How sickly ironic that the last movie shown at the Island Theatre (August 2012) was named Sparkle, something the building hasn’t seen for a generation. It certainly sparkled in June 1915, when it opened as the Eagle and for 20 cents folks saw the movie David Harum. The 1925 case of Judkins vs. Charette proved that, as a result of a storm in August 1924, the Eagle Theatre’s roof had failed, leaking in several places that caused the rusting away of certain joints and left cracks running down the rear wall.

That may have been the causal effect of its structural problems today where, due to a recent study, our building inspector and a panel of experts have been forced to declare the building unsafe. Town leaders are now faced with adjudicating the buildings fate with demolition ranking highest on a list of unfortunate options, possibly making prophetic lyrics of Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi, “pave paradise and put in a parking lot.” The uproar is far and wide with the spotlight on the owners.

The first theatre dedicated exclusively to showing motion pictures, Vitascope Hall in New Orleans, was built in 1896 and long ago torn down. The Graham Opera House (1894) in Iowa, The Roxie in San Francisco, (1909), the Priest in Florida (1910), The Empress in Calif. (1911), the Elks in Penn. (1911), the Park in Colo. (1913), and the Ruby in Washington (1914) were built before the Eagle (1915). Besides the Island, only five remain, making the Island the sixth oldest in America. The Empress, Park and Ruby are protected by the National Register of Historic Places, something apparently never considered for the Island Theatre.

Circuit avenue is not in a historic district—which doesn’t prevent its buildings from being historically significant. Old photographs of the Eagle show that the original façade, now bastardized, may lurk beneath the Island Theatre. That’s not something I’d bet on, given the report of its heartbreaking condition. Because it is not in an historic district or an historic building there is no historic salvation for the crumbling relic of our nostalgia. Suggestions of tearing down the building and retaining the façade are out of the realm of affordability or practicality. Dreams of a wealthy savior of the Humpty Dumptyish theatre are unworthy of common sensibility. Expectations for a group of local businesses to gather together to create a community performance center would lack a business plan with a profit motive. Given the public safety issue this concept – if extant — may be bereft of time.

This leaves the community with the likely prospect of a tear-down and perhaps fenced in vacant lot at the gateway of the town people think of when they think of Martha’s Vineyard. Former town official Todd Rebello has pointed out that the view behind the Island will look like a behind, all at taxpayers’ expense.

Recognizing the loss taxpayers have experienced over the years from the owners not pursuing the property’s highest use (as a theatre) they should be obligated to pay for the demolition of the building and the complete renovation of the property from eyesore status—and given 30 days in which to do so. If not the price should be the land for the town to develop or sell to more worthy stewards. It is intolerable to think taxpayers could be litigated for the present owner’s business failure.

Keep your foot on a rock.

Send Oak Bluffs news to