The Criterion Theatre in Bar Harbor, Maine holds secrets and tales of tragic events behind its walls. With the beautiful facade and interior designs, one might be struck first by the absolute beauty of the venue. You might catch a show and enjoy the beauty of the theater, or you might catch a ghost in one of the balcony seats, waiting for someone, anyone, to be alone in the theater long enough for a real paranormal experience.
The Criterion Theatre was named after Picadelli circus in London when it was erected in 1932 at the height of the Art Deco movement. The theater is considered one of only two remaining art deco theaters in the state. The brightly lit marquee sits above the entrances, projecting light from a hundred light bulbs onto the street below. Your first thought upon entering the theater would be one of opulence and dedication to the history of the space. The stage and seats are awash with red velvet and golden fixtures. An original chandelier sits above the heads of patrons, shining through the antique glass and illuminating the space. You might also find an original art deco mural on the wall, a relic that survived and was restored during its renovation.
The Criterion lived its early life as a vaudeville theater with early cinema showings. The first film to be played on its opening night was Arsène Lupin, a 1932 film starring John and Lionel Barrymore. 976 people were there for the opening night entertainment. The proprietor, George McKay, knew that fires were possible if not inevitable with the flammability of film and theater curtains, so he had the Criterion built with fire retardant concrete and rebar supports. The silk of the curtains were replaced with fire resistant materials. Luckily, the Criterion would not be taken by fire, but a burst water pipe during renovations filled the theater up like a swimming pool, according to the private owner who would eventually resell the property.
At the height of prohibition, the basement of the theater operated as a speakeasy, something easy for George McKay to set up, as he had once spent a year in jail for running rum from Canada to Maine. After 90 years in business, the Criterion today is on the National Historic Landmark list, gaining that status in 1980. It has been renovated and opened as a theater troupe’s home base, as well as showing films and live performances throughout the year. Occasionally, big shows still come through town to perform at the high-capacity theater on the main drag of Bar Harbor.
As popular as the old theater is, It appears to be even more popular with the spirits from beyond the grave that still care for the theater as if it were their own. One spirit that is particularly active is known as Roy Blake, former projectionist of the Criterion. In life, Roy swore up and down that he’d been cursed by the legendary Hope Diamond. Evelyn Walsh McClean brought the diamond into the theater, and Roy held the diamond for approximately 30 seconds. He claimed those 30 seconds robbed him of his wife and home, cursing him to a life of sadness.
Aside from the cursing, Roy Blake didn’t say much. He had such social anxiety that he rarely spoke a word, unless he was chasing kids out of the theater after hours. Roy served loyally at the theater for 30 years before passing away in the 1970s. But Roy hasn’t fully left the theater, still watching after it and monitoring the projectionist room and upper balcony. Some say he puts his hand on the shoulder of potential rapscallions that might be sneaking into the theater. A dark figure will sometimes be seen standing on the balcony, or moving across the window of the projection room. Once, during a ghost tour, a young boy said outside the Criterion, “Mommy, who’s the big man standing behind the glass, staring at us?”
Roy is certainly active all over the theater, but he’s not the only spirit walking the opulent halls.
Another spirit is named George Oper, nephew of the original owner, George McKay. The young man had returned from WWII with debilitating Shell Shock, today known as PTSD. The local VFW helped get him a job at the theater, and he lived on site in a dressing room until his untimely death. George fell asleep with a lit cigarette in his hands, causing the mattress to catch fire and fill the room with toxic smoke. Smoke inhalation would be the cause of George’s death, and today some say they can smell the smoke when the specter of George is nearby.
George is a harmless spirit, sometimes described as playful, as he likes to tap people on the shoulder or pet the hair of beautiful ladies before disappearing into the darkness of the theater. He has a favorite booth in the theater and often a dark, shadowy figure will be seen sitting there, other times a seat will be in the sitting position, even with no weight to hold it down. He can also be seen as a dark figure running across the balcony quickly, sometimes just out of the corner of a guest’s eyes. Jovial and happy to appear during ghost tours, George seems happy in the theater that was his home, especially when visitors come to see him.
The validity of George’s death in the theater was questioned for decades, before a man claiming to be his nephew walked into the theater with a newspaper clipping about his uncle’s death– dying in 1946 from smoke inhalation and fire. George seems to be the spirit with the most verification of his presence in the theater.
So the next time you’re thinking of catching a show, don’t forget the Criterion Theatre, with more bang for your buck– You might see an apparition watching you as you enjoy the cinema. Just be sure to say hi to Roy and George when you visit.
Special thanks for this story and the details of the hauntings from the fantastic Jennifer Pictou of Bar Harbor Ghost Tours. Bar Harbor Ghost Tours is an indigenous-owned company and offers tours year round in Bar Harbor, Maine. Thanks, Jennifer!
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Born in Death Valley and raised on the prairie, Deborah is a Wyoming-based paranormal researcher and a senior at the University of Wyoming, studying Communication. Her interests lie in folklore, history, rhetorical analysis and research. With an obvious love for ghost stories, frequently those interests combine with her work on Ghostlandia.