By LINDA MOSS
Sunday night marked what was likely the last picture show at the Bellevue Theatre, and long-time patrons and a group of protesters sadly watched as Bow Tie Cinemas employees took down the movie titles from the building’s marquee, leaving it strangely blank and bare.
Supporters of the theater are hoping it is not the final chapter in the history of the 95-year-old movie venue after a sudden and startling turn of events for fans of the Bellevue last week.
Without any warning to Montclair residents or the theater’s employees, and after the news leaked out from another source, Bow Tie Cinemas LLC last week confirmed that Sunday would be the last day that the Bellevue would be open as one of its movie houses.
A group of about 15 people gathered in front of the theater around 7:45 p.m Sunday, when the final film “A Bad Moms Christmas” was slated to start, to protest the closing of the movie venue. The are still hopeful that somehow another movie chain will come and keep the Bellevue a movie venue.
“This gathering is not about taking sides between the building owner Jesse Y. Sayegh or Bow Tie Cinemas,” said Ilmar Vanderer, who has helped to rally residents to save the movie theater.
“It’s the community coming together in support of preserving a iconic, historic landmark and local fixture that helps to maintain Montclair’s status as an arts center known for a variety of entertainment offerings,” he said. “Fortunately our civic leaders and arts organizations recognize this and hopefully will work out a solution.”
That group and other residents watched as Bow Tie Cinemas employees took down the movie-title signage off the building’s marquee. A man who said he was the theater’s manager, but declined to give his name, stuck his head out of the box office’s door and said, “Thanks for your patronage all over the years.”
Patrons going into the Tudor-style Bellevue posed for photos in front of the theater, and could be heard lamenting its closing.
News that the Bellevue was closing leaked out when the troupe that has been bringing “The Rocky Horror Show” to the venue for 14 years announced that its last-ever performances there would be this weekend, because it was told Bow Tie was closing its movie operation.
A Bow Tie official said that the company was leaving because its lease has expired. In turn, n an attorney for Sayegh, the building’s owner, said that his client had tried to negotiate a new lease with Bow Tie but the movie chain opted not to re-sign. When efforts to secure a new lease failed Sayegh asked Bow Tie to keep its movie-projector equipment and fixtures at the site, but it refused, according to the attorney, Angelo Cifelli.
Concerned residents, some who say they’ve been going to the theater for years, sprang into action. Lena Fine, who started a petition on Change.org that as of Sunday night had more than 4,200 names of who want to save the movie theater, was among the protesters at the Bellevue Sunday night.
“I just knew that I was upset,” Fine said of her impetus to start the petition, adding that she grew up in Montclair and has been going to the Bellevue for years.
Patrons came to bid farewell and see a final movie at the Bellevue.
“I’ve lived in Montclair for 22 years, and in some way I feel connection to establishments, like the Marlboro Inn, closing that have meant a great deal to people,” said Marianne Reilly Appel. “Times change. And if people aren’t coming out to the movies I guess it’s understandable that they [Bow Tie] can’t afford the cost to continue. If enough people were to rally together, who’s to say what would happen?”
A trio of students from Montclair State University said they were fans of the theater and would take the half-hour walk from campus to see movies there. They arrived to see the final show at the Bellevue, “A Bad Moms Christmas.”
“We’re seeing the last showing, which we wish was a film that was more iconic like ‘Star Wars,'” said Alex Valdes, one of the students. “Way to go out with a whimper and not a bang.”
Several parents said that they lived close enough that their children could grab a slice of pizza, and then walk to the Bellevue, very convenient and safe.
John McMorrow was at the scene taking photos of the Bellevue. He said that he has lived in the township more than 20 years, and the beautiful Bellevue building was one of the draws of the municipality.
“I’m sad to see it go,” he said. “It’s a business decision, and you need to hear both sides of it … There are two sides to every story, but unfortunately we come out on the short end.”
Evan Cutler, with his family dog, was among those at the Bellevue for the protest.
“Who knows what’s going to happen,” he said.
Cutler also recalled he and his wife chatting with Rob Reiner outside the Bellevue after a Montclair Film Festival event, and his pride in the town. Cutler added that he had worked with Montclair resident Stephen Colbert on “The Daily Show,” and knows that the current “Late Night” host was a patron of the Bellevue.
“I’ll see him sneak into a 9:30 film,” Cutler said.
Some residents have expressed hope that Colbert or Montclair Film, which held many screenings and events at the Bellevue, would be the White Knights to swoop in and keep the venue a movie house.
Montclair Film Executive Director Tom Hall sent out an email Sunday about the Bellevue.
“Like so many in our community, we were sad to learn that Montclair’s historic Bellevue Theater would be closing this weekend,” Hall wrote. “As our supporters know, the theater has been home to the Montclair Film Festival, our special year-round member screenings, and has been a cornerstone of cinema culture in Montclair for decades.”
He said, “First, we want to say thank you to the Bellevue staff for always being such gracious hosts for our organization, and we are hopeful that the owner of the property will be interested in continuing to have a tenant operate the space as a cinema. We remain open to conversations around the future of the Bellevue, but do not have any information about the future of the property at the moment.”