Frederick E. Mortimer and his Photoplay Garden
For many years Freeporters had to go no farther than the Nordica Theatre on Bow Street for a night at the movies. While most long-term residents know about the Nordica, and many still remember it, few know, and probably none remember its predecessor, Mortimer’s Photoplay Theatre. The theater, sometimes referred to as the “Photoplay Garden,” was showing silent movies, and presenting musical performances and other acts as early as 1911. A paragraph in the Six Towns Times newspaper in October of that year announced that “Mr. F.E. Mortimer, proprietor of Freeport’s Photoplay theatre, has purchased lumber to build a small store at South Freeport.” The article went on to explain that the store would also serve as a waiting room for the Portland and Brunswick Street Railway. An advertisement for the theatre in the same edition proclaimed it “The People’s Popular Playhouse – Beautiful Moving Pictures and Illustrated Songs – Tuesday and Saturday.”
The admission was normally 10 cents, but in early October, 1911, when Mortimer presented The Passion Play, described as “3,000 feet of beautiful film,” ticket prices doubled to 20 cents, “owing to the expense of securing this attraction.” He also issued a special invitation to the clergy to attend this religiously-based work. This may have been part of a campaign to convince the locals that the theater did not pose a threat to the community’s moral standards: in another advertisement from 1911 he asserted that the theatre was “patronized by Freeport’s Best People,” and promised to give away 10 Rogers silver spoons with every performance.
And Frederick E. Mortimer was not your typical staid yankee businessman. An undated obituary from an unknown newspaper characterized him as an “actor, theatrical man, builder, promoter, pioneer, aeronaut, and prize fight referee.” He was born in Biddeford and by the age of 12 was performing magic tricks as “Master Frederick, the Boy Wonder.” He performed as a comedian in New York, and eventually headed west, where he performed in minstrel shows and vaudeville acts. For four years he operated the Gem Theater in Deadwood, Dakota. The gold that was discovered nearby brought in a steady stream of rough and ready adventurers, who spent their money freely, but had to be frisked for weapons on entering the theater. He operated theaters in several other mid-western towns, ran an amusement park in Little Rock, Arkansas, and once refereed a prize fight between John L. Sullivan and Joe Goss. In a role reminiscent of the Wizard of Oz, “Professor Mortimer” made balloon ascensions and parachute jumps. He barely escaped with his life in one instance, when his balloon burst into flames, and his parachute failed to open until he was just 50 feet above the ground. The brush on the ground below was credited with breaking his fall.
In 1882 he returned to Maine. With little cash, he opened the Lyceum Theater in Portland, and operated a theater on Peaks Island for one season. He showed silent movies in Yarmouth and South Portland, as well as Freeport, where, according to this obituary, he eventually opened the Nordica Theatre. He died in Freeport at the age of 72. He was survived by his wife Jennie, and was buried in a family lot in Biddeford.