The smell of fresh popcorn filled the lobby of Old Movies by The Sea in Wildwood as guests wandered the newly renovated theater for the first time since it was last operational more than a decade ago.
Inside the approximately 40-seat theater, owner Glenn Kingsbury and partner Karen Drew showcased the work they’ve done to bring it back to life before cutting the ribbon to officially open the city’s only operational cinema.
“It’s not really a cinema, although it is. It’s more of an experience,” said Kingsbury, who bought the Pacific Avenue building in August for $170,000.
Last week, these lucky guests got their first glimpse of what that experience could be like at the 1,200-square-foot venue.
“It’s small,” Drew said, laughing.
Standard movie popcorn and candy are sold in the lobby. What stands out, however, is the big red chair in the corner, which most locals will recognize from a former cult bar that closed earlier this year – the Shamrock.
Kingsbury said he bought the captain’s chair from the Shamrock owners and kept it at his home, which is just a few houses away.
“It fits perfectly,” he says.
Walking through a curtain into the theater is like stepping back to the early 1900s – when it was a Nickelodeon theater – but with a modern twist. Six live edge epoxy oak tables stand out against the dimly lit room with the original red wallpaper. There is a VIP area in the front and rows of seats leading to a pit with a separate screen for a small group or family to sit together.
Behind the retractable 120 inch screen, which shows films with a 4k ultra short throw projector, there is a small stage, which is used for comedy evenings, company meetings, small bands or other events. The Philadelphia Eagles football game was shown last Sunday.
Outside at the back is a small seating area and a larger area that can seat 35 people in front of an 85 inch TV. A makeshift tent provides shelter from the weather.
Like many of the new cinemas popping up, Old Movies by The Sea will offer food. The menu features quality tapas prepared by the theater’s general manager, who happens to be a gourmet chef.
As space in the theater is limited, the food is prepared and then supplied off-site at Cattle ‘n Clover, which is just up the road.
“If you’re buying a movie ticket or a sporting event (ticket), if it’s not actual catering, you can order one of the 15 tapas we have,” Kingsbury said.
He said he’s also trying to get a sales license for a local winery.
Kingsbury, the CEO of Spirit Brands, a company that hosts cheerleading competitions on the East Coast, explained that he had been looking for an investment in Wildwood for some time and found one thanks to Drew and her love for her dog.
‘” I don’t know what kind of theater it is, but there is a for sale sign on the theater. Let’s check it out,'” Drew recalled telling Kingsbury after passing by while walking her dog.
When it was a theater in 1915, it only lasted a few years, said Taylor Henry, president of the Wildwood Historical Society and vice president of the Wildwood Conservation Advocacy Group.
She said it then became a hardware store before being converted into a music store in 1925. It was a baby store in the early to mid-1960s until it was boarded up in the 1980s.
“That was the downfall of Main Street. Not just in Wildwood, but across the country,” Henry explained, adding that malls are becoming more popular at this time.
It remained boarded up until the 1990s when it finally resurfaced as a cinema in 2003 until it closed in 2012.
Henry said she saw a few films there, last around 2009, and recalls how intimate the venue was.
“I just always thought it was the coolest building of all time. I loved how small it was. It’s so beautiful inside with the red wallpaper.”
The other reason Kingsbury made the purchase is to revitalize the stretch of Pacific Avenue that runs through downtown, which was once a thriving part of the city.
“We’re trying to make Pacific great again,” Kingsbury said. “If we do something like this, hopefully we’ll get other businesses to come back to the area because it’s affordable here.”
About 50 people lined Pacific Avenue, joining local officials to watch the ribbon cutting and applaud the business venture that will join the new development, which will include a hotel, apartments and condos.
Wildwood Mayor Pete Byron, who was in attendance, said that with the return of Pacific Avenue, so will the surrounding streets, which will liven up the downtown area.
“This is truly a special day for Wildwood because it’s the mom and pop businesses that are the answer for Wildwood’s future,” he said.
Before continuing, Bryon recalled growing up in the ’70s and ’80s and said Wildwood is “at its best” when there’s a balance between the boardwalk and downtown.
Kingsbury said he invested around $260,000 in the purchase and renovation of Old Movies By The Sea and the response from people and the city was nothing but love.
“Thank you for bringing it back. We bring our whole family with us. I’m so excited that there’s something for the kids to do and we didn’t want it to be torn down,” is just some of the positive feedback they’ve received, Drew said.
The possibility of expanding the idea of small theaters to other coastal cities or other parts of the state is something they plan to do over the next year.
“Look how small this place is,” Kingsbury said. “Shopping centers are a dime a dozen and they’re all ready for it.”
The plan for Old Movies By The Sea is to show one film Monday through Wednesday, then up to four films the rest of the week. Prices range from $10 to $20
Just before the ribbon-cutting ceremony, Kingsbury addressed the crowd, thanked them for their support and said he was confident Pacific Avenue would be great again.
“Hopefully we’ll see you at the movies.”
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Tim Hawk can be reached at [email protected]. Follow Tim on Instagram @photog_hawk.