The Life and Death of a Small Theatre Owner

dave_parsons1lDave Parsons, owner and operator of The Milbridge Theatre since 1978, died Dec. 11 at the age of 65.

I never met him. I have driven through the quiet coastal village and past the theatre plenty of times, and have wondered what it must be like to run a movie theatre in such a small town.

Reading about Parsons this past week has made me wish I had gotten the chance to visit his theatre and to ask him that question.

I learned of his death through the Facebook page of Reel Pizza Cinerama, a Bar Harbor movie house with great food that I’ve been to more times than I can remember. Chris Vincenty and Lisa Burton, owners and operators of Reel Pizza, knew Parsons and posted a moving eulogy to him on the Reel Pizza website that caught my attention. In it, they described him as “a true hero” and an icon in Downeast Maine.

“Dave was instrumental in the formation of our business from the very beginning [in 1995], setting us up with projection equipment, theater supplies and teaching us the secret ins and outs of the movie business that you might not have believed until this week with the revelations from the Sony Pictures hacking scandal,” Burton wrote. “In our early years, he would drive to Bar Harbor after his show let out, and work with Chris all night to fix a problem with the sound or projection, or to install a new piece of equipment, ferrying with him a truckload of spare parts, just in case.”

Parsons was adept at organizing other small independent cinemas in Maine to get discounted group deals on supplies, and he had a deep knowledge of film history and even obscure candy companies, according to Burton.

“We will miss those fascinating conversations,” she wrote. “Dave was one of the most kind, and most giving persons we have ever known, a dear friend who we will miss greatly, and a saint without whom Reel Pizza would never have survived its first year.”

Phil Duggan is a writer in Milbridge and a ham radio enthusiast who has written two articles about Parsons – one in the summer of 2013 for the now-defunct Down East Coastal Press, for which he interviewed Parsons, and another this month for the Machias Valley News Observer about the theatre owner’s death. Duggan spoke to me last week about Parsons’ death and emailed me the articles he wrote.

According to Duggan, Parsons was a trained magician who worked as part of a comedy act in St. Louis at some point before moving to Downeast Maine. He wrote that the former comedian met and befriended actors and entertainers whose photos hung on the theater’s walls. Beyond just being a film buff, Parsons also demonstrated a fair amount of technical and electronic acumen in keeping the movie theatre running.

For this month’s MVNO article, Duggan interviewed Paula Checker, a Milbridge resident who in recent years helped Parsons with the annual Codfish Relay Race, an event Parsons founded in 1983 that is part of the summer Milbridge Days festival.

“The theatre was not just a job to Dave, it was a love for the movies,” Checker told Duggan. “At one point in his life he wrestled a bear and has a scar from it. He ran a chuck wagon out west. He did so many completely different things than most other people.”

In the DECP article, Duggan wrote that Parsons told him he recently was feeling pressure from film distributors to convert the theatre to digital projection – a $50,000 project that Parsons said he could not afford.

Parsons lamented changes in the movie business and in society in general, and said the theatre had helped shape the town’s identity since it first opened in the late 1930s.

“Real estate people have sold a lot of real estate, and I’m helping them,” Parsons told Duggan. “Based on the fact that [Milbridge] has got stuff. It’s got a laundromat, it’s got a dentist, it’s got an eye doctor, it’s got a medical center, it’s got a pharmacy, it’s got a theatre. This has been part of what has helped the town be cohesive as a town, and been attractive to people.”

Duggan told me that what Parsons’ death might mean for the theatre has not been determined.

You can read a version of the Down East Coastal Press article that Duggan posted online here.

Parsons had no family to speak of, except for a brother who lives in New Hampshire, according to people who knew him. There is no formal obituary for Parsons and no funeral is planned, an official at a Milbridge funeral home who handled Parsons’ mortuary arrangements said last week.

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Photo credits: Phil Duggan

Bill Trotter

About Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for 20 years, Bill Trotter keeps track of how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coast shape the lives, lifestyles and livelihoods of coastal Maine residents and visitors. A resident of Ellsworth, Bill covers Acadia National Park, Hancock County, fisheries, marine-related topics and more for the BDN. Follow him on Twitter at @billtrotter.