CAPE MAY — Vicki Mathas would go to the Beach Theatre and stare at images of the ocean. The white foam and the sun’s reflection in the waves are still with her more than a half-century later.
Mathas was not looking at the screen at the city’s premier movie theater in the summer of 1960. She was in the lobby looking at gigantic murals hung by theater owner William C. Hunt.
“I don’t remember the movies. The thing I remember is the paintings in the lobby. They had lights on them and were set up like an art gallery. They weren’t great paintings, but for a little girl they were awesome,” said Mathas, 59, of Mount Laurel, Burlington County.
Mathas turned that childhood experience — her first exposure to art — into a career as a public school art teacher. After 35 years of teaching, she now works as a studio artist.
“That got my attention and got me interested in art. My parents didn’t understand art or appreciate it,” Mathas said.
Beach Theatre owner Frank Investments plans to demolish the theater to build condominiums. The proposal is bringing back childhood memories for area residents and visitors. Some memories date to the theater’s opening on June 29, 1950.
They are memories of movies played long ago, favorite candies at the concession stand, the Kiddie Land amusement park outside, the television room people crowded into when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated and the big Christmas parties every year.
Mathas would visit her grandparents, Walter and Gertrude Martindell, on Grant Street every summer. Her aunt, Lucille Cutler, would take her to the Beach Theatre.
“It was her summer treat, a girl’s day out. It was a big deal back then. There was one screen, and it was very fancy and plush,” Mathas said.
Giant murals of a 19th century beach scene and of the steamship Republic, whose passengers were famous visitors to Cape May who included U.S. presidents, drew Mathas’ attention. Hunt, a lover of the arts, also had an art gallery in the theater for exhibits.
Richard Rininsland, 67, of Lower Township, was 7 in when his parents told him they would take him to the theater’s grand opening about two weeks later.
“There were a lot of people there. I remember waiting in line. I remember I got candy and popcorn and we sat three or four rows from the front,” Rininsland said.
The theater’s first movie was “Father of The Bride” starring Spencer Tracy, Joan Bennett and Elizabeth Taylor, a movie advertised in the local newspaper as “MGM’s Gayest Event of the Year.”
Honeymoon at the Beach
Grace Paynter, a Philadelphia native who lives in the North Cape May section of Lower Township, said she will never forget her first movie there later that year. She was on her honeymoon, having just married Alan Greene, of West Cape May.
“I got married in Philadelphia on Dec. 30, 1950. We came down on Dec. 31 and moved into our apartment and went to a movie at the Beach Theatre. It was ‘King Solomon’s Mines’ with Stewart Granger and Deborah Kerr,” Paynter said.
Their courtship that summer took place at The Liberty, another theater Hunt owned in Cape May on Washington Street. Hunt also leased a third theater from the city next to Cape May Convention Hall called Hunt’s City Pier, but it was hard to follow the soundtrack there because of the waves breaking underneath the building.
Paynter was 20 years old in 1950 and had a summer job as a mother’s helper in Cape May. She met Greene that summer.
“When I had time off, we’d walk around Cape May, eat pizza and go to the movies,” Paynter said.
Paynter and Greene were married for more than 40 years until Greene’s death in 1992.
The Liberty, built in 1919 by Adam Suelke Sr., was no match for Hunt’s Beach, as it was called then. The city had an even earlier movie house called the Palace Theatre on Washington Street run by Joseph Cox, and the city-owned theater next to Convention Hall had operators before Hunt. Paynter said none was as beautiful as the Beach.
“It was so gorgeous. The velvet rugs were so soft,” Paynter said.
For Judy Lord, the Beach Theatre was a rite of passage, of sorts.
“The day my parents not only allowed me to walk six blocks to the Beach Theatre without an adult, but also let my little brother go with me, I had grown up. We saw a wonderful matinee, ‘Lady and the Tramp,’” Lord said.
Every year in the 1950s and 1960s, on the last day of school before Christmas vacation, every elementary student in the city went to the 860-seat theater for a Christmas party. They each got a stocking filled with candy, fruit and other presents. One lucky student scored a new bicycle.
