Maine Irish Heritage Trail

Portland Site Number 16
by Matthew Jude Barker

Jefferson Theater
112 Free Street
Portland, Maine

The old Jefferson Theater regaled audiences for over 35 years before it was razed in 1933. It was located just down from the Cheverus Classical High School, which is now a parking garage, beside the Cumberland County Civic Center.

On September 13, 1897, the directors of the theater invited the stockholders and "their lady friends" to inspect "this superb temple of the drama" before its opening show the next day. Among the stockholders were some of the prominent members of the Portland Irish community, including merchants Charles McCarthy, Jr., and Thomas F. Donahue, James Cunningham, James H. McMullan, and James W. Fitzpatrick. Among the 1600 guests on opening night was Joseph Jefferson, a popular actor of his time who often toured Portland, for whom the theater was named.

Michael J. Garrity (1868-1953), born in Portland on St. Patrick's Day to Irish immigrants, was the manager of the Jefferson Theater from 1904 until 1933. During his tenure, Portlanders enjoyed performances by George M. Cohan, Ethel Barrymore, Sarah Bernhardt, the Ziegfeld Follies, Billie Burke, Lillian Russell, Richard Mansfield, Maude Adams, Sidney Toler, and Henry Irving, among others. Garrity was also manager of the Portland baseball team in the New England League in the 1890s, when he sent 11 players to the major leagues, including Mike "Kid" Madden.

Portland boy John Martin Feeney, known to the world as the great Hollywood director John Ford, was an usher at the "Old Jeff," as it was affectionately called, between 1910-1914. He was also an altar boy at St. Dominic Church, when at 6 a. m. Mass one day he observed a veiled Ethel Barrymore, attending services while in town for a performance. Ford never forgot her face; she "had tears in her eyes" he later recalled. Being an usher and an altar boy in no small way helped pave the way for his later career, as some biographers contend.

The world-famous actress Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) came to Portland twice. In 1906, she came with her American business manager, Edward J. Sullivan (1878-1936), a Portland native. The Jefferson was booked, as was City Hall, but the Ancient Order of Hibernians "gallantly bowed out in order to accommodate the French star and her entourage." (See Portland Sunday Telegram, January 29, 1967). She returned to Portland in June 1911 and performed "La Dame Aux Camelias" at the Jefferson.

The theater was demolished in 1933, with the last performance being "Little Women" in March 1933. With the enormous popularity of automobiles and the motion picture industry, theaters such as the Jefferson were fast becoming relics of the past. Along with the Great Depression, these modern inventions helped sound the death knell of " Old Jeff."

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Acknowledgements by Matthew Jude Barker

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