Updated with response from Montclair Mayor Robert Jackson
It’s currently Bow Tie Bellevue Cinemas, but The Bellevue, a beloved theater in Upper Montclair, first opened on May 13, 1922, to a grand opening night that included musical performances and a screening of D.W. Griffith’s “Orphans of the Storm,” starring Lillian Gish.
The Tudor-style theater was designed by J.H. Phillips, a New York architect perhaps best known for designing the Spanish-style Ringling Art Museum in Sarasota (1930) and the crypt for John Ringling, the circus magnate, says Montclair historian Lisanne Renner. The theater’s interior was also Tudor style, with tapestries on the walls, wooden beams, and — standard for a theater of its day — a balcony.
There was even a tea room — named Highgate Hall, located above the the theater, complete with murals on the walls.
The Bellevue, a key building today in the Township’s Upper Montclair Historic Business District, was built by Robert Anderson, son of Charles W. Anderson, who earlier donated the land for Anderson Park. When it was built, the Bellevue’s Tudor architecture reinforced the English village ambiance of the Upper Montclair shopping district. The theater at the time of its opening received attention in national magazines, including Architectural Forum, The Architect, Architecture, American Theaters of Today, and The Moving Picture World, for details including its six chandeliers, proscenium, stairway with hand wrought iron balustrade and its roof, featuring pieces of slate that are smaller near the peak and larger as they descend toward the eaves, creating the illusion of a roof that is steeper than it truly is.
Renner says the theater replaced a building that Charles Anderson had erected previously, most likley in the late 1890s, known as Trunk Building because of its shape. Reports say the Trunk Building contained a large hall for church and civic gatherings, shops, offices and apartments.
According to research by historic preservation consultant Mary Delaney Krugman, there were five motion picture theater licenses applied for in Montclair in the first five months of 1921, including ones that eventually resulted in the Bellevue, the Wellmont and the Claridge. Together, these five proposed theaters would have offered seating capacity of over 8,000 seats — about 20 percent of the town’s population at that time. According to Krugman, competition for licenses was intense and included some dirty politics.
Save The Bellevue
Baristanet readers expressed surprise, sadness and anger at news of the closing of the Bellevue, as well as concerns that the theater might turn into condos. Others recalled memories of watching The Sound of Music and 101 Dalmations in the 1960s and dressing up to see films at the elegant theater with balcony, as well as women picketing when the Upper Montclair theater screened Last Tango in Paris in 1973. Some reminisced about seeing memorable films at the theater (2001 A Space Odyssey, Dirty Dancing), as well as going on first dates and working first jobs at the theater
Many readers expressed hopes that a developer or Montclair Film Festival might be able to save the theater so it can continue to operate as a cinema.
Tom Hall, executive director of Montclair Film, joined the conversation with Baristanet readers on Facebook, saying that Montclair film has worked with Bowtie to use the Bellevue Cinemas every year for the Montclair Film Festival.
“Obviously, we are sad that Bowtie is not renewing their lease, but are hopeful the owner of the property will be interested in continuing to have a tenant operate the space as a cinema,” says Hall.
Baristanet reader and Montclair High School student Lena Fine has started a petition to Keep the Bellevue Theater Open.
Fine writes…”The Montclair Bellevue Theater has been nestled in Upper Montclair for almost one hundred years, and it has recently announced that it will be closing its doors by the end of November. This space is iconic to Montclair and beloved by many, it would be a shame to let it waste away into another gentrified retail or office space. Help keep Montclair’s tradition and culture alive and save the Bellevue Theater!”
Baristanet reached out to Montclair Mayor Robert Jackson about the news of the theater’s closing.
“The Bellevue Theater is a vital, irreplaceable piece of the fabric of Montclair,” says Jackson. “I am extremely confident that the Council, Planning Board, and Historic Preservation Commission will work enthusiastically with any responsible effort to keep it just that way.”
Baristanet will continue to follow this developing story.