For over 100 years the Strand Theater in Oak Bluffs and the Capawock Theater in Vineyard Haven have touched the lives of countless people on the Vineyard. One such person was Mark Snider, who recalls seeing such classics as “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” as a teenager and later, “Cinema Paradiso,” which made a profound impression on Snider not only because of the brilliance of the film but also because watching it in the historic Capawock was watching art imitate life.
The Capawock and the Strand theaters were reopened in 2015. Snider recalls that “to go downtown in Oak Bluffs and Vineyard Haven and see these historic buildings deteriorate was depressing.” He decided to do something about it. After a protracted negotiation, Snider arranged to lease the Strand and Capawock theaters from the Hall family.
Snider created a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, the Martha’s Vineyard Theater Foundation. He partnered with Richard Paradise and the M.V. Film Society to operate the theaters, and created a board of directors comprised of singer Carly Simon, author Geraldine Brooks, Martha’s Vineyard native David Grain, and seasonal residents Peter Givertzman and Gwen Adams Norton. It was February 2015, and the group set out to raise the necessary money on a very fast track. Within three months they raised $1 million. The Capawock reopened in late May 2015 with a special concert by Carly Simon and Sally Taylor, and the Strand reopened in mid-June.
Max Skjöldebrand is an architect by profession, and has always enjoyed taking photographs, especially of old buildings. “Like Snider, I am passionate about movies, and also have a keen interest in history,” he writes. “Given my background as a professional architect and my passion for photography, it was natural for me to approach Mark to offer to record in photographs the progress of this extraordinary project. Happily he agreed and, as a result, I am now able to share a singular historical record, which, hopefully, will also be preserved for future generations.”
Skjöldebrand chronicled the reconstruction of the two theaters, visiting almost every day, photographing every improvement.
In “Tale of Two Theaters,” Skjöldebrand shows us the extent of the work that was required to bring the theaters back to life, starting in the Capawock with the ceiling being totally replaced and the walls being stripped and patched. Looking at the pictures of the old projection booth, it doesn’t take much imagination to to see the the ill-fated projection booth in “Cinema Paradiso.”
Freeman Leonard (born 1909) recalls the early days of the Capawock. “It really was quite complicated to run a film at that point,” he said, “because the film would burn. You see, it was not safety film. You had carbon lights — on the old ones you had the carbon arc lamp.”
Skjöldebrand focuses his camera on details of the old projection booth as well as other details throughout the theater, such as the beautiful original light fixture above the doors. And we see artist Margot Datz supervising the hanging of her paintings in the lobby, including one whimsically rendered showing a picture of gulls on a ledge, eating popcorn and spilling Necco Wafers.
The Strand theater required no less TLC than the Capawock. The Strand was originally opened as a movie theater in 1915; prior to that it was a bowling alley, thereby explaining its 120-foot elongated shape. Unfortunately, there were no photographs of either of the two theaters’ original interiors to guide the restoration work, so Gwenn Snider (Mark’s wife) took on the challenge and did the work herself, combining the vintage decor with modern flourishes.
The Strand was in particular need of refurbishing; it had not been used as a theater for some time, and had most recently been used to store mopeds. Skjöldebrand does a good job of portraying the abject disarray facing the restorers, culminating in a totally transformed theater on view at the opening night concert, June 19, 2015.
We’re privileged to have these two iconic landmarks alive and well and ready to entertain Islanders for years to come. To paraphrase the words of Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard” — “They’re ready for their close-ups.”