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Strand stays connected to community during pandemic

By Stephen Betts | Jul 29, 2020
Photo by: Stephen Betts Strand Theatre Executive Director Jessie Davis stands outside the historic downtown Rockland theater.

Rockland — The Strand Theatre has withstood a world war, the Great Depression and numerous other economic downturns. But the COVID-19 pandemic has been the greatest challenge in its 97-year history.

But the Strand's staff has managed to keep the theater connected with the community by offering artistic and cultural events without the use of its historic downtown Rockland building.

"We had to pivot on a dime," Strand Executive Director Jessie Davis said July 27 while standing in front of the building that was built in 1923.

"We kept the focus on our purpose to take care of the community by engaging them in artistic and cultural programs," she said.

The theater closed March 16, two days before the state ordered the closure of public gathering places. There is no clear picture of when theaters will be able to re-open.

"We're not taking any chance with the health and well-being of our community and staff," Davis said.

The staff was monitoring the virus outbreak and the two weeks leading up to the closure, knew what was coming.

With the physical building closed, the staff got creative in how to continue to serve the public.

The first thing done was to create an electronic newsletter — STRANDed — to keep people updated and to offer the staff's favorite cultural and artistic links.

The Strand then created a virtual cinema. People can go the Strand's website and purchase tickets to view films that can be streamed on their computers. Films run from Fridays through Thursdays. Davis said the films are ones that the Strand would have shown at the theater if it was open. Many are documentaries and films that would not be shown at megaplexes.

One recent film was about the life of civil rights leader and Congressman John Lewis. The film was shown a week before he died and upon his death, the film's showing was extended.

There are also the monthly Strand on the Air radio broadcasts on the local radio station WRFR that are later available as a podcast. The shows are pieced together from recordings of Strand staff or other related entertainers from their homes.

Then there is the addition of the drive-in movie experience. The Strand has offered drive-in movies during the past three weeks — Thursdays, Fridays and Saturday nights — at the Owls Head Transportation Museum.

Davis said the drive-in movies will continue throughout at least August.

The idea came from Art House Convergence which is an association that works with hundreds of theaters and festivals throughout North America.

"We started kicking the idea around. It was done on a shoestring. The goal was to cover supplies and have some fun," she said. "The staff was buoyed knowing this was something we could do."

The Strand was built in 1922-23 by Rockland businessman Joseph Dondis. The theater remained in the Dondis family until 2001 when it was sold to Flagship Cinemas. Flagship sold the cinema in 2004 to Matt Simmons to settle an anti-trust lawsuit launched by the state. The Simmons family renovated the theater which re-opened in July 2005.

The theater converted to a non-profit in 2013. Davis said an art-house theater in an area with the population of the Rockland area is a difficult challenge financially. The cost of tickets would not pay for the programming that is offered. And the Strand does not want to gouge customers with the cost of concessions which is where large theaters make their money, she said.

So, the Strand has turned to the community and it has responded.

More than 25% of the revenues for the theater come from memberships or donations. There are approximately 1,400 members.

Despite the downturn resulting from the pandemic, membership numbers have remained the same since the COVID-19 related shutdown.

The Strand has a staff of six full-time employees and six to seven part-time workers. The theater received a federal assistance loan to help during the shutdown.

Davis said that offering online experiences has been an adjustment for the staff because the goal of the Strand has been to offer films or live performances in the building so that people can experience these events together which amplifies the experience.

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Comments (2)
Posted by: Helen H Silk | Jul 29, 2020 11:58

I'm so glad the Strand is providing interesting online offerings.    I've seen some great things there when I was in the area, and look forward to the day that I can return in person

Posted by: C B Bliss | Jul 29, 2020 09:06

Grateful for all the work the Strand is doing for this community. We miss you and we miss the popcorn.

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