Phantom Under the Opera House

illustration/Mort Todd

One of Maine’s Last Movie-Rental Shops Battles the Streamers

The Hollywood version of Opera House Video’s story begins in a galaxy far, far away from the movie-rental shop’s home. We’re in East Berlin, circa 1980, and CIA agent Dallas Steele (not his real name, obviously) is being pursued through the city’s bleak, rain-soaked streets by bushy eyebrowed goons in dark overcoats determined to spread the Soviets’ communal economic ideas across the entire planet. 

Agent Steele (Chris Pratt), a track-and-field star in his youth, plans to get away by pole vaulting over the Berlin Wall, but there’s just one problem. He’s fallen in love with Natasha Fräulein (a badly miscast Sandra Bullock), wife of the sadistic Stasi secret police chief (played by Christoph Waltz, obviously), and Steele won’t leave East Germany without her. The American’s motives are pure and good, his brutal torture of a young Stasi agent yields useful intelligence (remember, this is a different galaxy), and we’re treated to the obligatory chase scene through a beer garden, where buxom, blonde-braided waitresses squeal in fright and drop platters of frothy mugs as the spies sprint between the picnic tables, shooting wildly. 

Dallas and Natasha narrowly escape to West Berlin, where the CIA bureau chief (George C. Scott, resurrected with CGI) is waiting in a café with Steele’s next assignment. “Your cover’s been blown behind the Iron Curtain,” the bureau chief tells Dallas, Natasha anxiously gulping wine by his side. “It’s time to retire. We’ve created new identities for both of you. The plane leaves in thirty minutes.” 

“But where are we going?” Dallas asks. 

“A sleepy little town on the coast of Maine that smells like chicken shit and fish. Just north of Camden, where a lot of our boys retire. The Agency estimates it’s about two thousand miles from the nearest drinkable lager, so those commie krauts’ll never follow you there. It’s called Belfast.” 

“But vhut vill ve do there?” Natasha asks. “How vill ve survive?” 

The bureau chief smirks knowingly and replies: “You’ll be selling movies people can watch at home using cutting-edge technology developed by our Japanese allies at Sony. We’ve secretly pumped billions into this project, which will revolutionize the way the world experiences cinema. It’s called Betamax.” 


OK, having concocted this absurd backstory to secure the domestic-propaganda funding from the Pentagon needed to finance such a big-budget docudrama [1], the scene shifts to Belfast, circa 1995. 

Dallas and Natasha — now using the names Doug and Karolina Robertson — have opened Opera House Video on Church Street, in the historic Hayford Block, beneath the once glorious Belfast Opera House, now shuttered. Since the 19th century, the Opera House had hosted events and performances that regularly drew hundreds of people, including operas and plays, concerts and dances, boxing and basketball, and speeches by luminaries like Frederick Douglass. Locals have launched numerous efforts since the 1980s to refurbish and reopen the function hall, but those plans primarily relied on public or community support, rather than private, for-profit investment, so like all commie schemes, they were smothered in their cradle by the imperatives of neoliberal capitalism.  

Into the shop walks Denis Howard, then in his early 20s. He and his coworkers at the local sportswear store get together once or twice a week for Movie Night, and as usual, Denis has been tasked to pick the flick. Unable to find what he’s looking for, he approaches the counter, where Doug is standing, also as usual, next to the couple’s giant wolfhound, a beast Denis will later liken to the direwolves in Game of Thrones.    

YOUNG DENIS: I’m looking for Dumb and Dumber.

DOUG: Oh, every copy’s out. But wait, wait, wait one minute.

DENIS (via voiceover): He’d pull out a blue VHS case from under the counter and it’d be a TV movie with, like, C. Thomas Howell or something. 

DOUG: This. You need to watch this.

YOUNG DENIS: Oooh… The group I’m with really wanted Dumb and Dumber.

DOUG: Watch it. [2]

Cut to Opera House Video three decades into the future. It’s June of 2023, and now Denis owns the place and he’s working behind the counter, being interviewed by the editor of a local magazine (played, convincingly, by George Clooney). 

