MILLVILLE — The lights dimmed, the orchestra started to play and — for the first time since 1974 — there was life in a historic old theater on High Street.
The Levoy Theatre reopened Sunday, an event that ended decades of discussion about what would happen to the once-dilapidated facility.
Closed since 1974, the theater’s first live show in four decades harkened to it origins in 1908 with a showing of silent films starring Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. The Peacherine Ragtime Orchestra provided the music.
It all started about 5:10 p.m. Sunday with a simple greeting by Lauren Van Embden, president of the Levoy Theatre Preservation Society’s board of trustees.
“Good evening and welcome to the Levoy,” she said, prompting a standing ovation by the more than 350 people who attended the renovated theater’s first showing.
City residents Ron and Mary Lou Vorndran were the first two people to walk down a side aisle to their seats.
“It is beautiful,” said Mary Lou Vorndran, 77. “The woman who showed us in was so excited. This is exciting.”
“I’ve got the tickets right here,” said her 79-year-old husband, who patted a shirt pocket containing the two ticket stubs that he joked would be worth money in a few years.
The Levoy opened after an $8.5 million renovation restored the building to how it appeared during the 1920s. The theater opened despite some delays, including a partial collapse in January 2011 that caused much of the old building to crumble.
The theater opened during an annual craft and arts festival on High Street. Theater operators estimated that several hundred festivalgoers stopped to tour the Levoy’s lobby and mezzanine and buy tickets to future shows.
The fact that people were buying tickets was a relief to theater operators, who are under some pressure: City officials and High Street merchants contend the Levoy’s success is crucial to helping revive the downtown business district.
While it remains to be seen how that will work out, people who toured the Levoy and attended the opening night show said they were happy with what they saw.
“It’s so nice to see it open again,” Bridgeton resident Cindy Gates said.
The Levoy has a special meaning for Gates and her husband, Earl: They met at the theater while working there in 1973. They stocked the concession booth and swept the aisles between shows. Earl Gates said he used to climb a ladder to put the heavy metal letters onto the theater’s marquee.
They married in 1974.
“We would never have gotten together if it wasn’t for the Levoy,” Earl Gates said. “We’ve been together ever since.”
Earl Gates said Sunday was the first time he and his wife, who are both 55 and operate an auto repair business, were in the Levoy since it closed in 1974.
“We’re coming back,” he said. “We want to make this a part of our life again.”
Another local resident, Tina Benishek, said she used to attend matinees at the Levoy in her youth, and its reopening is something special.
“It’s just perfect for the city of Millville,” she said. “It is everything we dreamed it would be.”
Sunday’s reopening went off smoothly, theater operators said.
Theater volunteers gathered for a meeting at 3:30 p.m., about an hour before seating began. They took a final tour of the theater, were assigned duties and were reminded of key details, such as the locations of the bathrooms.
About the only glitch in the evening occurred while customers were being seated: The lights prematurely dimmed, making it hard for people to see in the balcony. That problem was quickly corrected.
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