Remembering classic movie theaters that not only showed first rate films, but anchored our towns and kept us full of memories. Three of the last remaining old-time, downtown movie theaters in New Jersey, each with over a century of service, the Mr. Local HIstory Project 501c non-profit honors the Cranford Theater, the Rialto Theater in Westfield, and the Bernardsville Cinema with three new wooden miniature keepsakes coming to the New Jersey Historic Village Collection this Spring 2021.
The Mr. Local History Project celebrates three iconic New Jersey movie theaters; the Rialto Theater in Westfield, the Cranford Theater in Cranford, and the Bernardsville Cinema in Bernardsville as they join the New Jersey Historic miniature village wooden keepsake collection.
The Cranford Cinema History – Cranford, New Jersey
On November 29, 1926, the swanky New Branford Theatre with 1300 seats, a stage, and a $18,000 Wurlitzer pipe organ opened on the site of Cranford’s old Township Building with actor Noah Beery Sr. starring in the silent film Padlocked. An issue over the name of the theater was ironed out and the “B” on the electric sign was replaced with a “C” as the new signs were lit with the name “Cranford Theatre.” Giddy with excitement, the Cranford Chronicle gushed: “The New Branford is Dead! Long live the New Cranford!”
By 1941, Warner Brothers was operating the theater. Remodeled to 1209 seats, it remained unchanged until the 1980s when the theater was twinned. In 1998, the owner of the Rialto Theater in nearby Westfield purchased the theater and converted it to a five-screen movie house. Following a rough patch of corporate ownership from 2014 to 2019, the theater was purchased by Jesse and Doreen Sayegh and reopened November 8, 2019. Honoring history, the Cranford Theater was presented with the Cranford Historical Society’s Historic Preservation Award.
In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic, forced the theater’s temporary closure. “We’re definitely not going down without a fight,” responded the Sayeghs, who opened a “pop-up drive-In” to keep going. A portion of the ticket proceeds gets donated to various organizations, including frontline healthcare workers.
Televisions, VCRs, streaming services and even pandemics have challenged local theaters’ existence, but they continue to survive as long as the community provides support. Events such as Dinner & a Movie, free night Golden Tickets, and private movie screenings help keep the public coming back.
In 2021, the theater hosts the Garden State Film Festival (GSFF).
Honoring history, the Cranford Theater was presented with the Cranford Historical Society’s Historic Preservation Award.
The Cranford Theater continues writing its next chapter in the history books.
The Rialto Theater History – Westfield, New Jersey
The Rialto Theatre has been a Westfield landmark on the corner of East Broad Street and Central Avenue since September 1, 1922 when it showed its first two silent films: Sonny, starring Richard Barthelmess, and Cops, starring Buster Keaton. The Rialto anchored the downtown with its stage, balcony and single screen undisturbed until 1966 when it was taken over by United Artists Corporation.
Two screens were added on May 26, 1978. A further three screens were added in 1997 after UA sold the theater bringing the total to five screens. Later acquired by Digiplex, then Carmike Cinemas, in 2009, a ribbon cutting ceremony was held after the Rialto Theater was renovated with new carpeting, newly designed concession stands and upgrades to the theater’s six auditoriums, including Digital 3D.
The historic Rialto Theater, and its sister cinema the Cranford Theater, were purchased in 2017 by New Vision’s Jesse and Doreen Sayegh. Then on August 22, 2019, the Rialto Theater silenced its projectors and shut its doors suddenly, surprising the community where the Rialto had played films for almost 100 years. Streaming services and high rent were stated as key causes to the closing.
Discussions are in process regarding the transformation of the Rialto into a performing arts center.
The Rialto awaits writing its next chapter in the history books.
The Historic 100 Year old Bernardsville Cinema
With over a century of service, the Bernardsville Cinema is one of the last remaining old-time downtown movie theaters in New Jersey. It opened August 21, 1915 as the Columbus Theater with three big Vaudeville acts and six reels of moving pictures. The 400-seat theater’s first matinee featured Jean of the Jail. The evening show was so popular that over a hundred patrons were turned away.
The theater has always leased the building which was built in 1910. In April 1918, the Columbus Theater was sold and renamed the Liberty Theater. In August of that year, it was packed for a Charlie Chaplin comedy, A Dog’s Life. On May 12, 1924, days after a voter referendum established the Borough of Bernardsville separating from Bernards Township, residents met at the theater to endorse their first Mayor George D. Cross. On August 7, 1929, the theater reopened with their first ‘talkie’: The Bellamy Trial. The theater thrived during the golden age of Hollywood. Gone with the Wind, Citizen Kane and Casablanca, among others were debuted.
The theater has endorsed some great movie local history. The character and movie Goldfinger immortalized Bernardsville’s Charles W. Englehard. Bernardsville native Meryl Streep starred on the big screen in The Deer Hunter which played at the cinema July 13-19, 1979. The original Star Wars poster created by Gladstone’s Charles Hildebrandt and his brother hung at the cinema.
The Liberty Theatre became the Bernardsville Cinema in August 1970, and then was sold 20 years later to Bud Mayo’s Clearview. A new triplex opened April 14, 1995 when the balcony was removed, and three separate screening rooms were remodeled with 152 seats, 62 seats and 52 seats respectively. Changing hands to Cablevision for a brief period, the theater was acquired in May 2013 by BowTie Cinemas in a deal with Cablevision. The theater has been independently owned by Bernardsville Cinema, LLC since November 2019.
After changing hands an number of times and The Liberty Theater became the Bernardsville Cinema in August 1970. The theater has been independently owned by Bernardsville Cinema, LLC since November 2019.
Televisions, VCRs, streaming services and the Coronavirus Pandemic have challenged the theater’s existence, but movie theaters such as the Bernardsville Cinema continue to anchor downtown’s as long as long as the community supports them. The Bernardsville Cinema awaits writing its next chapter in the history books.
Order your Limited Edition Historic Keepsake Today
Each piece is part of a one time creation run and typically sell out.
The New Jersey Historic Village keepsake collection is a wood painted collectible series honoring historic iconic buildings, properties, and events that are part of the historic fabric of New Jersey’s history. Each keepsake was selected based on community feedback and a voting process. Brooks Betz stated, “we’re really excited to see how the public reacts to the next additions to this historic series.” The Mr. Local History Project plans to introduce a number of new keepsakes help contribute our local memories to the series. Simply sign up to receive updates when the new pieces will become available.