BETHEL — An Albany Township couple who purchased the former Casablanca Cinema building in Bethel and revived it under a new name are hoping to bring Western Maine residents back to the movies.

Wade Kavanaugh and Bethany Weisberger, the building’s new owners, are operating the former Casablanca Cinema as The Gem and, as of the second week of February, are open four days a week.

“We’re figuring it out as we go along,” Kavanaugh said, cradling his newborn daughter in his arms. “Right now, it’s two steps forward, and one step back. It feels like as soon as we get one thing done, (something) else pops (up) for us to work on. It’s been really exciting, though. The vibe is good, and everyone is excited to have movies in Bethel again.”

From Casablanca to The Gem

The Casablanca Theater opened in 1994, operating as a successful four-screen theater for nearly 20 years. However, in September 2012, they were forced to shut down after being unable to convert their reel projectors to digital.

In 2015, residents Courtney and Mike Bennett attempted to reboot the Casablanca Theater via fundraisers, but a state law that would require the theater to include more bathroom stalls brought their efforts to a halt.

Kavanaugh said that he and Weisberger were looking for business space to rent to provide more room for Weisberger’s business, Gneiss Spice, which offers custom magnetic spice racks and organic spice kits.

“Beth was looking for a place to move her business, and I was looking for some space to work on my art project,” Kavanaugh said. “At the same time, we knew that there was some interest in the area for movies to be screened again.”

Weisberger joked that when she and Kavanaugh first bought the building, they didn’t take the movie theater aspect seriously.

“We knew that another couple had tried to get the movie theater started, and that it was off the table,” she said.

In October 2015, three years after the Casablanca Cinema shut down, Kavanaugh said that they began holding Saturday and Sunday movie screenings to gauge public support.

“People were getting really excited,” he said. “The building space had been left in rough shape when the theater first closed, but people still seemed to really enjoy that we were holding movie screenings again.”

At one point, Kavanaugh said, he and Weisberger screened a Warren Miller ski movie and found the lobby filled with people, standing shoulder to shoulder.

“It’s not something that you experience too often in Bethel,” Kavanaugh said.

Fundraising

Kavanaugh and Weisberger bought the Casablanca Cinema building at the end of November 2015, and turned to fundraising to transition the reel projectors to digital projectors.

In addition to movie screenings, Weisberger said that she and Kavanaugh attempted to raise money by offering pre-purchased ticket bundles, in which residents could buy multiple tickets for a lump sum, popcorn included.

Weisberger added that Sunday River Ski Resort in Newry offered to pledge $20,000 to match each ticket-bundle purchase.

“We figured that as long as we could raise $20,000, we would receive the match from Sunday River and be able to purchase a projector,” she said.

Weisberger said one digital projector costs about $40,000.

Kavanaugh and Weisberger also used Kickstarter to raise money. They had the first three weeks of December 2015 to hit their $20,000 goal. Within the first four days, they had surpassed their goal.

“We really didn’t expect it to be as immediate as it was,” Kavanaugh said. “We were impressed at how much the people rallied around the project and helped out.”

Weisberger said that they originally hoped to begin screening movies on the projectors in January but were forced to push the opening date to the second week of February.

“It takes a couple of weeks for the money to come in from Kickstarter, and we had plenty of renovations to do,” Weisberger said. “We used the extra time to fix up the building and get it ready for when we opened.”

At the entrance of The Gem, they hung photographs of the environment and animals by local photographer Craig Derek Angevine inside the “Now Playing” light-boxes, in lieu of movie posters.

They placed chairs and couches along the edge of the lobby, some purchased from She Doesn’t Like Guthries, a Lewiston restaurant and cafe that briefly operated its own movie theater, and some donated from Ross Timberlake, a Bethel resident who makes custom Shaker furniture.

Some of the theater’s walls are decorated with hand-drawn art; a mural on the back wall of the lobby was created by artist Mattie Rose Templeton, using imagery of historic Bethel, while a sketch of one of Kavanaugh’s art projects stretches across a wall next to the concession stand.

Things got even busier when Weisberger gave birth to her and Kavanaugh’s daughter, Billie, the day after The Gem officially opened.

“Things got pretty crazy for a while, and it’s still pretty crazy,” Weisberger said, laughing.  

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Hours/Location for The Gem:

The Gem is at 23 Cross Street in Bethel, and is open from Friday to Monday.

For more information on the theater, or to see what the movies and times are, visit thegemtheater.com, or their Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/TheGemTheater/.


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