In the Beginning...*
The Strand Theatre was built by Rockland businessman Joseph Dondis during a six-week period in the winter of 1922–1923. The Strand was also the first building to rise from the ashes of the fire of June 16, 1922, which destroyed four entire business blocks in downtown Rockland. The Strand first opened its doors to the public on February 21, 1923 (Washington’s Birthday) for a sold-out showing of the silent film My Wild Irish Rose. The steel-framed theater, with its terracotta tile walls and ornamental brick facade, was considered unusual and innovative in its appearance. The theater also boasted a gilded proscenium arch and stamped tin ceiling, jade green plaster walls, an organist loft and an auditorium seating 626. Outside was a traditional Vaudeville style canopy and a stunning “blade” sign with the word S-T-R-A-N-D outlined with electric light bulbs. Two storefronts, a cigar store and a flower shop, were incorporated into the theater, framing the entrance.
The Strand was Rockland’s third downtown theater. To compete with the already-established Park and Empire theaters, Mr. Dondis later added a stage, fly tower, and balcony to The Strand to accommodate local dance recitals, theatrical productions, and popular vaudeville shows. The Strand also hosted many fundraising events for local clubs and organizations.
Today, the Strand is the only survivor of the three movie theaters that served the Rockland area in the 1920s.
*The Strand Theatre acknowledges, in a spirit of respect and appreciation, that we reside in the indigenous unceded territory of the Wabanaki People, the “People of the Dawn,” whose communities include the Penobscot, Maliseet, Micmac, and Passamaquoddy Nations, on land known as Ketawamteak, translated as “Great Carrying Place.”
Rockland was introduced to talking pictures in the form of the DeForrest Phonofilm when it was first featured at the Strand in May 1927. An early Strand advertisement explained the phenomenon: “Sound and sight are perfectly interwoven in the DeForrest Phonofilm records, so that you have VAUDVILLE as well as PICTURES.”
Two years later, the Strand was fully outfitted with Vitaphone and Movietone sound and picture systems for the debut “talkie” of Alias Jimmy Valentine.
In addition a variety of programs, from Vaudeville acts to the film of the famous 1927 boxing match between Jack Dempsey & Gene Tunney, enticed customers to the Strand in the 1920s.
The Strand in the 1930s
Despite the national and local drop in movie attendance during the Great Depression, the Strand continued to thrive. In a talk to the local Lion’s Club in the early 1930s, Joseph Dondis stated that Rockland was “the only motion picture location in the country which had shown a profit in 1931 and 1932, although materially reduced.”
Most theaters added novelties to increase attendance, and around 1933 popcorn, candy, and soft drinks were offered for the first time in theaters. Sometime between 1931 and 1934, James Dondis’ tobacco shop began to offer candy, and doubled as the theater’s concession stand.A new marquee was installed sometime in the late ’30s to take advantage of Main Street’s traffic and to make room to display the titles of current features. It was also during this time that the flower shop moved across the street, creating room in the lobby for an expanded ladies room.
In the spring of 1940, owner Joseph Dondis suffered a heart attack, and in October of that same year he died at the young age of 40. His wife Ida, an experienced businesswoman in her own right, continued to run the family business.
The Strand Enlists - 1940s
Instead of slowing down with the threat of war, the Strand and the entertainment industry in general were booming throughout World War Two. Not only did movies boost morale, but in February of 1942, Walter Winchell announced during a radio broadcast that the government had certified the motion picture industry as a “necessary war industry”. Movie theaters were used for recruiting purposes, and newsreels shown before movie features kept Rockland residents informed about the progress of the war overseas, sold war bonds, and showed propaganda films.
Show times at the Strand also included a midnight show to accommodate the laborers working the ’round-the-clock production shifts necessitated by the war. The theater also participated in bond campaigns, charging the price of a bond for admission to the week’s new feature. In 1944 the Women’s Army Corps held a recruiting event at the Strand involving a uniform fashion show, and rubber drives were a regular event at the theater.
The Strand in the 50s & 60s
While attendance at movie theaters dropped in the 1950’s with the advent of television, the Strand survived. The neighboring Empire and Park theaters were both gone by the early 1960’s, and for the next 30 years the Strand was Rockland’s only movie theater. Ida Dondis continued to successfully run and manage the theater during these decades, with help from her family.
In 1979, still under the management of the Dondis family, the Strand was “twinned” or split into two cinemas – the main screen downstairs and a second screen in the converted balcony, and a new “Strand Cinemas 1 & 2” marquee was built over the existing 1930s marquee. In changing times, this gave the theater more flexibility and revenue, but audiences missed the balcony. In 1980 Ida Dondis retired from the movie business, and her son Meredith Dondis took over the management of the theater. The Strand continued to show first-run films in the newly remodeled theater through the 1980’s and 1990’s.
The Strand Changes Hands
The Strand outlasted the Park and Empire theatres and enjoyed the success of being Rockland’s only movie theater for many decades until 1997, when a new multiplex was built just outside of town. With this new multiplex came hard times for the Strand, as the theater struggled to remain competitive.
The Strand remained in the Dondis family until July 2000 when Meredith Dondis decided to retire and sell the theatre. The new owner kept the theater open as a second-run facility for a year before it was once again sold, this time to the multiplex.
