Published DateBy Tom Eastman
CONWAY — Come March 28, it looks like it will be the “Last Picture Show” for owner Joe Quirk at the Majestic Home Town Theatre.
An ad in the March 20 edition of The Conway Daily Sun told part of the story:
“Thank you for your 20 years of patronage. We will be closing The Majestic and Conway Cafe on March 28. Please stop in and say hello. — Joe Quirk.”
“I'm hoping someone else could come in and either lease the Majestic Theatre and cafe from the Quirk Family Corporation, or someone could buy the block and run those businesses, or lease them out to someone. It's just not going to be me,” said Quirk in an interview at the Conway Main Street village landmark Thursday afternoon.
“I'm hoping we can find the right buyer who will step in and carry the torch. Unfortunately” he added, “unless we get that right buyer, the building could be razed and used for other purposes.”
Connected to streetscape vote
After an April 1, 2005 fire damaged the 1931-built, 450-seat theater, Quirk retrofitted part of the building into the Conway Cafe, with a smaller theater in the back which continued to show films to audiences of up to 48.
The closing of the theater and Conway Cafe is not just a matter of declining revenue or the recovery from the fire disaster.
For the longtime owner and Conway Fire District commissioner, it's also his being disappointed that Conway district voters did not join him in supporting a proposed streetscape project for the village in a vote at the district's annual meeting March 12.
“When that warrant article for the [Conway Village] streetscape project failed by a vote of 10 to 12, I was amazed. I was dumbfounded,” said Quirk in a followup interview after the vote that was taken on Article 2.
The bond needed a two-thirds ballot vote for passage, yet it fell well short.
There are 248 registered voters in the district, according to the CVFD.
Quirk had been a proponent of the streetscape effort over the past 10 years.
Quirk said that lack of support led him to his ultimate decision to no longer carry on his Main Street movie theater and cafe.
Article 2 as written was “to see if the District will vote to raise and appropriate the sum of $509,180 for the construction phase of Phase I Streetscape Project and to authorize the issuance of up to $509,180 of bonds or notes in accordance with the provisions of the Municipal Finance Act (RSA Chapter 33). No more than $509,180 will be raised by Long Term Bonds or Notes in accordance with provisions of the Municipal Finance Act (Chapter 33) for the duration of construction.”
The article was supported by Quirk and commission chair Janine Bean but was not supported by commissioner and state Rep. Tom Buco.
“I was very disappointed at the March 12 meeting. We were ready to move ahead with the project — all we had to do was bond a bridge loan to raise the 20 percent from the district to go with the 80 percent federal funding,” said Quirk March 20. “We did not have the money in district so we had to bond. At that meeting, I basically told the voters we had a choice of moving forward or moving backwards. I said without this streetscape project and improvements, we have no lack of traffic, just a lack of destination.
"I am sure Conway Village has a future but it's just not the one I had hoped it would be. I had hoped the village would move forward and be better, but voters turned it down,” said Quirk, who toiled over the years to keep his independent movie house going, especially after the April 2005 fire.
Rather than seek grants to restore and rebuild after the fire in the theater, Quirk used insurance funds to shore up the building as part of a long-term goal of reopening the larger part of the classic theater.
“It's just my way [not to seek grants],” said Quirk. “Getting funds for a municipal project such as the streetscape project is one thing; that's my job as a commissioner and I have helped to bring millions here for improvement projects for the district. But I don't like to take public funds for a private business,” said Quirk, who noted that it has always been a struggle to make ends meet in the competitive movie theater and restaurant business.
Commissioners back article, 2-1
In a phone interview Friday from the State House in Concord, Buco said although he supports betterment efforts to help Conway, he did not support the streetscape article because he felt it would put too onerous a burden on taxpayers in a year when the district is also funding the hookup with the North Conway Water Precinct.
“My opposition was to incurring additional debt, not to the project,” said Buco.
Bean said she was not necessarily in favor of the project but that she did support placing the question before voters.
“I wanted the people to have a chance to vote on the bond, and the only way to do that was for me to vote in favor of [recommending] the article. Voters had voted for the project last year by a one-vote simple majority, but then we found out we did not have the authority to borrow money for it so we had to get a bond,” said Bean Thursday.
She said commissioners are scheduled to readdress the streetscape issue when they meet Friday afternoon at the Conway Village Fire District offices.
“It's on the agenda for discussion, probably after 3:15 p.m.,” said Bean.
Quirk said he is listing the Majestic block for sale with Skip Smith of Coldwell Banker/Wright Realty for $499,000.
In addition to the theater and cafe, the 15,000-square-foot Majestic Block also houses office and retail space.
“That's half of what I put into it since the fire,” said Quirk. “It would have been very easy to take the money [from the insurance settlement] and run with it, and tear the building down. But we didn't do that. I put probably $1 million into it.”
During Quirk's years of running the theater, he has consistently been a supporter of community celebrations, such as offering free children's movies during the morning preceding the annual Conway Christmas parade and holiday tree-lighting.
He said it is tough or small independents to fight the larger chains. Moviegoers want to see movies soon after they are released, but, Quirk says, small independents like his theater have to rely on loyal patrons to put off seeing a new release for two or three weeks until it comes to a theater like his.
“It's like charging people for yesterday's newspaper, right? People want to see it now,” said Quirk, adding that he nonetheless has appreciated the community support he has received.
North Conway still has the Cinema 7 theaters at the Mountain Valley Mall, which went digital last November. The company that owns those seven theaters also owns the now closed North Conway Twin theaters on Main Street in North Conway Village.
Alec Kerr, entertainment editor and theater critic for The Conway Daily Sun, decried the end for the small independent, historic Majestic.
“It has been the only local outlet for art house and independent films,” said Kerr, who writes a weekly film review in The Sun's Weekender edition. “People will now have to go to Portland if they want to see those independent films — those films that aren't blockbusters, which need a little bit of time to find an audience, like 'Midnight In Paris' or 'Beast of the Southern Wild' or 'Moonrise Kingdom,' all of which got Oscar nominations but which did not play at the multiplex.
“From a historic standpoint,” added Kerr, “it would be sad to see it torn down as there are not many of the old marque theaters from that classic era.”
The Conway Cafe has hosted buffets and a Songwriters Showcase with Red Gallagher Wednesdays and a deejay dancing night and buffet Saturdays. Other than holidays, the business has been open 6:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. “361.5 days a year,” notes Quirk.
The businesses employed “six to 10 employees,” depending on the season, he said.
Asked what he plans to do after the business closes, Quirk said, “I am not sure. I will still be a commissioner. So, maybe I'll become a full-time public servant, who knows?”
For more information, call 447-5030 or visit www.hometowntheatre.com.