DENIS: And I’ll be damned. I would go home and show it to them and we’d be like, That’s a good movie. Because [Doug] watched all the time, and he knew that despite all the hype, despite all the media, sometimes the most interesting or fresh idea, or well-acted movie, is totally a B movie that’s under the radar. …

So then my sister, who’s in film school at the time, gets a job here. 

Slow fade back to Opera House Video in the late ’90s. The business had two adjacent storefronts in the Hayford Block back then, and there was a separate section for X-rated movies.   

DENIS (voiceover): All the right people in town — mayors, councilor, chief of police — they were coming to rent the adult films, and [Doug] didn’t want my sister to have to read the names, see the pictures, but he wanted people to get what they wanted. He invented some letter-and-number system and covered stuff up, like a code. With regular movies, they bring us the case, we give them [the disc]. But I don’t think he wanted them to bring my sister a case with, like, Naked Nurses on it or something. So I think they brought her, like, N-17-4-12-A, and she’d go get a case that had the movie in it, but she never had to see the art.

Pan to Tiffany Howard and Doug behind the counter, with the wolfhound sitting on its haunches nearby, lightly panting.    

DOUG: So, Tiffany, listen. There’s a gun under this counter, and if Karolina’s ex-husband ever comes in, pick it up and point it at him.


Flash forward to 2004, conveyed using that calendar-pages-flipping-in-wind convention as covers of popular movies from the period float by: Donnie Darko, Amélie, The Lord of the Rings, Naked Nurses 2: Spongebath No Pants. Denis, aged a decade, is at home when the phone rings.

DENIS: Hello? 

TIFFANY: Denis, it’s Tiffany. I’m at work. Can you drive my boss back to his house in Brooks? He’s really sick.

DENIS: Oh yeah. Sure. 

Cue the blood-pumping, action-movie soundtrack music as Denis hustles to his car and drives at a brisk, but responsible, speed through the tree-lines streets of Belfast in light afternoon traffic.

DENIS (voiceover): I came in to get him and drove him home, dropped him off at his house. Soon after, he was diagnosed with some form of cancer. And so then, he dies. 

Now, he’s co-owner of this business. And his wife — I mean, anybody would know, who’s a customer here, he was doing most of the work; she was kind of back there, apparently drinking wine all day and ordering from catalogs. …  The widow comes in the day he dies. She pours all her alcohol down the sink — she gave a couple bottles to some employees — and then she said, “I’m done drinking. Never again.” The problem was, her body went into some form of withdrawal. She went to Harbor Hill, on the other side of town — it was like an assisted-living [facility]. She was immediately, like, not well, and then she was dead in three months. 

So then my sister, who was maybe nineteen or twenty — I mean, she was young — and one of the other cashiers, who might have been in his late thirties, early forties, suddenly they’re covering the two shifts of the owners … and things like bills start arriving. And back then, the store account and [the Robertsons’] personal [accounts] were all intermingled. There was no accounting, no bookkeeping. 

Shot of Tiffany and the other clerk standing at the counter, picking up letters from a pile of mail and scratching their heads perplexedly. In walks the guy who ran The Bayside Store in nearby Northport, who was apparently also a lawyer of some sort.

LAWYER GUY: You need to be at a will reading tomorrow.


LAWYER GUY: You just have to show up.

Cut to the lawyer’s office, where we see the lawyer at a table with Tiffany and the older clerk, both still in a state of perplexity.  

DENIS (voiceover): So my sister and the other guy — his name is Jim Dandy; that’s the name he went by — they go to the will reading. They’ve never been at a will reading. In the will, it came out that both [Doug] and his German bride [Karolina] had been married to other people — he may have been in the CIA — and twenty-five years earlier, they left their spouses because they fell in love with each other. They each had a daughter from a previous marriage, who immediately became estranged from them each. Each daughter didn’t approve of what they had done, didn’t talk to them for a quarter century.

LAWYER GUY (reading the will to TIFFANY and JIM): You inherit the contents of their house, their car, their big-screen TV, and the business.

