The Public Theatre is a small theatre in downtown Lewiston that produces professional, contemporary plays. It also puts on events such as the annual Father/Daughter Valentine Ball and shows independent films and festivals.
Their website states “Since 1991, The Public Theatre, has been committed to bringing high-quality professional Equity theatre to the people of Central Maine at an affordable price. Only at The Public Theatre will you find the best plays from Broadway and Off-Broadway featuring the finest professional actors from New York to Los Angeles for a top ticket price of only $20! Nationally recognized for its artistic excellence, The Public Theatre produces uplifting and provocative theatre every October thru May. In the interest of engaging audiences of all ages, The Public Theatre offers a special YOUTH ticket price of $5 to any child 18 and under to any performance.”
Birth by Snowshoe
In 1939, the largest snowshoe club in Lewiston, Le Montagnard, purchased and converted a former automotive garage on the corner of Lisbon and Maple Streets. (you can read all about the snowshoe clubs over here). The popular social club used the upstairs as their clubhouse and became the center of the famous “International Snowshoe Conventions” that alternated between the U.S. and Canada.
Downstairs, they built and leased a movie theatre which was called “The Ritz.” When the Ritz opened on Tuesday, January 30th, 1940, it had 650 seats and advertised itself as “The last word in theatre comfort.” It was one of at least three movie theaters in downtown Lewiston, so it had plenty of competition.
By all accounts, the Ritz was a typical small town movie theatre. In the 1950s, it was run by the Cohen Brothers, Irving and Al, who were known as “the Ritz brothers.”
B-Movies and the King of Horror
In the 1950s and 1960s, a young Stephen King would hitchhike every weekend from Durham to Lewiston to catch Saturday matinees or evening shows at the Ritz. Stephen, a gangly 6’2″ teenager at the time, used to carry his birth certificate with him to prove that he should not be charged the adult fare. He went to the Ritz instead of the fancier Empire Theatre because the Ritz showed sci-fi, horror and b movies that he loved. He has said that a character in the novel “It” is based on a fellow who manned the window at the Ritz.
In his memoir “On Writing,” Stephen King wrote “Horror movies, science fiction movies, movies about teenage gangs on the prowl, movies about losers on motorcycles—this was the stuff that turned my dials up to ten. The place to get all of this was not at the Empire, on the upper end of Lisbon Street, but at the Ritz, down at the lower end, amid the pawnshops … I hitchhiked there almost every weekend during the eight years between 1958 and 1966, when I finally got my driver’s license … It was at the Ritz that I saw I Married a Monster from Outer Space, with Tom Tryon; The Haunting, with Claire Bloom and Julie Harris; The Wild Angels, with Peter Fonda and Nancy Sinatra. I saw Olivia de Havilland put out James Caan’s eyes with makeshift knives in Lady in a Cage, saw Joseph Cotten come back from the dead in Hush . . .Hush, Sweet Charlotte, and watched with held breath (and not a little prurient interest) to see if Allison Hayes would grow all the way out of her clothes in Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman.
At the Ritz, all the finer things in life were available . . . or might be available, if you only sat in the third row, paid close attention, and did not blink at the wrong moment.”
The Ritz Starts to Fade
By the end of the 1970s, the Ritz had fallen even further – from showing mainstream movies in the 40s and 50s, to Godzilla movies in the 60s, to becoming a full time adult movie theatre in the 70s. In the 1978 Lewiston Evening Journal ad to the right, the Ritz was billing itself as:
Showing only the finest in adult entertainment
That’s a big change from “the last word in theatre comfort.”
By 1983, the Ritz was completely shut down and the building lay empty for 8 years until it was saved.
From Porn to Plays
In 1991, the fledgling Public Theatre began its first season producing two plays at the Auburn Mall. Defying critics, it was a success and the organization searched for a permanent home. They found the former Ritz Theatre building which had been empty and decaying for the past 8 years. A group of motivated board members and volunteers spent four months converting the dilapidated movie space into a proper theatre. On October 9, 1992, they opened their new space with a sold out version of Moliere’s “Scapin the Schemer.”
The theatre survived and has been entertaining the central Maine area for almost 30 years now – and has been named Maine’s Best Theatre seven years in a row by Downeast Magazine.