The subsequent sale of the Strand to the multiplex in December 2001 marked the beginning of a dark period for the theater. The Strand was never re-opened, and the building sat empty and decaying for three long years. Rockland’s last surviving movie theater was now just an eyesore on Main Street. The ensuing controversy over the multiplex’s refusal to reopen the theater’s doors led to public outrage by the citizens of Rockland and an anti-trust lawsuit filed by the State Attorney General’s office in January 2004. With the threat of this anti-trust lawsuit and local support for the Strand, the multiplex backed down and agreed to put the theater up for sale — so the suit never went to trial. In January 2004, the Simmons Family purchased the Strand Theatre from the multiplex, and began an 18 month renovation which would bring the beloved Strand back to life…
Renovations to the historic building included returning the theater as closely as possible to its original 1920’s character, while assuring that the building would also be a comfortable, state-of-the-art, modern facility. The balcony was opened up, which returned the theater to a single auditorium of 350 seats; the gilded proscenium arch and tin ceiling were restored, new sound and projection equipment were installed, and a bright new marquee modeled on the original was added to the front of the building — letting everyone know that the Strand was back in business. The Strand Theatre re-opened on July 3, 2005 with overwhelming support and enthusiasm from the citizens of Rockland, a block party and open house, and a sold-out screening of Buster Keaton’s silent film The General. Tickets were 25 cents.
After the 2004 renovations, the Simmons family supported Strand operations with generous financial contributions. In 2012 a committee was formed to explore future options for the theater in order to put it on a more sustainable path. That committee led to the formation of a board to oversee theater management and strategic direction. The board and the Simmons family agreed that the best option for both the Strand to continue as a viable business and for the community at large to reap the economic and cultural benefits this historic institution offers was for the theater to become a non-profit, tax-exempt organization, so the Friends of the Strand Theatre was created in 2013 to own and operate the theater. Twelve people currently serve on the Friends’ board.
Nationally, successful independent theaters tend overwhelmingly to be owned and operated as non-profit businesses. As a non-profit, the Strand can accept tax deductible gifts and pursue grants from a variety of sources to underwrite the high quality programming its audiences have come to expect. The Strand can also offer a membership program so that its audiences can take part in its growth.
The Strand Theatre’s mission is To entertain, engage, and empower our community, in our theater and beyond our walls.
Now listed on the National Register of Historic Places in recognition of its historic, cultural and architectural significance, the Strand Theatre is once again at the heart of Rockland’s thriving downtown district and celebrated its 100th Birthday in 2023. The theater offers a diverse year-round program of film, live music and other special events in a building that is sure to still be standing 100 years from now.
Complete timeline of the Strand's history
- June 16, 1920—Great Rockland Fire levels 4 blocks on the eastern side of Main Street, providing for the future home of the Strand Theatre.
- February 22, 1923—Washington’s Birthday; Joseph Dondis opens the Strand Theatre for a showing of the silent film “My Wild Irish Rose,” starring Pat O’Malley. Ticket price: 22¢. Two storefronts, a florist and candy shop, exist at the front of the theatre.
- March 1923—$10,000 Robert-Morton organ installed. Patrons could leave musical scores for their favorite tunes at the box office and hear them played later by organist James O’Hara during the 10 to 15 minute organ recital that preceded each show. Ticket prices rose to 25¢.
- May 23, 1927—DeForrest Phonofilm talking pictures featured at the Strand.
- 1929—First “talkie” at the Strand: “Alias Jimmy Valentine.”
- 1940—Joseph Dondis dies. Ida assumes operation of the theatre.
- 1940s—Movie business booms in Rockland with government encouraging the entertainment and recreation industries to keep home-front morale high. The occasional midnight movies are popular due to round-the-clock working shifts.
- December 7, 1941—Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. At the Strand, manager Danny Dandeneau turns up the house lights, mounts the stage, and announces the attack and the message that all servicemen in the audience were to report to their bases immediately.
- September 1942—Strand Theatre participates with war bond drives. Patrons pay the price of a bond instead of a ticket in order to be admitted to the feature premier. $170,000 raised.
- 1944—Rockland suffers a labor shortage. In March, the Strand advertised for a “draft-exempt” projectionist.
- May 1944—”WAC Recruiting Week” for women in Rockland. The Women’s Army Corps presents a style show at the Strand with WAC models modeling WAC uniforms and a showing of the special feature film “See Here, Private Hargrove.”
- 1946—Store fronts removed from the Strand, lobby and concessions area expanded.
- 1979/80—Strand is “twinned.” The balcony is converted to a second cinema, and extensive remodeling is done. Name changed to Strand Cinema.
- 1985—Meredith Dondis takes over operations of the Strand from his mother, Ida.
- July 13, 2000—Meredith Dondis sells the Strand to Peter and Denise Vivian who keep the theatre in operation.
- December 5, 2001—The Vivians sell the Strand to local multiplex owner who closes the theatre. Strand sits empty for 3 years.
- January 2002—Attorney General’s office begins antitrust violation investigation into local multiplex.
- December 18, 2003—AG office files a complaint against Flagship Cinemas citing violation of Maine’s antitrust laws.
- February 5, 2004—Sale of the Strand to Matthew Simmons of Texas takes place.
- February 12, 2004—Maine State Attorney General’s office drops antitrust complaint against Flagship Cinemas.
- March 1, 2004—Initial demolition begins for the Strand Theatre restoration project. Construction is estimated to take a year. Reopening projected for summer 2005.
- May 29, 2005—A marquee unveiling is held for the new 1920s-replica marquee on the face of the theatre. Rockland Mayor Tom Malloy and former owner Meredith Dondis are on hand to help with the unveiling.
- July 3, 2005—The Strand Theatre celebrates its Grand Reopening with a block party on Main Street, theatre tours and an evening screening of the silent film classic “The General” with Buster Keaton.
- January, 2014—The Friends of the Strand Theatre was formed to own and operate the theater as a tax exempt non-profit organization.