The most spectacular fire in Provincetown’s living memory — on the mild night of Tuesday, 10 February 1998 — destroyed the 79-year-old Provincetown Theater (by then known as Whaler’s Wharf), the abutting Handcrafter store and much of the Crown & Anchor, incidentally damaging Marine Specialties and threatening the Julie Heller Gallery before it was brought under control by firefighters and emergency workers who had rushed to the cape end from as far away as Plymouth. (The fire could be seen in Dennis.) “There goes our history,” one onlooker was quoted as saying in The Banner. And, yes, a lot of history was lost that night — though, fortunately, no lives were.
With more than 600 seats, the Provincetown Theater was a coming-of-age statement for the town when it opened in 1919. It looked like a big-city cinema, a solid work of masonry in a town of lumber, unabashed in identifying itself in big chiseled letters under the exterior proscenium arch. In its early years, the theater was a franchisee of First National Pictures, one of the most powerful studios of its day. The house was used for other programs as well, including at least one appearance by Donald B. MacMillan, who showed his movies of the Arctic in 1925.
During its heyday, the Provincetown Theater was owned and run by Victor M. Lewis, a powerful businessman. He was also the proprietor of Lewis’s New York Store on what is now Lopes Square. In 1931, on the petition of more than 500 residents, the Selectmen allowed Lewis to show movies on — gasp! — Sunday nights. The projectionist for many of these years was Antone Joseph Viera, who had also worked at the Star Theater.
Just how important the theater was to the off-season life of the town became apparent in October 1943 with the closure of the nearby Colonial Cold Storage plant, which had provided heat for the theater in the fall, winter and early spring. The Advocate mournfully announced that “the Cape End will be deprived of its only public form of entertainment.” Lewis managed to find an alternate heating source in time for a March 1944 reopening.
In 1973 Dale Elmer bought the old theater and combined it with the Handcrafter next door, at No. 241, which he had purchased in 1963, to create Whaler’s Wharf, a kind of artisans’ collective and craft market that was set up in what had been the orchestra level of the auditorium.
Meanwhile, the old balcony was partitioned off and retained as a cinema, now called The Movies. The proprietor, Monte Rome, also ran the Metro Cinema in the former Congregational Church of the Pilgrims.
Movies may have been the least of the experience at The Movies. Dennis Dermody, who once managed the theater, wrote of it in 1997 for Provincetown Arts:
“I not only hired the handicapped, I made a point of only hiring alcoholics, drug addicts, the mentally unstable and children who smoked. … I then proceeded to create a manifesto of how we would all work there. Our creed: ‘One. The customer is never right.’ And two: ‘If anything goes wrong, just leave the theater.’ …
“Our projectionist had a bit of a drug problem, so you never knew what was going to happen. One night I stepped from my manager’s office/cocktail lounge to find, for some reason, Children of Paradise being projected on the ceiling. (What astonished me was that the audience was patiently leaning way back in their seats, just taking it for granted they should be reading subtitles over the exit sign.) …
“But these were wonderful times. There was the sweet thrill of coming to work on nights that we showed Bertolucci’s The Conformist, Altman’s Thieves Like Us, Malick’s Badlands or Cocteau’s Orpheus. Just sitting at the top of those stairs, basking in those images — while the audience used their movie schedules as makeshift fans — was so wonderful on those humid, airless nights. So what if the ticket taker had passed out and was slumped over the counter, or the concession stand boy was sneaking his friends up the back exit or the projectionist was speaking in tongues and had his clothes on backwards. There was magic in the air.”
That magic came to an end in the 1980s, when the theater closed and the balcony was converted into use as a storage space for the Whaler’s Wharf shops. But the 20 or shops kept the old theater lively. And cheap space at Whaler’s Wharf helped the artists and artisans. Elmer would rent by the square foot. “If you only needed 10 square feet, you could get it,” the architect Regina Binder recalled.
“He took in all of us strays who had nowhere else to turn,” said Myra Gold, of the MG Leather shop. Other tenants included Lynda Tennyson’s Metamorphosis and Tennyson Jewelry Gallery, Christie Murphy’s Taqwa Glass Studio, Richard Cuencas’s R.C. Handcrafted Jewelry, Lorraine Najar’s Lorraine’s Too restaurant and the Box Lunch “rollwich” shop. The 1976 reissue of Odds and Ends From the Tip End described Whaler’s Wharf as the “largest arts and crafts center in New England, providing an opportunity to buy gift items you see created on the spot.”
On the evening of 10 February 1998, the night watchman, David Bragdon, a 65-year-old artist, saw the beginnings of a fire in a fuse box. He said he tried to extinguish it with blankets but could not, and so fled the building. Police officer Fernando deSousa was the first to respond, at about 6:30. Within 40 minutes, the fire had jumped the alleyway to the Crown & Anchor. Fire trucks were arriving from Yarmouth, Barnstable, Harwich and Bourne. A fifth alarm was sounded a little more than an hour into the blaze. The battle lasted deep into the night.
“In many ways, it was nothing less than a battle to save the very town itself,” Sue Harrison recalled in The Banner two years later.
“For anyone who saw the fire at its peak, the idea that it could be stopped seemed impossible, and the horror of what would happen to the entire downtown area if it wasn’t, unthinkable. Townspeople poured out of their homes and businesses to line the beach and nearby streets as fire engine after fire engine poured into town to lend support. … As the sky over Commercial Street blazed orange against the black of the February night, a fine rain fell, mixing water with flying sparks, some half dollar sized. Hoses snaked and coiled like a riot of pale anacondas and the street was turned into a shallow river for hours as millions of gallons of water were thrown at the inferno.”
Two weeks after the fire, Bragdon — who was seemingly blameless in the event — killed himself by leaping into the harbor. Harrison reported in The Banner that “he never seemed to completely shake his feeling of dishonor in not being able to contain the fire, and his friends say that sense of honor led him to take his own life.” There are those who reckon Bragdon as a fatality of the Whaler’s Wharf fire.
The broken-up chunks of the inscription from the monumental blind arch of the facade can be found on the harbor side of Whaler’s Wharf, out the back entrance and half buried in sand. Lest the memorial be taken too gravely, its fragments frame a zaftig mermaid (or merman?) with a broad smile on its face. ¶ Updated 2014-05-03