In the early days of cinema, long before talkies came to Hollywood or the Latchis Theatre came to Milford, movie-goers gathered in town at the Star Theatre on Middle Street. It wasn’t grand, but it showed the best films of the day and in the words of the Milford Cabinet in 1914, “it needed a woman to run it.”
The very first moving images in Milford were displayed to an astonished public at Eagle Hall. On a wavy screen, the images cast by a faint projector made crowds gasp – as trains rushed toward the camera or baseballs were thrown about. Not exactly entertainment, the first films featured shots of crowded cities, flying kites and other vignettes of daily life – more than enough for early audiences.
But once silent film began in earnest, there was an initial void in Milford as local business owners shied away from the logistics and expense of putting on picture shows. Those who did quickly “flitted away, leaving creditors wondering” according to the Milford Cabinet. One such movie manager donned long hair, a cowboy hat and called himself “Eagle Eye.” But apparently his vision of an early Milford cinema never materialized. By 1912, with “nickelodeons” all over the country (so named because a nickel got you into the show), Milford lacked a theatre to call its own. Then local music teacher May Burnham Richardson took a chance on the movies.
Richardson bought an old barn on Middle Street opposite the fire station and turned it into Milford’s first movie theatre. The barn was sheathed with iron sides, boasted a metal front, and originally included seats situated on a flat floor in the nickelodeon style. Not exactly the Chinese Mann but also not bad considering she was operating in a former livery stable and blacksmith shop. The Star would quickly gain a reputation for showing the best motion pictures of the era. What was Richardson’s secret? Every day one of her four employees was sent to Boston – no easy jaunt in 1914 - to pick up the latest reels from the big city and head back to town in time for the show.
Aside from films, the Star also was part of the vaudeville circuit and hosted a variety of other entertainment, from comedians to plays to musical acts. Over 900 tickets were sold for the production of Tess of the Storm Country and a 1919 Cabinet article mentions a clamor for “government war films” over which “the telephone wires were kept hot” when the films did not arrive from Boston. In this era before television, newsreels were the only way for small towners to get a glimpse of what was happening overseas.
Richardson purchased more land in 1914 and enlarged the building, putting in footlights, a sloping floor, and an orchestra pit for musical accompaniment. Now with a capacity of 300 and featuring two shows a night, she hired a small orchestra to give each picture its own ad-libbed soundtrack
Apparently, crowds could also get rowdy when entertainment at the Star was a little more lowbrow – one advertisement mentions a pie-eating contest. When things got out of control, Richardson apparently took care of business herself as the Milford Police Department made her an official officer for just that purpose.
In 1923, the Star was purchased by Peter Latchis whose family owned four other theatres in New Hampshire. The Star was now the Strand – “Milford’s clean, comfortable and distinctive photoplay house” and featured early silent stars and celebrities from Lilian Gish to boxer Jack Dempsey.
When the first talkies arrived in 1930, the Strand was quick to promote its “RCA Photophone: The ultimate in sound reproduction.” One ad hyped Rudy Vallee in the Vagabond Lover: “Hear him crooning his way into the heart of the world” and the long-forgotten film, Chasing Rainbows, a “big talking, singing, dancing sensation.”
But as Hollywood’s silver screen became ever more popular and audiences became more sophisticated, the old theatre was showing its age. The Strand was now known more for uncomfortable seats and terrible ventilation than high quality cinema. In 1937, the Latchis Theatre opened on the Oval, bringing a modern picture house to Milford.
Today, both old Milford cinema locations are inhabited by restaurants. The Old Kilkenny Pub occupies the barn that once housed the Star, and the Pasta Loft resides in the Latchis Theatre building that was gutted by fire in 1960. These days the local cinephile must venture as far as Nashua to experience the big screen, which would no doubt disappoint Mrs. May Burnham Richardson.
A Strand Theatre ad from December of 1929.