MILLVILLE — The Levoy Theatre sits on High Street in the heart of downtown Millville, its crumbling roof and interior a poor reflection of what it once had been. Over the last decade, a vibrant arts district has grown up around it in what had been a neighborhood of dilapidated buildings. The theater became the final piece that needed renovation.

Work begins Wednesday on the $8.5 million rebuilding of the historic and long-vacant theater.

Theater supporters, who have worked since 1995 to renovate it, broke ground on the project Tuesday, and Ogren Construction will begin demolition work today to gut the interior of the 102-year-old theater, which closed in 1974. In its heyday, the Levoy included a movie theater and dance floor and a pipe organ.

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Once completed next year, the theater is expected to be host to 80 live events in 2011 and as many as 200 events in subsequent years. The theater will be home to everything from plays and film festivals to dance troupe and orchestra performances. The Off Broad Street Players will set up shop as the Levoy’s in-house theater company, while a cinema-sized movie screen will show recently released movies. The first performance schedules could be released as soon as September.

Plans call for turning the 22,000-square-foot theater into a three-floor performance center with rehearsal space, an orchestra pit, dressing rooms and a balcony and mezzanine level. While attempts will be made to restore the original theater’s appearance, preservationists recognize they won’t be able to replicate everything exactly.

“We’re going for the general feel,” said Amanda Page, vice president of the Levoy Theatre Preservation Society.

Supporters at the theater Tuesday spoke about the excitement they have over finally beginning restoration after 15 years. City Commissioner Jim Quinn said the rainy day was so great that he called it “liquid sunshine.”

“There’s a lot of relief, and there’s a lot of exhilaration,” said Lauren Van Embden, the chairwoman of the society. “This is something that a lot of people have been working on for a lot of years.”

The preservation society drew its $8.5 million in funding from several sources:

  • City of Millville: $4 million
  • Cumberland County Improvement Authority: $1 million
  • New Markets Tax Credits through Chase Bank: $1.9 million
  • Sun National Bank and New Jersey Economic Development Authority loan: $1.6 million

R2 Architects designed the theater’s new layout on spec, without knowing whether funding would come through. Construction will be a challenging project, with nearly everything needing to be gutted and reconstructed, said Arthur Ogren, the head of the construction firm. 

“Many times, the paperwork is a lot harder than the construction,” Ogren said. “I’m not sure that’s the case here.”

But that may be no surprise, considering the long path preservationists have taken to restore the theater.

The preservation society formed Feb. 10, 1995, when Joey Pierce Jr., Jeffrey Page and Joe Pierce Sr. came together to create the group with a vision toward rebuilding the theater. A year later, the theater made the National Register of Historic Places, and organizers began laying the groundwork for its renovation. But in 2000, renovation efforts suffered a major setback when Joey Pierce Jr. drowned in an accident at Union Lake.

Over the next several years, the group slowly pressed on with its efforts, securing funding in small increments.

Meanwhile, in neighboring Vineland, then-Mayor Perry Barse laid out an ambitious plan for redeveloping the similarly long-vacant Landis Theater, and now that restoration effort is nearing its culmination with a planned grand opening Saturday headlined by singer and actress Bernadette Peters.

In some ways, the Landis Theater restoration has been smaller in scope. While supporters have restored much of the feel of the 1937 theater, the Landis’ backers don’t plan as many performances as the Levoy, nor will they have as many full-time employees. While the Landis had just one full-timer, the Levoy will have eight to 12, Van Embden said.

The difference stems from the nature of the two downtowns and the theaters themselves, Van Embden said.

“This has to be the economic engine for our downtown,” Van Embden said.

“This building needs to be active,” she said. “For every day that we’re active, we’re pulling in people for restaurants and shops.”

The Levoy’s in-house theater company, the Off Broad Street Players, has been performing around the area for over a decade, and organizers hope that the new venue will draw in even more patrons to their shows, which have been hosted in churches, schools and other venues.

“We’ve never actually had a home, so when I heard about this, I was eager to get involved,” said Stephanie Bello, an 18-year-old Elmer resident who is active with the Off Broad Street Players.

“We’re very anxious and excited,” added Jason Smith, 19, of Millville, another Off Broad performer. “We can’t wait to perform on the stage.”

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