TIFFANY: Wait, wait … a business

DENIS (voiceover): My sister wanted to be a screenwriter. She didn’t want to be a business owner at all. And Jim wanted to move back to Michigan to be with his aging parents. So the two cashiers inherited a business. 

Because I was related, I went to the house to help them kind of get stuff, but those estranged daughters had already come, taken the car, the big-screen TV, the jewelry. … We don’t even know if those are their real names: Doug and Karola or Karolina. Because also when we cleaned out the house, we got some weird documents. We didn’t quite know whether to throw them away. A lot of the writing’s in German, which would make sense for her, but there’s also sometimes different names and stuff, and we’re like, Did he have a cover identity? What’s fascinating is they’re both gone and neither daughter has ever come to talk to us. …

Those are rumors about him being in the CIA. When we did clean out the contents of their house … there were tons of VHS screeners and DVD screeners, but you get those as part of owning a store back then. He had some wrapped Betamax videos in his collection that had never been open, and I’ve always wondered, like, Did he have those because he owned a store, or did he have those because he was a fan? But they were sealed. I’d love to know.


In 2008, due to some freaky-deaky money boo-boos that will surely never happen again, a global financial crisis cost Denis his job at the radio division of the Maine Public Broadcasting Network. He subsequently joined community radio station WERU, then based in Blue Hill, as its Music Director and Business Support Manager — positions he still holds — but in 2009 he started working a couple weeknights for his sister at Opera House Video.   

Denis Howard at Opera House Video. photos/Kyle Walton

Cut to Denis and George Clooney talking at the video shop this spring.

DENIS: And so then suddenly [the shop] is in the hands of these two people who are neophytes at business and didn’t want to ever run a business, and the first thing to threaten them was Netflix by mail. I think they did lose, like, half the customer base. That was worse than any streaming ever has been. … 

So they immediately put [the shop up] for sale back then, because they said, “Well, we’re not business people. We don’t know how to do this.” But what’s cool about their story is they figured out the books … they straightened everything out with accountants, they figured out a schedule that was equitable — each of them would be here a certain amount of time with other cashiers — and then they started to appeal to people. People were like, “You know what? I’m not gonna give Netflix money. I’m coming to you.” … And I’m not saying people didn’t still have Netflix, but there was a Let’s keep this place going [attitude]. 

Cue the (CIA-provided) B-roll footage of beautiful downtown Belfast on a touristy summer day…

NARRATOR: Once known as the Broiler Capital of the World for its chicken-processing facilities, Belfast is fertile ground for an anomalous and anachronistic business like Opera House Video to survive and thrive. In the late 1960s and ’70s, artists and back-to-the-landers discovered the seaside city of about 7,000 souls and established numerous institutions antithetical to the American Way, like food and art cooperatives. The iconoclastic poet, artist and physicist Bern Porter, who’d worked on the Manhattan Project, ran his subversive Institute of Advanced Thinking there for decades before his death in 2004, drawing all manner of wonderful weirdos into his orbit.

Friendly, family-owned bars and restaurants like Rollie’s (est. 1972) and Darby’s (a tavern since 1865) have been kept alive by locals through numerous economic collapses. The faded ’80s pop album covers adorning the walls of Traci’s Diner are a testament to the city’s blithe indifference to trends or even the passage of time.

Granted, the appreciation of old, “obsolete” stuff is itself a trend — witness the hipsters buying cassette tapes of new albums these days. The historic Colonial Theatre on High Street, a cinema opened in 1912, has been revived in the recent past, but is currently closed and for sale. A couple miles from downtown, across Belfast Bay, a couple recently bought the Seascape Motel and Cottages and lovingly updated the classic Maine roadside inn. They give guests portable record players and have a well curated collection of a few hundred albums in the lobby. Listening to Al Green and that Hi Records band through tinny, bass-less speakers transports you to a simpler, happier, more innocent era, before the Internet drove us all insane. 

Your humble narrator also found a copy of Elvis Costello’s Imperial Bedroom in Seascape’s stacks. It’s one of several landmark works in Elvis’ oeuvre missing from streaming platforms like Spotify and Apple Music. Plus, here you get the cover, a work of art in itself, and the sleeve with all those brilliantly convoluted lyrics to read and ponder. 

