Rockland — Although he ran Rockland's Strand Theatre for a number of years, Meredith Dondis did not like watching movies all that much.
What he loved was working at the theater, especially when there was a long line and he could talk to all of the people as he took their tickets, according to his daughter Jo Dondis.
Meredith Dondis, who died at the age of 93 on Feb. 4, grew up and lived his life in Rockland, serving as one of the community's prominent businessmen, as a school board member, a Rotarian and a member of the Adas Yoshuron synagogue. He is remembered as much for his personality as he is for his activities.
He was known for telling animated stories in the local coffee shop, standing up for what he believed was right on the school board and, in later years, fighting with the Bureau of Motor Vehicles.
"It was very important to him that people knew that he was honest, and fair, and stood up for what was right," Jo Dondis said. "And he had a sense of humor, and he was funny, and he could tell a great story."
Meredith Dondis, born in 1920, was the eldest son of Joseph and Ida Mae Dondis. His father's family moved to Rockland from Kiev when Joseph was just 2 years old.
Joseph Dondis is known for founding The Strand Theatre on Main Street and opening it in 1923. Meredith Dondis grew up in Rockland, playing with his cousins, who lived on Tillson Avenue.
Meredith's grandfather had helped found the synagogue in 1913.
After graduating from Rockland High School in 1937 and the University of Maine in 1941, Meredith joined the Army. He was stationed in Seattle during World War II, and liked the city so much he thought about settling there, according to his daughter.
He came home to be there for his mother around the time his father died.
He ran Meredith Furniture on Main Street from 1948 to 1985. He used to tell his family a story about a 99-year-old woman coming into the store to buy a sofa. When she asked him if she could pay for it in installments, he was worried she could drop dead before the furniture was paid off, but he knew it wouldn't be right to turn her down and said: "Of course, dear."
A year later, she had paid it off in full and came back to buy a dining room set. Once again, on an installment plan.
Jo Dondis was unsure whether her father liked the furniture business or the movie theater business better. She noted that they came at different times in his life. There were other movie theaters in Rockland's downtown in the past. There was the Park or Knox Theater and the Empire Theater on Oak Street. At one point, Meredith managed one of these competing theaters, having learned the family business.
“My father built the theater and opened it in 1923,” Dondis told a VillageSoup reporter when the Strand's marquee was being unveiled in 2005. “I ran things for about 15 years or so, after my mother called me up and said she was ready to retire, but my family operated it for three-quarters of a century."
Meredith took over the Strand after his mother, Ida, retired in 1980. The theater continued showing first-run movies through the end of the 1990s.
The theater fell on hard times in the early 2000s after Flagship Cinemas opened just over the line in Thomaston.
Dondis retired in 2000, and sold the theater to Peter Vivian of New Jersey. In turn, Vivian sold it to Flagship Cinemas in 2001.
The Strand was closed for a few years, and was purchased in 2004 by longtime Rockport summer residents (the late) Matthew and Ellen Simmons. The new owners renovated the theater, improving the facade, marquee and interior. It reopened in a large celebration July 3, 2005.
"I think this is going to be a great asset to the community," Dondis said in 2005. "It will help the merchants and the restaurants down here and offer cultural benefits as well. I think it’s just great. Mr. Simmons has done a great service to the community.”
In addition to his work, Dondis was active in the community. He had a reputation for standing up for teachers and school employees on the school board, sometimes even when he was the lone voice of dissent.
He served on the synagogue board for a time and participated in the high holidays. He read Hebrew fluently and passed on what he knew to the next generation, tutoring kids for their Bar Mitzvahs.
"It is nearly impossible to express how much he meant to this congregation, and to the city of Rockland," an online posting from the synagogue states. "To say he will be sorely missed is inadequate. He leaves behind him a space that will not be filled by anyone else, and a legacy of service, dedication, and involvement that will be remembered always. There is surely not one person who attends High Holiday services at Adas Yoshuron who will ever forget his chanting of the Haftorah, which he continued to recite annually, and without hesitation, year after year, including this past Yom Kippur. His inimitable voice will forever resonate in the synagogue sanctuary."
There are many stories to be told about Meredith, and one came in his later years. He was driving downtown and went the wrong way down a one-way street. A police officer stopped him, and he told the officer he was confused.
His daughter said Meredith was not confused. "He knew exactly what he was doing," she said. "But when you're in your 80s and you tell someone you're confused, that was not a good thing."
The state took his license, and to get it back he had to get a note from his doctor and take driver's education again. Even after jumping through all of these hoops, the state restricted him to driving within a 25-mile radius.
"At this point, he really didn't drive more than that because, if he ever went anywhere, my mother drove because he didn't like to drive that much," Jo Dondis recalled. "But he was so upset. He felt that he was being discriminated against."
He hired attorney Paul Gibbons of Camden to help him fight to get his driver's license back.
He filed an appeal in Knox County Superior Court against the Maine Bureau of Motor Vehicles, claiming the restrictions were vague, and that he was discriminated against on the basis of age bias.
Meredith won that particular battle.
"He hardly drove after that, but he wanted it back," his daughter said. "… As a result of this, he became this folk hero in town. I just remember going downtown with him and older people would come up to him and say, 'Go Meredith, you know you did the right thing!'"
For a time after that, according to Jo Dondis, Gibbons received numerous calls from other elderly people interested in fighting for their rights.
There were other aspects to Meredith. He was a Rotarian and a Shriner. In his spare time he was an avid reader. He is best remembered for his work with the movie theater.
However, he is perhaps most fondly remembered telling funny stories and sharing his opinions with his friends at a downtown coffee shop.
He will be missed, but not forgotten.
Courier-Gazette Editor Daniel Dunkle can be reached at 594-4401 ext. 122 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
207 594-4401 ext. 122
Daniel Dunkle is editor of The Courier-Gazette and news director for Courier Publications. He lives in Rockland with his wife, Christine, who also works for Courier Publications, and two children.
Dunkle has previously served as editor of The Republican Journal in Belfast. He has worked as a reporter and photographer in the Midcoast since 1998.