Leavitt Theatre History

The Move to Ogunquit

The first Leavitt Theatre was in Sanford, Maine. After it burned, Frank and Annie Leavitt moved to Ogunquit to build The Leavitt Fine Arts Theatre. The year was 1923. In California, Hollywood erected their sign on Mt. Lee. In Germany, French troops occupied the Ruhr.

1950s Leavitt
The Leavitt c. 1958

The Leavitt opened its doors in 1924 with the silent film Dante’s Inferno for the spectacle of the whole town. Crowds reviled the film for its nudity and disturbing images. Edith Perkins, cashier at the time, recalls outraged families who considered the show akin to pornography. The Leavitts, though, were unfazed and continued to show first run and art films every summer through the Depression and the second World War.

Elizabeth Lambert, a local, recalled attending a Fred Astaire film, Three Little Words, with her husband who had just returned from the war. They enjoyed the show and left the theatre singing and dancing, reveling in the newfound hope of the nation and the technology of moving picture with color and sound.

In the 1950s the famous Harbor Candy Shop took residence in one of the Leavitt storefronts. Jean Foss recalls how her father liked to make taffy in the evenings after the day’s heat had broken. This caused problems with Annie Leavitt who felt that the sound of the machine disturbed the moviegoers. Annie continued to run the theatre for years after her husband’s death.

New Ownership

The theatre was briefly run by Dan Levenson, then bought by Peter Clayton in the summer of 1976. Peter faithfully maintained the tradition of providing a quality, first-run experience with the first big success being Star Wars in 1977. Peter kept projectionist Kevin Hickey on staff. Kevin was 18 at the time with already two years experience running the old carbon-arc projectors. Peter’s wife Maureen opened a print shop in the Leavitt building and handled all the printing and advertising needs for the business. Peter would go on to employ his sons, Max and Ian, for varying jobs including ticket sales, candy sales, and projection.

35mm Projector
A 35mm Film Projector

The Digital Age

In the 2000s, the movie industry faced financial famine. The sophistication of home theatre multiplied, DVDs were born, and the internet steadily became a preferred entertainment medium. Admittance dropped across the board while film companies pushed DVD releases ever earlier to recoup their losses. Digital movie piracy began to proliferate and digital projection emerged.

With fully computerized systems, film companies saw an opportunity. The integrated encryption into every aspect of film including the projector itself. The price of a digital projector skyrocketed leaving all small theatres to either fold or dive into debt to sustain an already failing business model. Film companies, of course, subsidized only multiplexes and mall theatres — the ‘more important’ establishments that reported bigger grosses. The Leavitt Theatre faced extinction.

1930s Leavitt
The Leavitt c. 1930

Support for Independent Theatres Explodes

It was then that people realized what was happening, and what they stood to lose should all the centers of filmic culture shut their doors. Overnight support for small theatres exploded across the country, thanks in large part to the crowd sourcing website Kickstarter.

When the Leavitt presented its dilemma to the town of Ogunquit the response was immediate and overwhelming. In under four weeks the funds had been raised and exceeded. The Leavitt didn’t lapse a day and opened on Memorial Day weekend of 2014, sporting the latest in digital picture and sound.

Unfortunately many other independent theatres did not find such support and had to close the curtains. Ogunquit now stands among a select few towns in the nation to proudly preserve and appreciate the town cinema as a place of artistic demonstration, social gathering, cultural significance, and as a historic icon. The Leavitt welcomes audiences for the ninety-second consecutive season.