“Incite art. Create community.” (And suspenseful movie moments.)

The Stonington Opera House, a venue for theatre, music and movies in the beautiful Downeast Maine town of Stonington. (Photo by Annie Seikonia via flickr.com)

Edge-of-your-seat stuff: The new Mrs. Captain von Trapp keeps Gretl quiet as the Nazis try to find the fleeing singing family.

Do you remember the very first time you saw The Sound of Music? And do you remember how you absolutely stopped breathing and were perched on the edge of your seat during that scene when the von Trapps were hiding behind the tombstones in the convent as the Nazis were desperately trying to track them down? How one peep out of little Gretl (or any other of that mob of kids) would have given them away, and how the brave newlyweds, the Captain and Maria, huddled with them and shushed them and dodged the searchlights and you were just dying of fear that they would be found out?

Oh, man, I remember it like it was yesterday. I was maybe 9 or 10 years old, the movie (first released in 1965) was in re-release, and my siblings (or some of us, anyway) were taken to see it at the movies in Peterborough, Ont., by my grandparents (my Buh and Didi, whom I wrote about in a recent post), who had just retired there after a lifetime in Toronto. Despite the thrillingly happy ending of The Sound of Music, I remember still being weak at the knees as I walked out of the theatre because of how terrified I’d been during that hiding-from-the-Nazis scene.

What does that have to do with “Incite art. Create community”? Or Queensborough, or the Manse? Bear with me.

Raymond and I are in Stonington, Maine, one of our favourite places in the world and a place that I have in the past compared to Queensborough – in the sense that they both have something a little magical about them, and they both seem to attract the interest of people who are, well, interesting.

We’ve been here many times before, always at this time of year when the tourists are nowhere to be seen and it’s just us and the local people (many of whom are lobstermen; Stonington is one of the most important lobster-fishing centres on the east coast of North America) and the books we’ve brought to read. Over the course of those visits we’ve seen and done a goodly percentage of the many things there are to see and do on Deer Isle, the island that Stonington anchors on the very southern tip. But one thing we had never done until last night was to attend an event at the grandly named Stonington Opera House.

The Stonington Opera House as art: this is a painting by George Lee Crosby (bluehillartist.com), and you can see (and buy) this and more of his Maine paintings here.

You can read the history of this funky building here; the short version is that it was built as a dance hall in the late 19th century and has served the small community well as an arts centre (and occasional basketball court and even rollerskating rink) in most of the years since. These days, arts-minded people in Stonington, and Deer Isle generally, have made it their mission to see that it continues as a venue for the arts. This island is a place where you see bumper-stickers that say “Incite art. Create community” (offered for sale at the Stonington Opera House). It is a place that over the years has attracted all sorts of artists: painters, photographers, potters, performers and more have been drawn here by the beauty and, I think, the creative spirit of the area. And of course the more creative people who come, the livelier and healthier – including in an economic sense – the arts scene is. As the bumper-sticker says, the arts, and a commitment to promoting them, can and do help build a healthy and interesting community.

Our home away from home.

Throughout the year the Opera House plays host to live theatre, musical performances, community events – and on most weekends, movie nights. First-run films are shown on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights. Often on our past visits to Stonington Raymond and I have talked about taking in one of those movies, but have in the end decided instead to go out to dinner or just stay in for the evening – which is a very strong temptation when you’ve got a cozy little nest (the American Eagle suite at the Inn on the Harbor, a pretty and friendly place that I cannot recommend highly enough) that looks out on the ocean, and there is a lively fire burning in the fireplace. And you have lots of good books to read.

The restored 1930s theatre seats.

But last night we actually did it, and were delighted with what we found: a warm, brightly lit place on a dark, cold, blustery night. A friendly chap at the ticket booth, and an awesome concession stand with a vintage (original to the house) popcorn maker (and organic popcorn), homemade ice cream and other great snacks, funky soft drinks and beer and wine (and merchandise, including T-shirts and the aforementioned bumper stickers). Beautifully restored wooden seats (with cushions) from the 1930s. And a good crowd of people (some of whom we’d met in church yesterday morning) out to see a good movie and socialize a bit with friends, neighbours and even two strangers from Montreal.

The movie in question was Argo, the Ben Affleck film about the 1980 “Canadian Caper” in which Ken Taylor, Canada’s ambassador in Iran, helped spirit six Americans (who’d escaped the besieged U.S. embassy in Tehran) out of the country in the midst of that long-ago hostage crisis. (Even I, ancient as I am, have to work a bit to remember those events.) What the film showed – not entirely accurately, as you can read here, but very dramatically – was that, while the Canadians did indeed play an important part, the friendly folks at the CIA in their extremely covert way – so covert that the operation was kept secret for many years after it was all over – were the ones who got the job done.

The suspense level gets really, really high toward the end of the film: will Affleck, coolly playing CIA agent Tony Mendez, get those six terrified people out before it’s discovered they’re not really Canadians, or won’t he? (Spoiler alert! Don’t read the rest of this paragraph if you intend to see the movie.) Just like in The Sound of Music there’s a happy ending (complete with a film clip of good old Flora MacDonald, long-ago MP for Kingston and the Islands and the Minister of External Affairs in Joe Clark‘s short-lived government – and I just have to say that it’s not every day you see Flora MacDonald in a Hollywood movie); but like on that long-ago night in faraway Peterborough, Ont., I was absolutely drained and shaky as we walked out of the theatre and back to the inn, still wired from all the suspense that had immediately preceded the denouement.

Okay, so Argo may not be high art, but it’s entertainment and it was shown in a great arts venue and the cash we all paid for our tickets helps keep that venue – and the arts in general in Stonington – going. And as far as I can see, a community with a healthy arts community is a healthy community period. (Kind of like the period at the end of the words “Opera House” on the opera house’s sign – have another look at the photo at the top of this post. Cool, non?)

Which brings me back – surely you knew I’d get there eventually – to Queensborough and area. In the months since Raymond and I have been spending time there thanks to our purchase of the Manse, we’ve discovered that a lot of artistically-minded people also call it home: painters and photographers and potters and musicians and filmmakers and more, just like here in Stonington. Drawn by the natural beauty (and probably the peace and quiet) of the place. And by the presence of like-minded souls.

The Queensborough Community Centre could certainly play host to arts-oriented events.

Now, Queensborough doesn’t and never did have an opera house. But it has the Queensborough Community Centre, the former one-room village schoolhouse where youth dances and community dinners and yoga classes and let’s-talk-history sessions take place now. (And that several of us think could be a great place to host artists and artisans during one of the studio tours that happen in the central Hastings County area through the year.)

The Orange Lodge building. Let’s dream big: could it be a venue for the performing arts?

Queensborough also has (though privately owned) a great big old hall, the onetime Loyal Orange Lodge. I haven’t been in that building since I accompanied my parents there one election day (it was often used as a polling place) way back in the 1960s, so I don’t recall for sure, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it has a stage. And even if it doesn’t, I bet it has acoustics. Just think: musical performances, open-mike nights, short- or long-form theatre – and maybe even movies! Wouldn’t that be something?

I think we should start with The Sound of Music. Take it away, Julie:

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