The National Register of Historic Places-listed Waldo Theatre, built in 1936, opened to the public in 1937 as a cinema. Twenty years later, it closed … and it remained dark for more than two decades. In 1994, it re-opened as a full-time venue, this time hosting live music and theater, in addition to films. Twenty years later, the Waldo went dark once more.

A group of community members are determined to break the cycle. Last month’s removal of a tree out front, as well as some hard pruning of other overgrown foliage, gave notice of their work. Inside the building, and the organization, a lot has happened … even if the venerable theater space is still, literally, dark.

“Midcoast Energy came last week to do a complete electrical and heat assessment,” said Janet McMahon at the end of September, using a pair of flashlights to walk around the auditorium.

Their beams revealed damaged walls in the concession area, next to a box fan at the ready, and in the Green Room. Unmitigated moisture and lack of heat since early 2014 have caused plaster to disintegrate.

“We’ve got fans going all the time, dehumidifiers, sump pumps,” McMahon said. “We’ve cleared out at least 10 pickup trucks-worth of garbage … and put all the valuable things (costumes, furniture, some props, etc.) into a trailer for [temporary] storage, which Northeast Transport provided.”

McMahon, whose string-playing daughters “practically grew up” at the Waldo, is vice president of Waldo Theatre Inc.’s reconstituted board of directors. Waldo Theatre Inc. originated in 2006, when building owner and patron Kitty Fassett gifted the building to the newly formed nonprofit. This year it has taken on new life, thanks to board members and volunteers committed to stewardship of the historic building … and its return to being a vital part of village life. There’s a lot of work to be done before that dream is realized.

“We’ve got the moisture under control, that’s the big thing, so it’s not getting worse,” said McMahon, pointing out open ducts at the base of the seating area walls and under the stage.

“It was built with this ducting, to keep it cool and for ventilation. The air quality is generally pretty good when you get it flowing; you can actually get down there and crawl around,” McMahon said.

As part of this year’s work on the theater, someone has done just that.

“We had a contractor come and he crawled through every nook and cranny and his conclusion was, it’s got good bones,” said McMahon.

Sarah Hansen, real estate manager for the Maine Preservation Society, came to a similar conclusion when she and her husband toured the Waldo as part of its consideration for the annual Most Endangered Historic Places List. McMahon said Hansen “was really excited about it. She said, 'This is way better off than a lot of buildings we’re looking at!'"

The Waldo did indeed make the 2017 List, announced last month (as did Camden’s Mary E. Taylor School building). Its inclusion should bolster the nonprofit’s upcoming capital campaign efforts, as well as help out on a more hands-on level. The MPS has a lot of resources to offer, “people who can advise us on this and that, so I feel like we’re kind of hitting a turning point,” said McMahon.

The board, which includes President Melissa Smith, Treasurer Lynnette Myers, Barbara Boardman, Jacob Newcomb, Sanford Crane and Bruce Metrick, is still looking for members.

“We’d love to have another four or five people who are workers, willing to roll up their sleeves,” said McMahon.

Rebuilding the board has been part of the start of a three-year strategic plan to have the Waldo Theatre open as a full-time venue and cultural resource by 2020.

“Our first phase was just to rebuild the organization — the bylaws, the 501(c)3, the board — and stabilize the building,” McMahon said. “We’ve got that and we’ve had two successful fundraisers.”

The most recent benefit was pizza-and-concert event at the Little Brown Church in Round Pond, one of the Medomak Valley communities the board hopes to draw into its efforts and, eventually, the doors of the Waldo. Last year, the board collaborated with nearby Broad Bay Congregational UCC on a holiday jazz concert and “we’re hoping to do something like that again. We raised about $20,000, which we’ve used to do the assessments and get all the building estimates, sump pumps and dehumidifiers,” McMahon said.

The fundraisers have brought in local businesses and organizations eager to help the Waldo regain its place in the community.

“Harvest Moon [Catering Co.] came to us; we had someone contact MAC Tree [Service], but they came just like that; Jeff Payson at Northeast Transport; and an electrician just came out of the woodwork,” she said. “So I think the more we do, the more people will come forward.”

Charlotte Davenport of the nearby Tidemark Gallery came forward to re-frame a watercolor by Owls Head artist Bob Besaw that had hung in the Green Room for years.

“We took everything that was on the walls off,” said McMahon, adding that the Besaw work’s frame had gotten moldy. In the meantime, the painting, of a classic car in front of the Greek Revival building, can be seen online.

“He was wonderful, said he’d be honored if we used it on our Facebook page, and it will be on the new website, as well,” said McMahon.

The soon-to-go-live website is being created via Weebly — “we’re doing everything as inexpensively as we can at this point” — by Cecily Cook, who used to perform on the Waldo’s stage.

“It’s really cool to have someone not thinking about things in the old-school way. It’s good to have fresh eyes — what could we do here? So it’s coming along,” said McMahon.

So is thinking about how the building’s spaces might be used in the future. McMahon pointed out that the fireplace-dominated space off the concessions room was once the Houndstooth Café; and that the space most recently used as the theater’s office had been created for a former owner’s medical practice.

“If we have a café, we might want to do something with that,” she said. “People have said, wouldn’t that be cool, to have a little place to get your coffee and dessert? We have a little thing saying ‘hot dogs 15 cents.’”

The back parking lot already provides handicapped access to the front of the building, McMahon said. “And the [upstairs] office has one of the best views in town!” And people used to come from towns all around to attend Waldo Theatre events, perhaps one reason Maine State Music Theater has contacted the board about possible future collaborations.

“So we’re exploring a lot of things, but our focus right now is the building, not so much the programming. We don’t want to look back 10 years from now and say we wish we’d done it,” McMahon said.

Next on the list to get done are the roof and the heating system, at least as much as is determined the building needs to get safely through the winter.

“The roof is our first priority with estimates, which we have in place. It’s our first fundraising goal, to raise money for that this fall,” McMahon said.

The building has what the board thinks is a good boiler, but it’s not operating right now, so the Midcoast Energy visit is timely.

“That’s what’s happening, hopefully, in the next week or two. And then we’ll decide how much we need heat to keep all the water out,” McMahon said.

After those crucial areas are dealt with, the Waldo Theatre building will be secured, paving the way for 2018’s major restoration. The board is putting the finishing touches on a prospectus for major fundraising. A $5,000 Maine Community Foundation grant will enable the hiring of someone with expertise in development to help with the initial campaign.

“So we’re gearing up! We’ve been consulting with a lot of people. Julie Keizer, the new town manager, is really excited about it. She views this as a key capital investment for the town, and she’s willing to help in lots of ways,” said McMahon.

As are others. The town’s garden club helped out during the Sept. 18 tree workday, and there are two volunteers mowing the lawn. McMahon said Ron Phillips, retired director and founder of Coastal Enterprises Inc., has been providing advice as they get ready to “get in the big leagues” of grants and donors.

“Development is the piece we’re trying to shore up. Ron’s been great, has done a lot of that,” she said. “We have a couple of holes to fill on the board.”

The board meets the third Wednesday of each month at 6:30 p.m. Anyone interested in joining the board, or volunteering in any capacity, is encouraged to send an email to

“It really requires a lot of community involvement, so it’s encouraging to see that beginning,” said McMahon. “For my kids, this place was so instrumental — and for all of us, it was such a fine place to come.”