Community Hopes To Bring Decaying Conway Theater Back To Life

Jun 28, 2018

Just off busy Main street in Conway Village, George Wiese gives a tour of the inside what’s known as the Bolduc Block in the center of town.

Constructed in 1931 by local businessman Leon Bolduc, this batch of brick buildings has housed a department and grocery store, the post office and many other businesses over the years. And at the heart of the block, a theater: The Majestic.

 

The Majestic as it used to be
Credit Courtesy Mountain Top Music Center

Wiese says Bolduc actually owned a few theaters in his time.

“There’s actually a good story about in the early days he would stagger the start times of the films and run the reels to each theater in his car as they were running,” Wiese says.

The Majestic was the place to go in Conway if you wanted to catch the latest movie out of Hollywood. Community functions, plays... they all took place behind the glowing marquee.

Through a lobby filled with red carpet that’s seen better days and at least a few leaves that have blown in from the street, Wiese takes me inside the theater.

“There’s no power in here so it’s a bit of a flashlight tour,” Wiese says.

These days The Majestic doesn’t draw crowds. It doesn’t even have seats.

“What you see here inside the building is, well it looks like if you were to turn a boat upside down doesn’t it?” Wiese says.

The theater suffered a fire in 2005, which has left the high-ceilinged interior dark and unusable for more than a decade. The original marquee now hangs on the inside, a reminder of a livelier time.

The old Majestic marquee
Credit Robert Garrova for NHPR

“There’s a special history of this building really being an economic driver to Conway Village,” Wiese says.

Now, Wiese says this theater and the Bolduc block as a whole, is poised to become that economic driver once more.

In 2015, the non-profit Mountain Top Music Center, of which Wiese is Executive Director, purchased the block with the goal of bringing the Majestic back to life, making a new home for Mountain Top’s music school and bringing needed businesses back to Conway Village.

Just up the street at the site of the current music school, jazz piano student and local resident Debra Goulding says she thinks bringing The Majestic back is good for the town.

“I think it’s going to draw from all around this area. I think there’s a revitalization revitalization going on in Conway and there’s an energy that’s moving forward... And it also has a history, which I think is really cool,” Goulding says.

The interior of the Majestic, back when it had seats.
Credit Courtesy Mountain Top Music Center

There are plenty of towns and cities across New Hampshire that think old theaters make sense as an investment. They’re finding support in the form of federal grants and state tax incentives.

Earlier this month, New Hampshire’s Community Development Finance Authority announced that the Lebanon and Rochester Opera Houses would receive hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax credits.

Just on the other side of the White Mountains from Conway’s Majestic, the town of Bethlehem has its own revitalized theater, The Colonial.  

Stephen Dignazio is Executive Director of the theater. He says bringing back the Colonial over a decade ago has helped trigger an economic ripple effect in Bethlehem and surrounding towns.

“In that time, there’s been giant changes in the amount of cultural offerings and the amount of businesses that have opened up in our downtown,” Dignazio says.

But there are at least a few challenges in running old theaters in northern New Hampshire too, Dignazio says.

“Getting an audience in a rural area...the reality of rural arts presenting is that there is no audience that you can not pay attention to, because there’s no slice of the pie that will support your organization by itself,” he says.

Wiese says he hears this concern, and it’s part of why The Majestic won’t just be a place for movies, but community theater and concerts too.

Mountaintop Music Center Executive Director George Wiese stands outside the Majestic in Conway.
Credit Robert Garrova for NHPR

“One of the unique things about this project is that the theater is part of a larger building and with the music school being active in this building year round, and with the retail spaces available, the financial onus doesn’t rest solely on the theater to keep the building open,” says Wiese.

Under the proscenium the fire spared and standing next to a single original theater seat that looks out of place on stage, Wiese tells me about an event at from a couple years ago at the Bolduc Block.

The community had helped raise funds to rebuild The Majestic’s marquee and it was time to switch it on. A couple hundred people showed up, Wiese says.

“We had a couple of short speeches and the band played and there was literally dancing in the streets in Conway Village. And it was just a little glimpse of what it would be like when we opened this building... And a sign the arts can be what draws us together here at The Majestic,” Wiese says.

With the better part of $3 million in funding Mountain Top has raised, they’re hoping to re-start the show Spring of 2019.