New Jersery theatres>For small-town theaters, the show must go on One-screen venues use any means to keep doors open

Our own, Richard Sklenar, quoted

The Star-Ledger (Newark, New Jersey)

October 28, 2010 Thursday

SOMERSET/HUNTERDON EDITION

For small-town theaters, the show must go on One-screen venues use any means to keep doors open

By Jeremy Walsh, For the Star-Ledger and

Brent Johnson For the Star-Ledger

With the era of matinee idols long past and the shadow of the recession darkening more hearts than any movie monster, many historic, small-town cinemas across the state have been forced to find new ways to keep their doors open.

Some continue to squeeze a living out of the silver screen, while others have started hosting stage performances and musical acts, but many are still fighting to stay afloat.

Richard Sklenar, executive director of the Illinois-based Theatre Historical Society of America, said times are tough for old theaters throughout the nation.

"Both single-screen movie theaters and those that have been reprogrammed from movies to live shows are struggling," he said.

The healthiest small community theaters in the state are often located in towns with heavily trafficked downtowns like Westfield, Summit and Maplewood, said Chris Rinaldi, a professor of American studies at Rutgers.

"If a theater is situated away from an affluent area, then promoters must work that much harder to attract patrons," he said. "This usually requires money they simply don’t have to be spent on advertising that may or may not work."

Morristown entrepreneur Bud Mayo and his business partner Brett Marks are in the process of buying two thriving 1920s-era movie theaters, Westfield’s Rialto and the Cranford Theatre, with this fact in mind.

Mayo founded Cinedigm in 2000 to improve struggling theaters’ bottom lines by delivering films to theaters via satellite and providing live streams of concerts and major sporting events. Now his new company, Digital Cinema Destinations Corp., hopes to make the two old theaters templates for a new chain in the Northeast that uses Cinedigm equipment to fill seats during off-peak movie times.

But in smaller, more modest downtowns like Dover in Morris County, the shows have dwindled.

Five years ago, Lee Levitt spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to renovate the 104-year-old Baker Theatre there, bringing in live musical acts like Tom Jones and the Marshall Tucker Band.

But performers like Jones charge as much as $55,000, putting front-row seats around $100 and discouraging more frugal consumers, Levitt said. He said he breaks even by hosting trade shows, weddings and bar mitzvahs.

"You can sit there and blame the community for not supporting us," Levitt said, "but if you’re not bringing in talent for the price they want to see, you can’t blame them."

In Bound Brook in Somerset County, the Brook Theater can blame nature as much as economics for its woes. The 83-year-old venue was devastated by flooding in 1999 during Hurricane Floyd. It reopened in 2006 as a nonprofit arts center, only to sustain severe flood damage six months later. It reopened a year ago, hosting plays and musical acts.

In the tiny Middlesex County town of Dunellen, Rich Zupko manages to get by with the money he makes from the Dunellen Theater’s 235 plush red seats. His father bought the 88-year-old building 20 years ago, and the family soon reconfigured it for dinner theater and children’s movies.

"We’re a dying breed," he said. "But small towns need small things to keep them going."

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