Take a minute yourself to ponder all the cool cover art and geek-pertinent information stripped from movies and albums by streaming companies. Who played on a record and who produced it? The Streamers don’t care to credit any of those shlubs. Insightful liner notes? Yeah, right. Gone also are all the audio commentaries available on DVDs, plus all the bonus features. Titles and entire series appear and disappear from video platforms without explanation, as monthly subscription costs rise and access is restricted.  

Journalist and author Cory Doctorow calls this part of the “enshittification cycle” typical of most Big Tech products, be it Twitter, Amazon, TikTok or Google’s search engine.

CORY DOCTOROW: Here is how platforms die: First, they are good to their users; then they abuse their users to make things better for their business customers; finally, they abuse those business customers to claw back all the value for themselves. Then, they die. [3]

The enshittification of Facebook and Instagram is plain for any remaining user to see: fewer posts by those you follow, more crap from companies that paid to have you spied upon by Meta. And Doctorow’s point about platforms squeezing creators, too? Perhaps you’ve heard of the ongoing writers’ strike, prompted in part by stingy compensation from streaming corporations, that’s effectively ended all mainstream film and television production in the United States, save for cheap “reality” shows, for the foreseeable future. Whoopsie.

Trouble is, when those platforms inevitably die, they’ll have taken ready access to most of our culture’s artistic products with them. It’ll be like the destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria — just substitute Ernest Goes to Camp for The Iliad, and multiply the loss by a billion titles. 

Tech corporations used venture capital, reckless debt and wildly inflated Wall Street values to decimate mom-and-pop bookstores, record shops and video stores nationwide. In Maine, there are approximately three brick-and-mortar video joints left: Opera House, a place in Rangeley called Video Habits, and Eveningstar Video, in the lobby of Eveningstar Cinema in Brunswick, which specializes in movies screened at the theater over the decades. If you don’t live near any of those, and you’re not rich enough to buy everything you want to hear and see, your last defense against Entertainment Armageddon is probably the local library, which is likewise gasping for cash to survive.         


Back at Opera House Video, Clooney continues the interview. 

CLOONEY: How did you end up buying this place? 

DENIS: Over the years, I saw people get close to buying it. … [But] every time my sister and Jim Dandy would think, “We’re gonna sell it!” somebody would back out and open a new business. 

Then it was 2017 and there was a young couple with young kids. They were gonna buy this place. They were all set. They made a three-year lease arrangement. Jim and Tiffany were like, “Yes, now we’ve done it. We’ll sell to own or lease to own. This is perfect.” And then the Brunswick video store [Bart & Greg’s DVD Explosion] closed. And that was when they were like, “We’ve got young kids. We can’t take this on if it fails, the debt.” Right about that point, I was at the Co-op …

Cut to flashback inside the Belfast Community Co-op grocery store, where Denis is in the checkout line next to another customer. 

CUSTOMER: Denis, I hear the video store’s being sold.

DENIS: Really?

CUSTOMER: Yeah, I hear it’s sold. Somebody’s gonna buy it.


CUSTOMER: They’ll probably keep the staff. You’ll probably get to keep your job.

Cut back to the Clooney interview. 

DENIS: And I was like, “OK,” but something in me’s like, I kind of want to buy it myself. … I felt like I’d been kind of kicked in the gut. And I was like, Why do I feel that way? I’m not known for being very emotional, but there was something like a physical feeling. So I called up both owners. 

Split screen showing Denis on the phone with his sister and Jim Dandy. 

TIFFANY: I’m not gonna sell it to you, because this has been an albatross, and if you buy it, you’re gonna call for advice. It’s like the mafia, you’re gonna pull me in. 

JIM DANDY: You’d give us money?

DENIS: Well, yeah, I’d buy it. 

JIM DANDY: Hmmm. I’ll remember that. 

DENIS (voiceover): It was around Thanksgiving when they announced in Brunswick that store couldn’t continue. The other buyers backed out. 

