by Phil Hall (reprinted from Film Threat, April 18, 2009)
For the serious movie lover, there are few things more depressing than a theatre that is shut down. The rise of the conglomerate-owned multiplexes in the 1970s helped to speed the decline of many independently owned community theatres, and today many of the smaller venues exist only as memories or remain as locked, defunct structures awaiting restoration or the wrecking ball.
The Westmont Theatre in Haddon Township, N.J., is typical of the latter scenario. It first opened in 1927 with the Lon Chaney flick “The Unknown” on the big screen. Over the years, the theatre was southern New Jersey’s primary venue for first-run films, and one of its most dedicated patrons was a young Steven Spielberg, whose family lived in Haddon Township in the early 1950s. In 1973, the theatre was one of only 30 U.S. theaters to present the opening of “The Exorcist,” and in 1979 the Oscar-winner “Kramer vs. Kramer” was sneak previewed at the Westmont (Dustin Hoffman showed up for the test screening).
But 1979 was also the last peak year for the original Westmont. It was divided into a twin theater, then sold to the AMC. In 1986, AMC shut down the theatre. It was used by a local drama company in 1992, and in 1999 the local government of Haddon Township purchased the venue for $280,000. In 2007, filmmaker Brent J. Donaway made the theatre the subject of his documentary “The Grand Old Lady.”
Allen F. Hauss, acting president of the volunteer advocacy group Neighbors Celebrating the Westmont and author of the book “South Jersey Movie Houses,” spoke with Film Threat on the push to restore The Westmont to its former glory.
Why is there a need to restore this old-time theatre?
Camden County, New Jersey, in its entirety and all of Haddon Township is severely lacking in the arts. Other than the small theatre at Rutgers University in Camden, the county is without a major performing arts building of the size or technical capabilities of the Westmont Theatre. The theatre’s location, on Haddon Avenue, locates it on a main corridor serving Collingswood, Westmont, and Haddonfield with easy access by public transportation, including PATCO – and, as such would be the main anchor or “draw” for the entire corridor.
The theatre was designed by two important and well-known Philadelphia architects: David Supowitz and William H. Lee, and is the only surviving example of their work in Camden County. The Westmont Theatre is the last remaining vaudeville/film theatre in all of Camden County, and is a glorious representation of the “Golden Age of Film and of Movie Palaces.”
What is the current state of the theatre?
A visual structural inspection report on the theatre was completed and issued on November 16, 2007, by Remington & Vernick Engineers, of Haddonfield, NJ. At that time, they suggested specific repairs in the amount of $66,000 to maintain the building’s structural integrity. Even though this maintenance is a requirement in the lease of the building, and even though funds are set aside in a special account for this purpose, nothing has been done to maintain the building.
The interior lobbies are in excellent shape, as are the restrooms on all levels. The main auditorium was divided into two with an easily removed sheet-rock wall when the theatre was twinned in the 1980’s. The original stage proscenium was removed when a large CinemaScope screen was installed, but could easily be rebuilt. The rest of the stage and fly-house is in excellent condition.
How much would it cost to restore The Westmont?
It would take approximately $8-9,000,000 to restore the theatre to what it once was. This funding would come from a variety of state, federal, and private sources, especially if a 501(c)3 non profit is organized to operate the facility as a true performing arts/film facility, and once it has been placed on the state and national historic registries. This model has performed with great success in hundreds of theatres throughout the United States.
What level of support/feedback from the New Jersey arts community and from the state’s historic preservationists are you receiving?
At this point, all support and feedback have been on an informal basis, as the non-profit has not been formed, and the application for the historic registries are still in progress. However, the Neighbors Celebrating the Westmont (NCW) has received much support from the community, including the local branch of TD Bank painting a mural of the theatre on an entire wall, and giving away free reproductions of that classic scene.
How can movie lovers can get involved in helping your effort?
People can get involved with the activities of the NCW by checking our blog (http://westmonttheatre.wordpress.com/) as well as the Haddon Township blog (http://haddontwp.wordpress.com//) and the site of the Haddon Township Historical Society. (http://www.haddontwphistoricalsociety.org/).