CAPE MAY — William C. Hunt used $150 to open his first 80-seat Nickelodeon in Camden in 1905. He rode that investment to become an entertainment giant at the shore.
At one point, Hunt owned more than 20 movie theaters, including seven in Cape May County, where a 1906 visit by train convinced him to open his first theater in Wildwood. Beachgoers needed something to do on rainy days. Hunt cashed in.
Before long, he cornered the market in Wildwood and Cape May. He brought the first films with sound to the county in 1929.
Hunt also owned Hunt’s Pier (now Morey’s Pier) and the Starlight Ballroom in Wildwood, three newspapers, a golf course and many other businesses.
But Hunt wanted a showpiece theater in Cape May, and in 1949 an entire oceanfront block became available. The Betz property had once hosted the Stockton Hotel but was then vacant except for a gas station and a lawn used for summer pony rides. The city got the property in a tax sale.
Hunt’s granddaughter, Snooks Bailie, who lives in Wildwood Crest, said one of the highlights of Hunt’s career was winning a big award from the motion picture industry for his achievements but specifically for being one of only four to start with Nickelodeons. She recalled him getting the award in 1955.
“All the Hollywood stars were there. It was quite a big thing. I have pictures of him with Esther Williams and Charles Laughton,” Bailie said.
Paul Andrus, a local resident who began as an usher at the Beach Theatre in 1960 and rose to manager of Hunt’s Cape May properties when Hunt’s empire was sold off in 1986, said the Beach Theatre almost was never built.
He said there was some disagreement between Hunt and his sons, Bud and Guy. Hunt, who died in 1970 at 98, was turning over more of his operations to his sons in 1949. Andrus said the sons wanted the money invested in Wildwood, where most of their operations were.
Andrus said Bud and Guy were supposed to deliver a $5,000 check on a Friday afternoon to City Solicitor T. Millet Hand to purchase the land. Andrus said Hunt found out on Monday morning that the boys had not delivered the money, and he laid down the law and made it happen.
“The sons thought the action was in Wildwood, not Cape May. The boys didn’t want it built. It was actually W.C. Hunt’s last major project,” Andrus said.
Hunt could be tough. Andrus said he would fine his managers if he discovered a lightbulb out on the marquee. But Andrus remembered “W.C.” as a good employer. Andrus said Hunt “had a few dollars,” but never flaunted it.
Hunt, a former state assemblyman and president of the Cape May County Chamber of Commerce, made money, but he also gave back. Money from season passes, which allowed entry to all his theaters, went to charity. He helped fund the United Way and helped establish Burdette Tomlin Memorial Hospital, now called Cape Regional Medical Center. He even kept some of the movie houses going in winter, paid for by summer profits, just to serve the locals.
“They were great people to work for, and they knew how to treat the public and their employees. People worked for the Hunts until the day they died. They were honest and treated you with respect,” Andrus said.
Hunt spent $250,000 in 1949 dollars to build the theater. He spared no expense, from seats “designed for maximum comfort” to the large air conditioners used to cool the building on hot summer days.
Andrus said Hunt loved Cape May and wanted to make the Beach Theatre a premier movie house.
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