JIM DANDY (on the phone again): They’re out. I mean, it’s yours. Nobody else will buy it.

DENIS (voiceover): And he said — actually, the nicest quote anybody ever said, and maybe he just wanted to sell the store —  but he said…

JIM DANDY: You’re the only one who can do this.

NARRATOR: That was probably true. During the first 50 or so days of COVID lockdown, Denis crouched by the mail slot in the shop’s front door, exchanging cash for videos (Opera House doesn’t take plastic) with a line of customers standing outside, freezing his own ass off between runs back and forth between the door and the shelves in back where the discs are kept. 

DENIS (to CLOONEY): It was interesting to see how the real epidemic that seemed to come out of that, like the real, real scary thing, was how lonely people are. I think we saw that more than [other retailers]. People always come and talk about movies. That’s why we’re here. During those first fifty days, when they had to stand on the street, they talked to me through the slot. But then after that … there was much more discussion about the movies on, like, an emotional level. And people would begin to tell you stuff about their life and ask about yours. And you realized, Wow, everybody’s really lonely. … I think more than scared, more than angry.

NARRATOR: Denis kept his employees on the payroll during the pandemic until the shop could no longer afford to do so. These days he’s got two new workers to share shifts: Becca Biggs, who’s also a remarkable singer-songwriter, and a high school student named Morgan, whose first visit to the store as a younger kid left her thoroughly confused about the concept. 

Cut to scene of Morgan and her mom at home. 

MORGAN: Mom, I was just in the weirdest place.

MOM: Where were you, twelve-year-old?

MORGAN: I was in this store with, like, movies, that they said you could take but you had to bring back?

MOM: Like a video store?

MORGAN: I guess so.

MOM: Well, yeah, Morgan. That’s what we grew up going to.    

Cut back to Clooney, who’s apparently found the free popcorn at the front of the shop and is now side-eyeing a box of Goobers by the register.  

CLOONEY: Why do people still come to Opera House Video? 

DENIS: I’d like to think a lot of them are coming because we’re locally owned. … My employees and I, you know, we spend our money locally, too. I think it’s a cliché, but it’s probably true that your money goes around sixteen times or something. I see that. Because when people come in here and they own a business, where are we going to go next time we need somebody to shovel the driveway or fix our car, or a farm stand? Well, it’s the people who buy locally in here. …

Some customers come specifically for something that they can’t find anywhere. A lot of times it used to happen with only new releases. Because when I started here, 2009, they were still getting things a month before Netflix or Redbox. I don’t know how they did that, that video stores would get DVD copies before the Redboxes would, because it seems like they would have been delivered at the same time. But that was the deal. And then Netflix, I think most customers are aware that Netflix doesn’t get new movies first. In fact, looking at the New Release rack, sometimes people will go, “That’s already out? Isn’t that in theaters?” And I hear people get excited for a movie, going, “That’s coming on Netflix next month!” And I’ll say, “We’ve had that for four months.”

CLOONEY: Compared to the hit the shop took when Netflix started mailing DVDs, how has streaming affected your business? 

DENIS: Bit by bit, it’s siphoned some people off. Since Disney Plus came on the scene, I think we lost a sizable chunk, and I feared that when that was announced, because I knew that Disney owned Star Wars, Marvel Comics, The Muppets, and I had just lived through everybody coming in renting all twenty-two Marvel Cinematic Universe movies in a row. The summer of 2018, when Infinity Wars was out, every customer realized, Oh, I haven’t actually seen all those movies. … I’ve got to watch all twenty-two movies, in order, to figure out what Infinity Wars is about. There was no Disney Plus yet, and we owned every film. 

And then now you’ve got so many others: Paramount Plus, HBO Max. But customers are also beginning to come in who say, “I’m sick of it. I don’t want these streaming services. I’m paying too much. I don’t even use them. I just want to watch a movie.” … We have so many customers who come in here to rent who say, “My wife and I spend forty minutes looking at a Netflix menu screen, and then we go, ‘Oh, there’s nothing to watch,’ [and] go to bed.”’ …

There are people who maybe don’t have credit cards — we have customers who don’t have credit cards or debit cards. Or they don’t have Internet — I mean, that helps, obviously, because there’s no competition for them. And then there are the people — maybe a more small subset … [and] I hadn’t thought of this — who’ve told me, “I don’t want Wi-Fi radiating my house 24/7.”

