By LINDA MOSS, ERIN ROLL and GWEN OREL
This past Sunday night marked what could be the last picture show at the Bellevue Theatre, leaving residents shocked and heartbroken over Bow Tie Cinemas’ decision to close its movie house at the iconic Tudor building in Upper Montclair.
Patrons of the theater, which premiered in 1922 showing a Lillian Gish film, have rallied to try to find ways to keep the venue open as a cinema. There was a small protest Sunday at the Bellevue; a “save-the-theater” petition had garnered more than 5,100 names as of Wednesday morning; and a dedicated Facebook page was created to champion rescuing the venue. Some residents suggested that Montclair Film, which has held many festival events at the Bellevue, should come forward as its savior.
Others wondered if township resident and “Late Night” host Stephen Colbert will step up and try to buy the building. It didn’t happen.
But there was a glimmer of hope earlier this week in what seemed to be a bleak situation. Angelo Cifelli, the attorney representing the Bellevue’s owner, said he had been contacted by several movie-theater operators who expressed interest in the Montclair site. He said his office will be following up on those inquiries in the weeks ahead.
“We’re hopeful,” Cifelli said, reiterating that his client, Jesse Y. Sayegh, was dedicated to having the Bellevue continue operating as a movie theater.
“He’s open to any and all avenues,” the lawyer said.
A small group of people watched Sunday night as Bow Tie employees took down the movie-title signage, letter by letter, from the Bellevue’s marquee, leaving it totally blank. “A Bad Moms Christmas” was the last film to be screened that night, with a 7:45 p.m. showing. A man who said he was the theater’s manager, but declined to give his name, stuck his head out of the box office door and said, “Thanks for your patronage all over the years.”
It is a difficult business environment for downtown movie theaters like the Bellevue, which face stiff competition from not only modern mall multi-plexes — with their reclining lounge-chair seats and expanded snack-bar offerings — but Netflix and DVDs, as well. Bow Tie Cinemas, based in Ridgefield, Connecticut, has been shuttering other theaters.
In a scenario that mirrors what happened in Montclair, this summer Bow Tie abruptly shuttered a movie house in Madison that had been showing films for 90 years.
Longtime Montclair resident Joe Kavesh, a member of the Township Board of Education and chair of the Montclair Civil Rights Commission, described the Bellevue as his childhood movie theater. He estimated that he has seen more than 150 movies there.
“This is terrible news, a big blow to the Upper Montclair business district, restaurants like De Novo,” Kavesh said. “Hopefully, there is still a place for movie houses, as opposed to the drab cineplexes of Route 3, 17, etc.”
Word that the Bellevue was closing leaked out last week when the troupe that has been bringing “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” to the venue for 14 years announced that its last-ever performances there would be the coming weekend, because Bow Tie said that it was closing its Bellevue movie operation.
Later there was some discrepancy between the subsequent explanation offered by Bow Tie and the response from Sayegh’s lawyer Cifelli.
In an email last Thursday, Jared Milgram, Bow Tie’s vice president for marketing, food and beverages, said that the company’s lease on the theater had expired and it would close Sunday. But a day later in a phone interview Cifelli said that Bow Tie had opted not to renew its lease at the Bellevue.
“It just seems a bit disingenuous to tell you the lease expired,” Cifelli said.
Bow Tie is removing projection equipment and fixtures from the Bellevue, “a real blow” to the theater’s future because it would be cost prohibitive for another operator to install new gear, Cifelli said originally. But this week the attorney said that some of the movie operators to whom he had spoken said that it wouldn’t necessarily be a problem for them if Bow Tie took its equipment out of the theater.
The Bellevue Theatre has a storied past, according to Lisanne Renner, historian for Friends of Anderson Park. It “is a key building in the township’s Upper Montclair Historic Business District,” with its Tudor design reinforcing “the English village ambiance of the Upper Montclair shopping district,” Renner said.
The theater was built by Robert Anderson, a son of Charles W. Anderson, who had earlier donated the land for Anderson Park, according to Renner. It opened May 13, 1922, and the first movie shown there was D.W. Griffith’s “Orphans of the Storm,” starring Lillian Gish, she said.
In an email, Jodie Dawson, president of the Upper Montclair Business Association, said, “The theater has been a staple and foundation to our Upper Montclair business community. It has added diversity and arts to the village and has been a draw for people to come from surrounding areas to visit our town. We hope the tradition continues with another theater to continue adding vibrancy to the area.”
Dawson is a co-founder of Java Love Coffee Roasting Co., which operates a coffee shop near the theater.
“As for Java Love, we definitely love having the theater a few doors down as it is a draw for people to walk along Bellevue Avenue and stop in for coffee,” Dawson said.
Last Sunday, about 15 people met in front of the theater to protest the closing of the movie venue. They 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,” Ilmar Vanderer said. “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.”
Vanderer created the “Save Montclair’s Historic Bellevue Theatre” Facebook page.
Lena Fine, who started the Change.org petition to save the theater, was among the protesters with Vanderer at the Bellevue that final 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.
Other customers came to bid farewell to the venue last Sunday.
“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,” Marianne Reilly Appel said.
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 watch 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.”
John McMorrow was at the scene taking photos of the Bellevue. He said 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.”
Some residents have expressed hope that Montclair Film would be the white knight to rescue the Bellevue, but so far that’s not the case.
“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,” Montclair Film Executive Director Tom Hall said in an email last Sunday.
“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,” he said. “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.”
Any tenant that leases Bow Tie’s former space at the Bellevue could make changes to the building’s interior, but its exterior is another story, according to Township Planner Janice Talley. The theater is designated as a key building in the Upper Montclair Historic Business District, which means any modifications to its exterior have to be approved by the Historic Preservation Commission, Talley said.