When one walks into a movie theatre, they usually don’t expect to walk through wooden doors draped golden-curtains on them, or an architecturally beautiful building that’s registered as a historic place with a crowd that makes the movie more of an experience.
People have been going to the Colonial Theatre on Main Street in Keene, N.H. for 90 years to watch film. said seeing a film is different there than at a normal cinema.
“The environment is different,” she said, “people cheer and clap and there’s a level of enthusiasm.”
Year-round the Colonial Theatre shows film, but mid-September through mid-May is the main season with usually 30 live-entertainment shows, six to eight student-oriented performances, three community events and several specialty-film events.
According to the Colonial Theatre website, the Colonial Theatre opened its doors in January of 1924 as a performing arts venue and movie house, owned by Charles Baldwin.
Over time the theatre changed hands, owned by families and a partnership and at one point became only a movie house.
Then, in 1993 it became the non-profit film and live-performance theatre it is today.
Some of the more famous acts at the 888-seat Colonial Theatre were Amelia Earhart, lecturing on the possibilities of cross-Atlantic air travel, Phish, Gregg Allman and Chieftains, according to the Colonial Theatre website.
This season’s shows include a variety of live music, entertainment-based shows and comedy. The season opens on Sept. 14 with Captain Sig & Friends from Discovery Channel’s “Deadliest Catch” to share stories and videos. Also this season are ballets, a circus, hip-hop and comedy shows.
Keene State College student Hannah Beauchesne, an employee at the theatre, said she works with the Colonial because as a science major she doesn’t usually get the opportunity to see the cultural-aspect of KSC and be a part of the community.
By working there she gets exposure to being a part of the community, experiencing the unique shows and seeing how the theatre runs.
“We are able to serve more of the community because we are a non-profit,” Eric V. Weisenberger, the director of development and fundraising at the theatre said.
In addition he said because it is community owned they are able to offer more of a variety of live entertainment and film.
By having the diverse schedule they do, they are able to appeal to different people and as a result, bring in more money.
“If it didn’t become a non-profit it would have been shut down, then torn down,” Fletcher said. By the time it became a non-profit the theatre was almost beyond-repair.
“People used to have to bring blankets into the theater because there was no heat,” Weisenberger said.
The building has undergone a lot of renovations since then. The top panel on the right wall was left untouched to illustrate what the building looked like before the restoration.
“I think becoming a non-profit was the theatre’s turning point,” Weisenberger said, “They were almost shut down, but the donations provided funding needed to renovate.”
The theatre raised $2 million in grants and donations that it used towards renovating the infrastructure and adding aesthetic enhancements.
Since the theatre is a non-profit, the theatre relies on members of the community for financial support.
Fletcher said, “We rely on individual and corporation donations through the member program, campaigns and business involvement.”
Memberships to support the theatre range anywhere from $50-$10,000 annually and have benefits such as a member-only buying period, meet and greets and discounts. Weisenberger said the theatre usually has around 550 members each year.
There are also about 150 volunteers at the theatre that Fletcher works with.
“We wouldn’t be able to do this without our members or volunteers,” Fletcher said.
The Colonial Theatre also has a board of directors to handle the planning, fundraising and governance.
Weisenberger said that because the Colonial offers a wide variety of shows and films it may “open people’s eyes to something they may not otherwise experience.”
For example, Rhaw, a live show at the Colonial in March, is a hip-hop dance team from Philadelphia, and Cirque Mechanics is a steampunk circus performing in April.
Pam Harmon, a moviegoer, said she used to attend many shows at the Colonial and recently started coming again.
Harmon said, “I love the wide variety of live shows and film that you can’t find anywhere else.”
Elliot Pelletier, another moviegoer, agrees. Pelletier has been to the Colonial five times previously and said he loves the variety of live shows and opportunity to see smaller films that aren’t in the cinemas.
“We watch movies on our phones now,” Fletcher said, “but here we experience film; it’s not just simply watching a movie.”
“I know the arts are way of healing for a community and it allows us to have a break. It allows us to be amazed. Art [film and performance] has the power to heal any number of emotional problems. It allows us to learn, observe ourselves, our culture and others,” Fletcher said.
Holly Gibson, an employee at the Colonial Theatre, said she grew up attending shows at the Colonial and it was her introduction to theatre.
Now an Arts Administration graduate, she credits the Colonial for giving her the opportunity to learn about being in the spotlight.
“I found an appreciation for drama at a young age,” Gibson said, “I loved the excitement and opportunity the theatre offered that other communities don’t have.”
When she was younger, Gibson performed at the Colonial for school.
“We have a really good relationship with the school systems in the area,” Fletcher, the volunteer coordinator and house manager of the Colonial Theatre, said.
They offer an opera club for kids in local schools and special performances geared for the younger crowd.
“We bring in schools kindergarten through high school for special programming about eight-to-ten times a year,” Fletcher said. Fletcher realizes it may be the only time they get to see the theatre.
According to the Colonial’s website, The Colonial also offers a Student Matinee Series, which are performances, that complement school curriculum.
On average, about 8,000 school children from more than 120 schools each year, and more than 1,000 home-schooled children are exposed to these programs every year.
On top of being historically, culturally and educationally important to Keene, the Colonial is also financially important.
Fletcher said that the Colonial Theatre is a major generator of commerce for downtown Keene.
Weisenberger agreed, saying, “A lot of times when there’s a popular show here, restaurants are full on a Tuesday night when they probably wouldn’t have been otherwise.”
Not only do shows bring people to Keene, but buying tickets and just checking out the theatre also draws some people.
Gretchen Allen, a moviegoer who was enjoying Amicci’s pizza before the show, said the Colonial gives her a reason to come downtown.
“I wouldn’t be eating this pizza right now if I wasn’t coming here to see a show,” Allen said.
Others also said the Colonial draws them to go downtown when they normally wouldn’t have had a reason to. Pelletier, a moviegoer, said “It brings people in Keene and the surrounding areas downtown and gives them a reason to be there.”
Restaurants also notice the increase of customers when there is a popular film or live-show at the theatre. Waitress and hostess at The Stage Restaurant, Autumn Lombardi, said there is definitely an increase of customers.
“There are more reservations and people walking in off the street,” Lombardi said, “All in hopes to eat before the show starts.”
Lombardi also said depending on the crowd and what time the show gets out, they usually see people coming in after a show for dessert and drinks.
Ricky Fish, kitchen manager at Margaritas, said if there is a popular show the restaurant is definitely busier than normal.
Usually if there’s an older crowd for a concert or comedy show they’ll see an increase in business after the show is over as well.
Weisenberger said rock and roll and comedy shows attract the most people.
Weisenberger said the theatre faces restrictions in terms of what live performances they can have due to their capabilities.
He would love to see things altered so they are able to bring even more to Keene.
“We have lots of sets of plans but the problem is figuring out how we can get the capital to move the ideas forward,” Fletcher said.

Taylor Thomas can be contacted at tthomas@keene-equinox.com

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