Just before his death in 1998, longtime Colonial Theatre Manager John Grant saw his final film. Fittingly, it was at the place to which he dedicated most of his life.

And ironically, it was the James Cameron blockbuster, “Titanic.”

The irony, said Katie Winship of Belfast, lies with the fact that the 100th anniversary of the Belfast theater’s opening on April 12 coincides with the launching of the ill-fated vessel in 1912.

That’s just one of many pieces of Grant’s life that Winship learned about during her months-long exploration of the 50 years that Grant worked — and largely ran the show at — Colonial Theatre.

In preparation of the theater’s centennial celebration, Winship has filmed interviews with Grant’s relatives and collected photographs, old movie advertisements and newspaper clippings for use in a documentary she is creating titled “The John Grant Era.” The documentary will be presented as part of the line-up of events that will be held in honor of the theater’s 100th birthday Thursday, April 12.

It all started with wreaths

Winship, who describes herself as an amateur videographer, initially started making unedited home movies on a video camera she acquired in 2000. But a few years ago, Winship said she became interested in documenting the wreath project at First Church in Belfast. The wreath-making project, which was intended to serve as a fundraiser for the church when it was first launched about 80 years ago, still had a few volunteers who were old enough to tell the story of how the undertaking got its start.

“They were losing people left and right, and it was most of the people who were making it happen,” said Winship. “I felt like I had to start documenting it.”

So Winship met with Avis Howells, a veteran wreath-maker whose mother helped get the fundraiser off the ground all those years ago. Through her interviews with Howells and other long-standing players at the church, and with the help of Belfast Community TV’s Ned Lightner, Winship gathered hours of footage and was able to put together a trailer for a lengthier documentary that she plans to complete in the future.

Winship’s focus since last fall, however, has been learning all there is to know about Grant, his work and his family, an effort that began when she was approached by Colonial Theatre co-owner Therese Bagnardi about the possibility of documenting Grant’s life.

Bagnardi said it was Winship’s work with the wreath project, and their mutual friendship with the Howells, that prompted her to ask Winship if she would be willing to make Grant the subject of her next documentary.

“Last summer we talked about it, and she was filming with [Grant’s] family last October,” said Bagnardi.

Living around show times

To get rolling, Winship said Bagnardi put her in touch with Grant’s widow Mary, and from there she met their children, Gary Grant and Laurie McClean, as well as Grant’s grandson Chris Bowen. Lightner, who Winship said has been a huge source of knowledge and support, supplied her with the sound equipment she needed to obtain crisp, clear audio accounts of Grant’s home and professional life, which Winship said were quite intertwined.

“They ate, slept and lived the movies,” said Winship of the Grant family. “They all worked there, as well as, apparently, half the town.”

Three generations of the Grant family helped Winship weave together Grant’s story, and that interview resulted in more than three hours of footage, which Winship said also outlined the family’s double-duty work at both the theater and the now defunct drive-in theater. The old drive-in on Belmont Avenue, which closed in the early 1980s, was owned and operated by the Kursons, the same Massachusetts family that formerly owned Colonial Theatre.

Mary Grant explained that John Grant, who was born in 1929 and grew up in Searsport, began working at the Belfast theater as a teenager in 1945 and was a mainstay there until his retirement in 1995.

“He worked as a doorman, and an usher,” said Winship of his early days. “He worked the concession stand, and then he worked his way up to the projector.”

John and Mary Grant were married in 1952, and by 1953, Winship said life was moving pretty quickly for the newlyweds.

“At the same time that Mary was in the hospital having Laurie [McClean], the manager of the Colonial was in another hospital,” said Winship.

Each day, Grant would visit his wife and new baby and would then bring his manager boxes of popcorn during his hospital stay. At one point, Winship said, the theater manager made a bet with the new Mrs. Grant.

“The manager bet Mary a box of popcorn that he’d get out of the hospital before she did,” said Winship.

Winship said the manager won the bet because he was released from the hospital first, but he never collected that box of popcorn because he died a short while later. That’s when Grant took over the management role.

Over the years, the Grant’s children were raised with great films, and tailored their lives around show times.

“He never took a vacation, and when he did he was always worried about the place,” said Winship of Grant’s dedication to his job. “I think he always like to be on top of it, and then he trained his family to do it.”

A family affair

While Grant kept thinking of new and creative ways to promote the theater with attractions like amateur boxing and live circus shows, his wife and children pitched in wherever they were needed.

“He put me behind the candy counter,” recalled McClean in the documentary. “He popped the popcorn and I sold the candy.”

McClean recalled how her father helped her learn to solve math problems in her head because there was no cash register at the time and she needed to tally candy orders quickly, and without the use of pencil and paper.

“One day it just clicked,” said McClean.

Grant’s son Gary also worked at the theater, and when he met his future wife, Jane, his father put her to work too.

“She worked in the concessions area and at the ticket counter,” said Winship with a chuckle, noting that Grant likely gave Jane the job to make sure Gary wouldn’t blow off work to hang out with his then-girlfriend.

Grandson Chris Bowen wasn’t a big fan of working at the concession counter, but Winship said he found his own passion running the projector.

The show must go on

The Grants recalled one occasion when there was a fire on Washington Street in Belfast, which flared up while Grant was showing a movie. The fire chief ran inside the theater and asked Grant if he could run a fire hose down through the theater because it was the quickest and easiest way to attack the blaze, and of course Grant said yes. But a movie was in the midst of running, and two women were inside watching the film as the real drama unfolded outside.

When Grant asked the women if they would prefer to come back and see the film the next day — Winship said there was no way to stop a film once it started running in those days — they said they didn’t mind the interruption.

“The two ladies decided to stay and watch the movie,” said Winship.

What Winship said fascinated her most about Grant was the degree to which he had always loved the movies, and how committed he was to seeing them every chance he got.

“He grew up in Searsport, and he loved the movies so much as a child that he would walk to Belfast to see the Saturday matinee,” said Winship.

At one point when he broke his leg as a youth, Winship said Grant never stopped making his weekend movie trips.

“He would hobble out on his crutches to Route 1 and hitch a ride,” said Winship. “That’s what is so remarkable, is his lifelong passion for the movies.”

Bagnardi, who has assisted Winship throughout the making of the film, said she hopes those who see it will gain a greater understanding of how much Grant’s love for films contributed to the very survival of the Belfast theater.

In his efforts to keep the theater alive over the years, Grant split the once singular theater into two and started renting VHS movies after the VCR came onto the scene.

“They’ll appreciate that it’s hard to run a movie theater, and that if he hadn’t loved it so much it might have died long ago,” said Bagnardi.

Grant’s son Gary remembered how concerned his father was when the curtain rose on the next phase of home entertainment — the DVD.

“I think he really thought people wouldn’t go to the movies anymore,” he said.

And Grant said if his father were alive to see how many locals still pack the theater seats to see the latest blockbusters, and the centennial celebration that is being planned for his beloved theater, “he would be very pleased.”

Reporter Tanya Mitchell can be reached at 338-3333 or at tmitchell@villagesoup.com.