema finally opened. “It was extremely exciting. We had no idea what to expect,” Sanborn said about that day. “We were still putting finishing touches on the construction.”
On that day, “we would never have believed that we would be here for 32 years,” Sanborn said. “We didn’t go into the business like, ‘Wow, we can make a whole lot of money,’—we certainly couldn’t. But it’s been a great ride. I love going to work every morning,” he said.
The first film that Railroad Square showed was a classic: Casablanca. The theater showed the movie on 16mm film—a type of film that is often used on classroom projectors rather than in professional theatres.
“We had somehow acquired about a dozen—or maybe it was closer to 20—of these army surplus 16 mm projectors,” Sanborn explained. “We were running our films on those for a while, and they were constantly breaking down, so we would be cannibalizing them for parts.”
For three years, Railroad Square’s owner ran their films on 16mm film. In 1981, however, they expanded the projection booth, opened up the lobby in the warehouse and installed standard 35mm projectors. Eventually they turned the lobby area into a café. “It was a great little set-up,” Sanborn said. “We became a community center as well.”
Unfortunately, at 2 a.m. on October 10, 1994, an electrical fire erupted and destroyed the cinema. “The morning [after the fire] we were trying to figure out [what to do],” Sanborn said. “Are we going to rebuild? Or say, ‘Let’s bag it—we’ve had a good run?”
The Iron Horse Bookstore, which was located where the Grand Central Café currently stands, promptly put out a donation jar to collect funds for rebuilding the cinema.
“Within a couple of hours, someone had put in a check for $1,000. At that point we decided ‘We gotta rebuild,’” Sanborn said. Although the exact figure remains mysterious, some estimate that the group raised over $150,000 to rebuild the cinema—so rebuild it they did. They constructed the new building in across the street from its original location, in the spot where it currently resides.
In July of 1995, Railroad Square reopened. “We were closed [for business] for just about nine months….When I think about it, it is pretty amazing that we were able to get that all together in that short amount of time,” Sanborn said.
The first location had only one screen, but the owners built three screens at the new location. Initially, the third screen was used for storage, but they raised enough money to open it to the public about eight years ago. The three theaters seat 150, 90 and 50 respectively.
Right before the fire in 1994, Railroad Square’s owners founded Shadow Distribution, a company that distributes film. The company does this by acquiring the rights to a film, making 35mm prints of it and distributing the prints to cinemas across the country who are interested in showing the movie.
In 1998, the founders of Railroad Square created the Maine International Film Festival (MIFF). Eisen, who figures out the programming for Railroad Square, is the key programmer of MIFF. Shannon Haines, executive director of the Waterville Main Street organization, works as the festival director.
“We show 100 films in 10 days. We show films from many countries during the festival,” Sanborn said. In addition to showing films at Railroad Square Cinema, MIFF utilizes space at the Waterville Opera House, which can seat around 900 people.
The summer of 2010 marked MIFF’s 13th year running. Each year, the festival draws noteworthy guests such as Sissy Spacek and Peter Fonda.
Over the past 32 years Railroad Square’s founders’ passion for film has turned into an adventure of a lifetime. “It was really a galvanizing mission. At the beginning, it really felt like...we were sort of hacking out of nothingness—and that has an exciting quality,” Eisen said. “It’s been great to see it flower over the years.”
One of the most rewarding parts of Eisen and Sanborn’s jobs is the sense of community that Railroad Square has developed. Sanborn said he loves the discussions that take place in the lobby after a showing. He loves that people come to see films that they otherwise couldn’t—or wouldn’t—see.
“In 32 years—you know, we’ve had people coming for 32 years-–we’ve heard many times, ‘You know, if you guys weren’t here, than I wouldn’t be able to live in this area.’”
For Eisen, some of his fondest memories of the cinema are the moments “when it feels like Railroad Square [is] a community alternative center for the arts and for what’s happening in the world, and in the art word and in the political world, too,” Eisen said. One such moment occurred in 1988, when Railroad Square was the only theatre in Maine to show the controversial film The Last Temptation of Christ—after there had been an earthquake just five minutes before, Eisen laughed.
Eisen said that he hopes to see more faces from the College community at Railroad Square. “It feels like there’s less involvement from Colby than there ever has been….I just think that all of us being plugged into our computers isn’t such a great thing.”
Every other Wednesday, Railroad Square offers students and faculty at the College a special deal: on this night, tickets to the feature film cost $1.