CLOONEY (coughing abruptly): Sorry, kernel. So let me get this straight. Opera House has a better selection than any streaming service — over 23,000 unique DVD titles, not counting all the VHS tapes. You get new releases a lot sooner. A fellow human who loves movies, as opposed to an algorithm, will gladly give you great recommendations. And it’s cheaper. Why isn’t everyone coming here?

DENIS: I’ve never been able to totally wrap my head around that. There’s a Buy Local that many of us live by and try to do as much as we can local. But there is sort of almost a mental stumbling block in a lot of people’s heads that, “Oh, the movie I’m watching could be rented locally for four dollars instead of giving Amazon twenty dollars [per month, plus rental fee] to rent it for” … like, a night, or twenty-four hours after you start watching it. We give you three nights for four dollars. And then you go, So what is it that makes us not as locally important?       


Roll more of that beautiful Belfast B-roll footage, eh, bub? Time to wrap this puppy up.

BERN PORTER (voiceover): You know, what’s unique about Belfast, there are seventeen different types of people in this town, and they’ve got no reason to know each other, talk to each other, be friends with each other, but they are, somehow.

DENIS (voiceover): Like, you’re in line at a store. That guy in front of you is nothing like you or this person behind you. And probably that’s the same everywhere. But Bern said the difference is, in Belfast, you kind of get along with each other. And I don’t mean to make us sound like a Hallmark movie, but I think that it is so interesting. 

Obviously, I want to have a successful business and I love movies. I mean, I do this for a reason. But my happiest moments are when customers are in here who don’t even know each other. … And they meet here. And it might be because one of them talks about a movie and the other one’s curious. … There’s something in common. I can get them talking sometimes. I’m not saying they’re gonna be best friends or get married, but you sometimes see a connection made. And I’m like, There we go

Roll credits. 

Bonus Feature

GEORGE CLOONEY (picking popcorn out of his teeth): Oh, hi there. So, that was the story, but there’s something still unresolved in my mind, and perhaps in yours, as well. Doug and Karolina. Like, what the fuck was up with that? 

I mean, sure, they died when the Internet was fairly young, but zero trace of them online? Even — bupkis. They rented a house in Brooks, so no property tax records on file. How convenient. 

They weren’t assholes. Denis described Doug as a funny, brilliant, kind guy. Karolina, with her thick German accent, may have been less visible and social, but she wasn’t regarded as a bad person by staff or customers. Kids are never happy when parents split up, but twenty-five years of stony silence in both their former families? Absolutely no rapprochement and nothing left in the will? Instead, they leave not only a valuable business, but all their personal possessions to the teenager and the horror-movie junkie who run the register? 

Again, I beseech thee, what the actual fuck? Could the rift with the kids have been tied up in something even larger, like national pride or geopolitics? Then there are the suspicious documents found in their home. And the fact Doug nonchalantly told Tiffany to point a gun in a man’s face. And the constant presence of that giant wolfhound, who was friendly but may have received similar instruction from Doug. 

It’s tempting to say we’ll never know, but we might, someday — maybe after this story goes public. There really are lots of old spooks in the Camden area, according to informed sources. 

In the meantime, let’s look at Doug and Karolina in a positive light, as two people who gave up everything for love, renting a house in the Maine woods and renting titty flicks to the police chief in hopes he’ll be a little nicer to the stoners on the street if he unloads his rocks on the reg. 

That’s how I like to think of them, anyway. Good night, and good luck.    

1. According to researchers Matthew Alford and Tom Secker, “between 1911 and 2017, more than 800 feature films received funding or other assistance from the U.S. Department of Defense.” Citations Needed podcast, Ep. 115, July 22, 2020.      

2. All quotes are from our interview with Denis Howard at his shop last month.

3. “The ‘Enshittification’ of TikTok,” Wired, Jan. 23, 2023. 

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