BUCKFIELD — The 150-seat live venue that has thrived in this town of 2,000 people — launching the careers of an Emmy-nominated duo and a Grammy winning singer-songwriter — will close at the end of the year.
Oddfellow Theater owner Michael Miclon said he has accomplished everything he hoped for in the 14 years since he renovated an aging meeting hall and began hosting improvisational comedy shows on the stage.
In some ways, the theater was too successful. Getting the core ensemble together for a show is getting harder and harder.
"We have to ask, 'When are we all going to be in the same state or, sometimes, even in the same country?'" Miclon said. Meanwhile, maintaining the old building is a chore and there are new things to try.
Miclon, a former director of the Maine Arts Commission, has written a novel and hopes to direct and star in a low-budget comedy film based on Shakespeare's "Richard III."
"I have lots of new things I want to do," he said.
The price will be the closure of the theater he created.
On Sept. 9, Miclon will kick off a four-month final season. It will culminate in a two-night, three-show Farewell Bash, ending on New Year's Eve.
"It's going to be very hard to say goodbye to that audience in that space," Miclon said.
It's a long leap from where he began.
Miclon, a Buckfield carpenter who studied at the Celebration Barn Theater in South Paris, bought the theater in 1997 and opened it a year later. Soon, he was the host of his own TV show, minus the TV cameras.
The Early Evening Show was a variety show in the mold of "The Tonight Show" starring Johnny Carson. He had a desk, a band and a co-host.
He also had lots of acts. One of his first musical guests was a painfully shy singer-songwriter Ray LaMontagne.
LaMontagne, who won the 2011 Grammy for Best Folk Album, performed on the Oddfellow stage at least two dozen times. LaMontagne was known for performing in work clothes and never making eye contact with the audience. But his songs and his voice were lovely, heartfelt and had a truth to them.
"I knew if I kept sending him out there, someone would hear him and realize this guy is great," Miclon said.
Another regular from the start was Fritz Grobe. The juggler and Celebration Barn alumnus used the stage as a playroom, experimenting with lots of acts, including his Emmy-nominated duo Eepybird with Stephen Voltz. The pair would become famous a few years later for their Internet videos, particularly when they put on lab coats and began dropping Mentos candies into Diet Coke bottles.
Though it has since been seen online tens of millions of times since online, the experiment was first performed live on the Oddfellow stage in 2005. The applause encouraged Volts and Grobe to keep experimenting and add more bottles.
"You got to try out your crazy new ideas with a group of people who have incredible abilities," Grobe said. "We will continue to play together."
Another regular, Jason Tardy, grew up on the Oddfellow stage.
He was still a teenager when he and his brother, Matt, apprenticed with Miclon. The brothers, now in their 30s and living in Turner, regularly perform around the country as the juggling act "Two Show" and the more music-based "Audiobody."
"For me, it was partly a second home and a college education," said Jason Tardy, who was still a teenager when he helped Miclon renovate the hall.
"We could be so free to try out whatever we wanted," he said. "The audience seemed to say, 'We'll go with you.'"
Miclon plans to find a way to keep the ensemble going with "The Early Evening Show," but take it to other venues around Maine and the region.
He insists that his characters — such as his chatty hunchback, Moto Hoonchbach, the nerdy Dickie Hyper-Hynie and the Duffas, a pair of Maine rubes he portrays with Grobe — will live on.
Partly, Miclon needs to challenge himself outside the place he created.
"Ideally, I would love to see it continue as a theater," Miclon said. "It's not about finances. This place was our labor of love, but it's time to move on."
Grobe said he, too, will miss the silliness and camaraderie of the Early Evening Shows.
He never accepted money for his acting in those shows and even traveled from Europe to take the tiny stage.
"There are plenty of ways to feed my stomach," Grobe said. "The Oddfellow Theater feeds my soul."