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.
Cape May, N.J.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.
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.