New lease on life for Strand
Rockland — Even as the news that local businessman Meredith Dondis had died at age 93 began to circulate the city, the future trajectory of the historic cinema formerly owned and operated by his family for decades was being made clear. The Strand Theatre made a public announcement Friday, Feb. 7, that it is going forward as a nonprofit organization.
The official transition actually occurred Jan. 1 and has been in the works since the end of 2012. Ellen Simmons gave the 1923 venue to the nonprofit Friends of the Strand Theatre, which had its genesis in a committee formed two years ago after her husband Matt Simmons’ unexpected death.
Ellen Simmons had charged a group that included Jo Dondis, Meredith’s daughter; community members John Bird, Wick Skinner and John Rosenblum; and former Strand director Donna Daly with exploring future options for the theater. A telephone survey was conducted during the summer of 2012 to help gauge public reaction to different scenarios. By the end of that year, a decision to go nonprofit was made and 2013 was spent creating the new entity.
Friends of the Strand Theatre is a 501(c)3 nonprofit. Its board of directors is chaired by Jo Dondis of Camden with Dan Bookham of Rockland as vice-chairman; Roy Hitchings of Camden, treasurer; and Mary Koberstein of Camden, secretary. John Bird of Spruce Head, Mary Ann Carey of Spruce Head and Chris Brownawell of Rockport are directors at large.
In a press release, Ellen Simmons said this seemed to be an auspicious and appropriate time to turn the theater over to the community.
“My husband, Matt, loved the Strand and our family got involved with bringing it back to life because we felt it would be such an important resource for the community. After he died three and a half years ago, my daughters and I felt strongly that we wanted the Strand to continue to serve Midcoast Maine,” she said.
As far as the personnel and programming, there are no plans for change.
“We’ve learned that people really love the Strand. There’s nothing broken to fix,” said Sarah Ruddy, who became the theater’s executive director after Daly’s departure last year.
She added that small improvements and changes will continue as needed; at the end of last year, for example, the Strand completed the work to become compliant with the Digital Cinema Initiative. It still has a film projector, however, and the ability to screen film movies.
Ruddy said the vast majority of venues like the Strand — small film houses that show independent, vintage and “art” films — are 501(c)3 nonprofits that draw funding from the community in the form of memberships and donations, rather than going the capital campaign route.
“It’s a reflection of the relationship, I think. The theater is like an extension of their living room,” she said.
Ruddy and the Friends are trusting that fond feeling of ownership will lead to the Midcoast community’s support of the new reality. Come April, a membership campaign and other fundraising efforts will be unveiled with a goal of raising $1 million “to generate enough income to sustain the theater.”
In the meantime, there are donation envelopes in the theater and a donation page on the website, rocklandstrand.com. There also is a donation box in the lobby.
“If someone has an extra dollar in their pocket, they can put it in. Everything’s tax deductible,” said Ruddy, who invites anyone interested in being part of the new effort to contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 701-5053.
A small group of community supporters and family foundations have given generously to enable the transition from a business to a nonprofit. In coming days, a preview slide at Strand screenings will thank them for this support.
“They have been amazing! When we first approached them, the first thing they said was, we really love the Strand, it’s so important to our community, what can we do to help,” said Jo Dondis.
The response encouraged Dondis and the board, which she said was a really good group of hard-working people, about the cinema’s prospects.
“I have great confidence that we will be able to fundraise and operate a really robust nonprofit,” she said.
She added that her father knew about the transition, as she was interested in his reaction and advice.
“He was very excited that the Strand was going to continue as the Strand,” she said.
The Strand was originally opened in 1923 by Joseph and Ida Dondis, Meredith’s parents, and was owned by the Dondis family until 2000, when it was purchased by Peter and Denise Vivian. The following year, the Vivians sold it to a Maine limited liability company affiliated with the Flagship Cinema chain and the Strand’s doors were closed. In 2003, the Maine Attorney General's office filed an antitrust lawsuit, sparked in part by The Courier-Gazette’s investigative journalism, to compel the sale of the cinema to someone who would turn the projectors back on. The suit was dropped shortly after Matt and Ellen Simmons, seasonal residents of Rockport and proponents of historic preservation, purchased the shuttered cinema in 2004. The Simmons family spent a year and a half — and more than $5 million — to restore it to its art deco origins. The Strand reopened in July 2005 and is now on the National Register of Historic Places.