VINELAND — Ushers opened the doors to the restored Landis Theater on Thursday evening, and the first crowd in more than two decades entered the building to watch a local high school production of “42nd Street.”
Sacred Heart High School’s play went on as scheduled even though, just hours earlier, officials were unsure if the building would pass inspection. But an eight-hour fire inspection was completed early Thursday afternoon, and the theater was given a temporary certificate of occupancy.
And the show went on.
In the crowded lobby, developer Hans Lampart, who has spent more than a year restoring the old movie house into a theater, said the largest construction hurdles have been cleared. The final inspection of the facility’s 160 sprinklers pushed the opening to the wire, but Lampart just shrugged it off.
“That’s just how construction is,” he said.
Thursday night was the theater’s informal opening; a black tie grand opening is scheduled for May 22 and will feature Broadway actress Bernadette Peters.
With that event just weeks away, there’s still work to be done on the venue.
The carpet is down, the paint is on the wall and the sconces are in place, creating a look reminiscent of the original theater, which opened in 1937. But here and there a piece of trim is missing, a chain-link fence still blocks off an area outside the theater, and a wooden sign on the steps inside warns people to keep out of the balcony.
Final touches will be complete in time for the grand opening, Lampart said.
The theater, which has seating for 750 people, was about half-full on the first night of the high school play.
Landis Theater for the Performing Arts Foundation Board President Lori DiMatteo-Fiocchi said the opening was the culmination of more than three years of work to restore the theater.
“We knew it would come,” she said. “But it’s unbelievable that it’s here now.”
The audience Thursday was full of people with memories of the theater and how it used to be.
Some, such as Mayor Bob Romano, remembered its final days when it struggled with its single screen to compete against multiplexes.
Others remembered the theater as a destination, a beacon on the avenue every Saturday night.
At least one audience member can say she remembers it the way it first was.
Dolores D’Ippolito-Ritter was 10 years old when the theater first opened. Her father supplied the fixtures and helped install them. The carpet, the paint on the walls and the chairs remind her of those first days.
When the theater first opened, she said, it was packed with people. The avenue was different then, she said, but, if the theater works as intended, as part of the downtown’s Four Corners development project, it will foster new memories of Landis Avenue for a new generation.
“People would come down here early at night in their cars looking for a place to park,” the 82-year-old Vineland resident said. “It was packed wall to wall in here. You’d see everyone you knew.
“I’m just so glad they opened it back up. They did a beautiful job.”
Sitting just a few rows away, Jean Kuper recalled her early trips to the Landis Theater, including a first date. The movie, she remembered, was the Rock Hudson film “Magnificent Obsession.” She liked the movie and her date went well, too, considering she married the man who took her.
Although her husband, Tony, was unable to make it, the
72-year-old Millville resident came with her friend June Dupnock, 72, and her granddaughter Natalie Dupnock, 19, both of Millville.
“They kept it pretty much in the condition I remember it,” Kuper said, remembering her 1954 date. “It seems almost like yesterday.”
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