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Railroad Square Cinema: Maine's Movie Mecca

In 1977, a group of Mainers decided to develop a film society in Central Maine. Since then, it's expanded to a double screen theater, a distribution company and an international film festival.

By Mary Phillips-Sandy

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Railroad Square Cinema.

It all began at a Christmas party in 1977, when a group of people met through mutual friends and began discussing a mutual passion–movies. Central Maine, they concluded, was a great place to live, but it lacked a place to see foreign and classic film.

Someone suggested forming a film society, so Ken Eisen, Gail Chase, Lea Girardin, Alan and Sandra "Sam" Sanborn, and Stu Silverstein decided to do just that.

The idea evolved as the six friends decided that what they really needed to do was establish a genuine art-house cinema in central Maine. "We knew that if we were going to do this, we had to go all the way," Alan Sanborn says.

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From left: Sam Sanborn, Alan Sanborn, Lea Giadin, Ken Eisen, Stu Silverstein and Gail Chase.

Much of 1978 was spent searching for a venue. Finally the group found an abandoned warehouse by the railroad tracks in Waterville ("the wrong side of the tracks, back then," Sanborn laughs). But it was available, and the ceiling was high enough for a screen.

"We did all the building ourselves," Sanborn says. "We built it cheap. We had Army-surplus 16mm projectors and seats from the Capitol Theater in Augusta, which we pried up and refastened to our floor."

Railroad Square Cinema opened on October 5, 1978, with a screening of "Casablanca." "At first it was just, 'Let's show our favorite movies,'" says Ken Eisen. "It was very philosophical. We thought film should be pure and unsullied, and it wasn't going to be a business. Almost immediately we realized we wouldn't last long that way."

In its early years, the Square experimented with programming, trying blends of foreign and classic movies. "After three years of 16mm, we knew we had to switch to 35mm," Eisen says. The Square was updated in 1981 with new projectors.

All six co-founders of Railroad Square loved watching movies, but no one had any experience with the mechanics of showing them. "The guys who installed the projectors kind of showed us," Sanborn says. "The rest we figured out as we went along."

In 1982, the Square Cafe, adjacent to the theater lobby, opened. "We'd often thought about having a cafe there," says Sanborn. "After a few years of running it ourselves, though, we wanted it to be someone else's cafe."

Eisen agrees. "You'd be taking an order, and then you'd have to dash off and start the movie, then run back and sell tickets with bean sprouts flying from your fingers." The cafe was taken over by Maria Faust in 1984, then by Beth Ann Hutchinson in 1988.

Over the years, Railroad Square developed an intensely loyal following, and the six co-founders saw their "film society" grow far beyond its original vision. The cinema became a Waterville landmark, drawing audiences from around the state with its eclectic movies and its friendly, relaxed atmosphere.

In 1993, Ken Eisen and Lea Girardin created an independent film distribution company, Shadow Distribution. Shadow is separate from, but inextricably linked to, Railroad Square Cinema; most of the "Squares," as the co-founders call themselves, have been involved to some extent.

Disaster struck in 1994 when an electrical fire burned the Square to the ground. "That was truly the darkest day in the Square's history," says Eisen.

Railroad Square supporters rallied with donations and fund-raisers, including the premiere screening of Waterville author/screenwriter Richard Russo's "Nobody's Fool" at the Waterville Opera House. "In a way, the fire gave us a real high point," says Eisen. "That night at the Opera House, with all those people there for us, was incredible."

Contributions came in, mostly small sums from individual patrons–Eisen estimates that few donations exceeded $1,000–for a total of $150,000. It was enough to rebuild the cinema only steps from its original location.

Nine months after its total destruction, Railroad Square reopened its doors. The new building boasted two screens and a lobby art gallery, which features a rotating display of Maine artists' work.

This year, Railroad Square celebrates its 20th anniversary. "We've kept it going because we've grown," says Eisen. "Railroad Square grew to include Shadow [Distribution], and then last summer we co-founded the Maine International Film Festival, which was held here. And which, I might add, will be held here again this summer."

Twenty years ago, none of the Squares would have dreamt that what they were building was more than an independent movie theater. But today, Railroad Square Cinema is nothing less than a community center of sorts, a place where Maine's artists, activists, and film lovers gather, see movies, talk, become friends. Many dine at Kafe Kino next door, or at the Grand Central Cafe across the parking lot. "People regularly come here from as far as Belfast, Farmington, Camden, Bangor," says Eisen. "I think a place like this was something that needed to happen in Maine."