Two brothers working to save historic northern Maine theater

4 weeks ago

VAN BUREN, Maine – Jason and Dayton Grandmaison, two brothers and Van Buren natives, are working hard to save one of the town’s most well-known historic establishments: the Gayety Theatre building. 

The iconic structure has been a part of Van Buren for over a century. It was built in 1920, and opened the following year on March 17. The theater entertained residents for over half a century, but eventually closed on Dec. 14, 1983. 

It was first owned by the Van Buren Theater Company for about four years. After a fire burned the auditorium, it was taken over by Lillian Keegan for the next 36 years.

“She made it what it was,” said Dayton. “She took over a theater that had just reopened after a fire, and spent the next 36 years improving, decorating, and updating. She was always investing, and she created a beautiful place.”

After Keegan ran the theater for nearly four centuries, it was taken over by Gilman Grandmaison — Jason and Dayton’s father — for a little over 20 years.

During that time, the building also housed an arcade, which later transitioned into a video rental store. The building’s large auditorium made it a perfect venue for countless town events. From school board meetings to basketball games to judicial hearings, the Gayety Theatre was a community hub for several decades.

Even after discontinuing the theater, the building continued to house community businesses and change ownership through the years. At one point, Dayton ran a restaurant out of the building for eight years.

But eventually, the building fell into disrepair.

In 2019, Jason approached the previous owners, Charles and Velma Ouellette, and talked about restoring it.

“I asked if I could go in, with the thoughts of possibly restoring it, rebuilding it, and bringing it back to life,” Jason said. “They knew we grew up here, and after a period of time, they let me into the building.”

At first, Jason didn’t tell anyone else he was working on the building. He did mostly interior work, and patched a hole in the roof. He also worked on sealing the building from the elements.

“Nobody knew I was coming in,” he said. “My brother didn’t know. My mom and dad didn’t know. Pretty much nobody knew.”

After two years, he told his brother what he was doing.

“He said, ‘I think you’re crazy,'” Jason said of his brother’s first reaction.

But shortly afterward, Dayton saw graffiti on the building, which inspired him to help.

“I got someone to help me, and over the course of a few weeks, we cleaned the windows, we removed some of the rotting structures on the front of the building, and did some minor repairs and cleanup,” Dayton said.

The brothers continued to work on the building in their free time, enlisting both paid and volunteer help along the way. And in late 2023, they bought back the building from the previous owner.

Since then, they have started a nonprofit organization, Friends of the Gayety Theatre, which will allow them to seek grant funding and accept tax-deductible donations from people supporting the project.

They also started a GoFundMe page with a $25,000 fundraising goal. The Grandmaison brothers want to restore the building in a way that maintains and preserves much of its historic details, such as the seating, its original metal ceiling, and the Art Deco light fixtures.
Once it’s restored, they hope to show major films on the large screen in the main auditorium, and lesser-known or classic films on a second screen. They would also like to have a museum that features some of the older theater’s equipment.

“You could have a comedy weekend, a Doris Day weekend, or black-and-white and silent films in the small theater,” Dayton said, “and then you could play your blockbuster on the other screen. You could do both at the same time once everything is set up, so one is not taking from the other.”

Jason said he would like to see the renovation finished in four years, so it coincides with planned Main Street renovations via the Maine DOT’s Village Partnership Program, which provides rural communities with funding to improve their downtown and village center areas.

If they hit their fundraising goal, it would help them meet this deadline, but they are both dedicated to restoring the building, regardless of how much funding they receive. 

The two are both working on the building in their free time. Jason is a maintenance worker at Cary Medical Center in Caribou, and Dayton teaches French at Van Buren High School. Without the funding, Dayton said they would still continue working in their own time, but the progress would be much slower.

“This is a herculean task,” Dayton said, “but I’m still hopeful.”