Beach Theatre memories offered at yard sale

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Funds to pay off legal bills from preservation fight

CAPE MAY -- Yard sales usually mark the end of something. Summer ends, a home is sold, or a child graduates and the debris of that season of life is spread out for buyers to look over.

The Beach Theatre Foundation yard sale last Saturday had the same quality. The mid-century movie theater was demolished late last month, along with the Foundation's dreams for the building. The lobby and façade of the building still stand, flanked by retail space, but the theater's auditorium is gone.

What the left was put out for sale in the former Wawa parking lot near Swain's Hardware.

Buyers picked up donated household items for a bargain prices, and perused old movie posters that lay stacked near the former store's entrance. Jack Nicholson and Gene Kelly posters were sold side by side, and limited edition Beach Theatre prints were stacked near a cardboard box.

"Well, we had a little bit of everything: not just the movie posters. We had donations of households items dropped off, along with the limited edition Bruce Springsteen posters we had offered at through the Foundation," said Steve Jackson, Beach Theatre Foundation president. "We made just over $2,000, which was fantastic. The money we raised is going toward out legal fees."

According to Jackson, attorneys Jim Pickering and Michelle Donato provided much of their work to the group "…pro bono or at reduced fees…they were both wonderful."

"We want to pay them what the remainder of what they charged," Jackson said.

Jackson and Donato, respectively handled court and zoning board of adjustment appearances for the group in their bid to save the 61-year-old theater. Land use lawyer Donato has offices out of Lavallete; Pickering works and practices locally, out of his Dennis Township offices.

Theater owner Frank Investments sued the city over the right to take down the building, which it deemed unprofitable. The suit settled last May, and an August appeal to Assignment Judge Valerie Armstrong by the Beach Theatre Foundation was dismissed.

"The demolition of the theatre is very sad. It is the opposite of what is happening in so many small cities now, where the value of unique, downtown movie theaters has been recognized," said Jackson.

"I understand that Frank Investments doesn't have movie theaters like this in their chain -- that's a business decision. But, for the city to have allowed Franks to do this is shameful. Franks Investments isn't about preservation; Cape May is. That is our charter," said Jackson, who said the company offered the property for sale with a $12 million asking price.

The Beach Theatre site is located across the street from Cape May's planned $8.5 million Convention Center, where construction continues.

According to Mayor Ed Mahaney, the investment group has approval from the city to put 18 condominiums on the site.

"The condos would be above and behind the existing retail remaining," he said.

The destruction of the theater's auditorium will create space for parking, as well, according to the mayor, although he indicated that he was unaware of The Frank group's current plans.

"That is a question for Frank Investments and their attorney," said Mahaney at a council meeting Tuesday night.

Frank Investments does not appear ready to move forward immediately with the condominiums.

In 2010, the Cape May Historic Preservation Commission voted against demolition, but the city ultimately reached a settlement with the investment group regarding the building's demolition -- even as the zoning board was holding further hearings on the issue.

The Beach Theatre Foundation borrowed $100,000 from the city to help its preservation efforts.

"That loan had a very specific purpose: to pay rent on the building. We signed the one-year lease in October 2007. We had asked the city's assistance and received the loan out of small cities grant money that Cape May had," said Jackson.

"Given the nature of the [Department of Community Affairs] grant to the city, Cape May could've given us a grant or a loan. They opted for the loan," Jackson continued. The city is seeking repayment, according to the mayor.

"We've got pledges in place. The loan will be repaid when it comes due," said Jackson.

The 860-seat Beach Theatre opened in September, 1950, with a showing of "Father of the Bride," starring Elizabeth Taylor and Spencer Tracy. The building was designed and built by architect William Harold Lee, and was part of the William C. Hunt chain of theaters throughout New Jersey and Pennsylvania, according to historical information compiled by Jackson's group.

The Beach Theatre Foundation was created in 2007 to "…preserve and restore the historically authenticated Beach Theatre in Cape May, New Jersey and utilize the complex as a state-of-the-art showcase for cinema and the arts."

The group had hoped to establish the theater as a center for film history, preservation and restoration, as well as for independent filmmaking and education.

"The exterior of the building retains many original features, including semi-circular transom windows over the theater entrance doors, bas-relief swags, the original sign, the Chippendale balustrade, and the columned portico across the façade," according to Cape May Court House-based historic preservation consultant Joan Berkey, who wrote multiple reports for the Beach Theatre group and testified at city Zoning Board of Adjustment meetings regarding the theater.

"On the whole, the theater and shops still convey and embody the original design in which they were built and thus retain a high degree of integrity," concluded Berkey in her 2007 report.

The theater had not been functional since 2009.


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