The primary source for the history presented here is: Bridgton, Maine
1768 – 1994 An updated Bicentennial history by the Bridgton Historical Society Second Edition, 1993;
people with ancient memories filled in much of the rest:
From the Very Beginning, a Vital Part of Bridgton:
-About 1808, the first useful bridge was built on the site on Steven’s Brook when most of
the area was pasture and wetland. At this time there was no road eastward to Pondicherry
Square; that was to follow in 1822. The “Tannery Bridge” as it is still known as today,
was probably built in 1836. This coincides with the construction of the first tannery in
Bridgton by Rufus Gibbs on the glacial moraine at the edge of the brook . Rufus
understood the importance of quality tanned hides to the growing population. The tannery
passed through several hands, eventually thriving while under the ownership of Horace
Billings, Rufus’ brother-in-law.
The tannery burned on December 27th, 1855, to be rebuilt within eight months; certainly
this is an indication of the need for its products. Records dated January 7th, 1859 show
that 8,000 to 10,000 hides were being tanned annually, using six to eight hundred cords
of hemlock bark, while employing an average of twenty-five men. During this period,
operations on the site spanned the entire area between Stevens and Corn Shop brooks;
Depot Street, as we know it, was added when the railroad was built in 1882. Another
account dated December 9th, 1868 described the tannery as”… one of the oldest and best
established manufactories in the region”.
The tannery burned again in 1893 and was rebuilt, again, two years later, employing as
many as fifty men during the peak season.
Eventually, the tanning business succumbed to the changing economics of the 1920’s and
sat idle from 1926 through 1928.
A New Way for the Site to Serve Bridgton:
Claude Meserve bought the tannery in 1929, demolished the front section of the principal
building, retained its wooden rear section and attached a multi-storey cement block
building to it. The new structure, “The Brookside Building” fronted directly on Main
Street, adjacent to Tannery Bridge. A reflection of the changing times, the primary
purpose of the Brookside was to house a car dealership, with car storage space on the first
floor and, yes, a movie theater on the second floor.
The Meserve Theater opened on Wednesday June 5th, 1929 with On Trial starring Pauline
Frederick, Bert Lytell, and Lois Wilson.
Though the film is now lost and not much is now
known about it, an advertisement in the Bridgton News tells us that “if you like a good
clean mystery story you will be sorry if you miss this one”. Admission was 15 & 35
As the decades rolled on through the ‘40’s, 50’s, ‘60’s and 70’s, The ‘Brookside hosted
apartments, various stores and businesses, a dental office, a dress factory, a foundry, and
manufacturing companies. The movie theater was renamed the “Mayfair”, then the
“Brookside”, and eventually the “Magic Lantern”. The theater’s 300 seat auditorium with
a performing stage was always a vital part of the town. Even as late as the 1970’s when
television had co-opted much of Bridgton’s evening time, The Magic Lantern’s
performance stage thundered under the feet of mid-night Rocky Horror Picture Show
revelers. In 1990, theater’s auditorium was split into two theaters and the performance
stage was removed, the stage a victim of changing Hollywood business practices.
The Magic Lantern over the years has always found ways to be creative. Tom Goodman,
the Young Bearded Entrepreneur (YBE) and the proprietor of The ‘Lantern was the first
in Maine to install Dolby surround-sound, much to the joy of Star Wars fanatics. Stephen
King’s The Shining premiered there in 1980, with Mr. King attending, as a benefit for the
local hospital. The Manchurian Candidate also premiered in 2004 at The ‘Lantern with its
director Jonathan Demme seeing the final product of his efforts for the first time.
On Sunday, October 2nd, 2005, the last films were shown in the Brookside Building. Just
Like Heaven, The Forty Year Old Virgin, and The Chipmunk Adventure closed out
seventy-six years of entertainment. The house was packed and the fond memories flowed.
The Brookside Building’s cement block structure could no longer manage the shifting
ground underneath. Starting with pasture and wetlands, and then for 170 years the piling
hemlock bark, boards, and anything else available on the site proved not to be a good way
to build. During its last years, The Brookside Building’s walls sagged and floors buckled,
eventually sealing the fate of one of Bridgton’s icons. On February 7th, 2006, the heavy
equipment moved in and The Brookside Building was no more.
Or was it? Reinventing Again for the 21st Century:
A Town Meeting was held on December 13th, 2005 to consider offering special tax
incentive status to the owners of the Magic Lantern. The turnout was overwhelming with
more than 100 voters speaking, unanimously, to pass a Tax Increment District
designation for the site. Inspired by the passions shared at the meeting and filled with
resolve, the Magic Lantern’s team committed to rebuild The ‘Lantern with some of the
same, and much more of the new.
The site on the glacial moraine, next to Steven’s Brook, by Tannery Bridge, continues its
cycle of building, razing, and building again. Always the vital center of Bridgton,
changing as the world changes around it, the cycle continues.