Now playing: a coastal town’s rite of summer

With Cape May’s historic movie theater at a crossroads, supporters race to write a happy ending.

By , Correspondent

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    Reeling locals in: When the Beach Theatre was built in 1950, its TV room became a draw for locals unfamiliar with the new medium. The theater has been listed as one of New Jersey's 10 most endangered historical and cultural sites.
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If you just want to see a movie, it might be easier to drive a few miles north to the 12-screen, where there‘s parking. Or, for that matter, you can head to Blockbuster. Open your Netflix. Order something from On Demand.

But at the shore, in the summer, the movie isn’t the point. Not entirely, anyway. In Cape May, at least, you don’t usually drive to the movies. You walk. Otherwise, how would you see the day lilies and the ivy against the backdrop of a picket fence? Or the sunburned families, freshly dressed, headed for an ice cream?

You’d miss the evening murmur of voices floating from the broad porches with their deep awnings. And you wouldn’t know that gnarled old tree roots give the sidewalk a roller-coaster effect, so that walking itself requires some attention.

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Here, where the walk is the vacation for many, and the movie a reason to walk, generations of residents and visitors gasped a year-and-a-half ago when word got out that the Beach Theatre’s owner planned to sell it to make way for condos. Obviously, someone didn’t understand.

“I could not believe it,” recalls New York City ad man Steve Jackson, sitting in the cozy theater lobby. A widower who still spends summer weekends in the Columbia Avenue house his parents bought when he was a child, he recalls, “I went here with my friends. I went here with my sister. I went with my girlfriends, with my wife, with my mother and father....”

In response to the news, he established the nonprofit Beach Theatre Foundation, not only to keep first-run movies in Cape May, but to restore the 1950s-era building and use part of it to host independent, foreign, and art house films, live opera broadcasts, film camps, school groups, and festivals.

“I want to give people another reason to love Cape May,” he explains. As manager for 20 years of his ad agency’s Anheuser-Busch account, with its award-winning television commercials – “little films,” he calls them – he’s placed his expertise and his Rolodex at the disposal of the cause. His immediate mandate is simple: “Our number one goal is to save the movie theater.”

And why not? Cape May, which boasts of being America’s oldest seashore resort, is a study in what can be done. Long a haven for those in the arts, it’s home to a robust push and pull of creative sensibilities and commercial interests that, by 1976, managed to turn a resort that had been edging toward seediness into a National Historic Landmark.

Now, gracious summer homes and Victorian B & Bs line tranquil, shady blocks, with their endless processions of horse-drawn carriages, trolleys, and foot tours. Jazz festivals, summer playhouses, and gallery shows round out the more conventional summertime offerings. If anyplace could save something, Cape May could.

The theater effort now taps film professionals who summer in and near the town, as well as the associations of its board members. Even fellow Jersey boy Bruce Springsteen has been allowing his “LIVE in Barcelona” concert film to be shown here, with box-office receipts going to the Save the Beach effort.

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The Beach was built in 1950, in a neo-colonial revival style, as an 860-seat theater flanked by shops – essentially a strip-mall design, but one that was new to these parts. It incorporated a television room designed to familiarize guests with the new medium, and in a town where TVs were few and reception poor, residents flocked to the theater for news when JFK was shot.

Today, an architectural evaluation says the building qualifies for listing in the State and National Registers of Historic Places, while the nonprofit Preservation New Jersey calls it one of the 10 most endangered historical and cultural sites in the state.

The Foundation, which is now leasing the Beach, has brought the theater back from what some saw as near squalor, with new heating and air conditioning, refurbished curtains, and new paint. Plans call for reconfigured seating and for restoration of the neon sign, marquee, and geranium gardens out front, as well as for fountains and possibly celebrity handprints.

Right now, there’s the stamp of a place that’s loved: homey curtains in the bathrooms, wicker cafe tables and chairs in the lobby, old movie posters framed on the walls. Mr. Jackson envisions the renovated space in part as a salon for film buffs, with ushers and candy sellers who are sources of information and enthusiasm. And if the Beach someday becomes the Sundance of the East – well, so much the better.

But while the Foundation originally focused on the art house and “film” possibilities, popular demand and the tradition of the beachfront icon have convinced them that people who want to see “movies” may be their bread and butter.

“This theater is about ‘Jaws,’ ” says Jackson.

The infant operation can cover its expenses for now, but is open to every potential revenue stream. There are naming rights available should, perhaps, a Comcast want a neon acknowledgment of its generosity up on the marquee. And why wouldn’t Sony or Dolby want to use the place as a lab for their state-of-the-art technology? After all, the original theater introduced Vista Vision and stereophonic sound – once city innovations – to the boonies.

The group has an option to buy the place for $12 million, and Jackson is confident that they can land, if not a sympathetic and wealthy angel donor, then at least a like-minded developer/partner, one familiar with the workings of historic properties, nonprofits, and the tax benefits that can make such a project work. Jackson believes the deal can also benefit the group that owns the building, Frank Investments; he points to the firm’s willingness to lease the theater to the foundation – rather than sell it immediately – as a sign of support.

Says Bruce Frank, the firm’s president, “We hope that they are successful” in securing a developer, but “if they are unable to, we will go forward with our [condo] project.”

From his vantage point in the box office, manager Tom Fink says customers are delighted simply to see the theater open after last year’s threatened closing. They like the improvements, and attendance is up 25 percent. “It’s been a boring year,” he says. “To me, that’s a good year. It means everybody in town is happy.”

To you, it means another summer marked by the walk to the Beach. Add this – the year of “Get Smart” and “Dark Knight” – to the year you saw your first Woody Allen movie, and the year you let the kids go with their cousins to see “Forrest Gump.”

Popcorn finished and credits rolling, you head home by way of the boardwalk. For a block, there’s the whirl of kiddie rides and fudge shops, most of them winding down by this hour. Then it’s all ocean – the shush of waves, the pungent breeze. The gigantic moon that was only an orange smudge in the sky when you set out now hangs full and bright over the water. Some nights the sky is so clear that you can see the lights down in Delaware. Other nights, the fog billows in, so heavy it soaks your hair and obscures even the few steps ahead.

Another summer. Another movie. And happily, not yet The End.

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