The highlight, however, was the arrival of Santa Claus, who used a different mode of transportation every year. One year he arrived atop an elephant. Another year he came by airplane and made a bumpy landing on Beach Avenue.
“They brought Santa Claus in on a Piper Cub. I can still see it coming up Beach Avenue as clear as yesterday,” said Mickey Blomkvest, a former city mayor.
Blomkvest said the plane hit turbulence near Convention Hall and nosedived into the street, stopping 50 feet from the theater.
“They hit the street pretty hard. Santa came out bloodied, but the program continued. Santa Claus performed,” Blomkvest said.
Ed Sherretta remembers what would follow Santa’s visit.
“The day would also include a showing of cartoons for the very happy and excited kids. The theater was always packed with kids in those days, not only for the Christmas party but on the weekends as well, to view the never-ending cowboy movies, the Three Stooges or an occasional World War II movie,” Sherretta said.
The first TV movie
Hunt was always willing to experiment with new ventures. The Beach Theatre at one point had a bakery and Skee Ball lanes. Kiddie Land, an amusement park outside, was eventually planned to be the site for a second theater, said Paul Andrus, who ran Hunt’s Cape May properties.
A lounge featured tables and chairs for people who wanted to relax, and bathrooms at Hunt’s theaters were always luxurious, patrons said. But the most unique feature at the Beach was a television room in the foyer. Hunt introduced the new medium — one that would eventually cut into his profits — to the city.
Cape May did not even get television signals until two years after the Beach opened. When signals did arrive, they were so weak that most people could not get a decent picture, Andrus said, so Hunt cashed in.
“Reception was lousy in Cape May until cable came in. We put a big antenna tower up, and reception was good. I can remember people buying a ticket just to watch TV,” Andrus said.
The theater was designed by Philadelphia architect William H. Lee, who won a national award for the project.
In a newspaper story at the time, Lee said he combined the advantages of a modern building with enough elements “of the mid-Victorian age to make it indigenous to Cape May.” That included a Colonial front with slender columns and a lacelike balustrade, faux-gas lanterns on the exterior, crystal chandeliers in the foyer and natural-grain woodwork. Flower planters were filled with red geraniums at the entrance that people passed before coming into a lobby that held 200 people.
The auditorium had huge patriotic eagles with their wings spread. The color scheme was green and gold.
There also were six modern retail locations in the complex, all under a covered walk. It was an early example of the emerging post-World War II shopping mall culture that would eventually cut into Hunt’s business as people went to suburban malls to see movies. People could take in a movie and get a bite to eat at the Beachview Luncheonette or purchase a wedding ring at The Jewel Box.
The silver screen
A recent call by The Press of Atlantic City for Beach Theatre memories from readers mostly brought out recollections of specific movies. People called to talk about James Bond and Elvis Presley movies. Some mentioned “Lawrence of Arabia,” “The King and I,” “The Sting” and many others.
Some brought up specific scenes.
The Rev. Ed Martin, of Vineland, recalled a vacation in Cape May during which he went to see “The Guns of Navarone” starring Gregory Peck and Anthony Quinn.
Martin said the Beach was “like the grand theaters in cities, but smaller,” but the main imprint he was left with was one scene in the World War II movie.
“I remember a CinemaScope scene with a panoramic view as they climbed the cliffs to the German gun emplacements. It was very slippery, and then a gull came out of the cliff and everybody screamed, including me,” Martin said.
Kathleen Melfi Mazzio said she took her children to see “Jurassic Park” in 1993 during a heavy thunderstorm.
“The T-Rex was coming, and the thunder and the sound of heavy footsteps made it very scary,” Mazzio said.
Andrus said these sorts of reactions are why people will always go to movies.
“You hear the roar of the crowd, the laughing and the applauding. It’s like a stage show. To me, movies will be around until people stop existing,” Andrus said.
Contact Richard Degener:
Plans to demolish the city’s last remaining movie theater will be presented to the Cape May Zoning Board of Adjustment at 6:30 p.m. March 31 at City Hall, 643 Washington St.