Lobster Thermidor at the Movies? Montclair History Center Shares Bellevue Theatre History

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The Bellevue Theatre, 1922, with a canopied entrance

The Montclair History Center gave a presentation on the Bellevue Theatre, which closed  in November 2017, on Bellevue Avenue in Upper Montclair. The January 17 lecture was meant to explain the importance in Montclair of not just the Bellevue Theatre, but movie theaters in general, and presenter Lisanne Renner of Friends of Anderson Park looked also at possible future uses for the building – few of which, alas, involved a movie theater.

Lisanne Renner at the Montclair History Center

Renner explained how the Bellevue was a catalyst for the development of the Upper Montclair Business District.  It was originally built by the Anderson family, who donated the land for what is now Anderson Park, at a time when masonry buildings were replacing the pedestrian wooden-frame buildings in Upper Montclair’s center, become a major focal point for the area after its completion in 1922.  The building, designed by architect John Phillips, complemented the Tudor village theme that was already taking shape in the area, from the storefronts along Valley Road between Bellevue and Loraine Avenues to the Upper Montclair Post Office (now Coldwell Banker) a few feet away from the theater.

the original lounge of the Bellevue Theatre, with the staircase to the balcony on the right

Phillips envisioned a movie theater that would not only fit in with the area but would also have the comfortable feel of a Tudor-style house.  He produced a design that recalled an old English tavern, with a lobby and lounge that conjured up images of an Elizabethan manor and an auditorium resembling a baronial hall.  The original auditorium, Renner noted, had a stately look to ut that was accentuated by steel beams made to resemble oak.  It was one of multitude of styles experimented with in the movie theater construction boom in the country of the early 1920s, when Hollywood began its long domination of American popular culture; Montclair’s other theaters, the Clairidge and the Wellmont, were also built in 1922.  (The Bellevue opened in May 13 of that year.)

the original auditorium of the Bellevue Theatre, before it was subdivided into separate screening rooms

In its 95-year history as a functioning movie theater, the Bellevue included amenities such  a balcony, and also a second-floor coffee house, the Highgate Hall.  Far from a coffee house in the early-’60s beatnik or Starbucks sense, Highgate Hall offered full meals such as lobster Thermidor, sirloin tips, or stuffed turkey, and manager Laura Cutler had the murals on the walls regularly changed.  The first movie ever shown in the theater itself was D.W. Griffith’s Orphans Of the Storm. Ironically, Griffith’s Birth Of a Nation, which romanticized the Ku Klux Klan and racism, recalled an uglier chapter in Montclair’s past; movie theaters in town were segregated for many years.  (In another ironic twist, Nate Parker’s 2016 film Birth Of a Nation – about Nat Turner’s 1831 slave revolt and deliberately named after the Griffith movie – played at the Bellevue.)

A crowd of moviegoers pose for Google Earth’s camera outside the Bellevue Theatre in October 2016. Image courtesy of Google.

Among the other movies shown over the years at the Bellevue were Flash Gordon serials, The Rocky Horror Picture Show (a permanent fixture), Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1972 movie  Last Tango In Paris (which, despite being critically acclaimed, was a highly sexual movie that stirred controversy with locals who were aghast at its screening), Paul McCartney’s Wings concert movie Rockshow, the Michael Caine comedy Educating Rita, and, more recently, the Star Wars movie Rogue One.   Renner emphasized that a trip to the Bellevue as a rite of passage for Montclair tweens and teens who went to the movies for the first time on their own, without their parents.

Many of the interior features Renner documented – the orchestra pit, the organ screen from the days of the silent pictures, the rustic chandeliers – were long gone before the theater closed.  It was converted into a three-screening-room theater in 1983; a fourth was added in 1997.  By the time it closed, one of the two storefronts embedded in it had been taken over by the theater for the expansion of the concession stand.  This too was ironic, as those storefronts had been included in Phillips’ design as a hedge against the possibility that the movie theater business would be too fickle to last.  Thanks to television, Internet streaming, services like Netflix and Hulu and larger theaters with more screening rooms, local movie theaters could go the way of home-video stores.

The changing business model, Renner said, is precisely what led Bow Tie Cinemas, the Bellevue’s last owner, to eschew a renewal on its lease.  The chain refused to sell the equipment to allow it to remain open as a movie theater, presumably to avoid competition for its other Montclair property, the Clairidge.  (The Clairidge had become Bow Tie’s venue for foreign films, indie movies and Hollywood’s more serious fare, while the Bellevue was mostly a venue for popcorn movies and blockbuster franchises.)  There are numerous ideas for what to do with the building in the future.  One is to turn it into a performing arts venue while another is to convert it into an establishment for both movie screening and retail, as has happened with small theaters elsewhere.  The owner of the building has indicated a preference for a “sustainable tenant” to take over the space.  That tenant will not be the Montclair Film Festival; the festival’s organizers say they can’t afford it.  Renner assured residents the building’s historical nature will be preserved; it is situated in an historic district, and the Historic Preservation Commission would have to approve any changes to the exterior.  And as if that weren’t enough, resident Ilmar Vanderer, who lives in the neighborhood, has launched an effort to save the Bellevue; the group Save Montclair’s Historic Bellevue Theatre can be accessed at its Facebook page.

Whatever the outcome, the Bellevue Theatre is likely to survive in one form or another.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. Yes, it was an excellent presentation by Lisanne Renner.

    Of the many interesting historical insights provided, the one that is most appropriate to question of the Bellevue’s future was the original configuration of uses. The 3 theaters and their combined 6,000 or so seats were built in the same year. Each developer hedged their bets on this entertainment phenomenon of the day by ensuring a mix of income producing commercial uses throughout their buildings. To optimizing space allocation, they designed each to maximize the prime, highest pedestrian traffic, street-level space with retail uses.

    The Bellevue, over time, moved away from this and covered up a chunk of its prime street level space with a wall – creating dead space and an eyesore in the name of concession sales. The owner didn’t, like the industry, accept the reality of the trend and that high margin concession stands would erode with the reduced patronage.

    Whatever the eventual use of this building, it is obvious to me that the street facade should be restored for mutually compatible historic design and common-sense commercial reasons. To focus on an in-kind replacement would be a mistake and likely to just kick the financial problem can down the road. Its size, location and design attributes dictate an increasing property cost bar that an in-kind replacement will be unable to meet. The Wellmont’s situation is a lesson. It either needs a unique or unusual replacement use or broken up/returned to a more diverse set of compatible uses.

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