Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The loss of Ocean City's movie theaters, and what came after

When I read the article which started Sunday's post, and which stated that the Strand and Moorlyn Theatres on the Ocean City, NJ boardwalk may have closed for good due to the cost of digital conversion, I found that I had to do a little more digging in my files, memories, and on the internet. I'd known that the Strand had been multiplexed, and I'd already researched the fate of the other Boardwalk movie theaters well over a year ago. But I wanted to know a little more - something wasn't sitting quite right. So here is what I've managed to dig up and my impressions of it all:

When I lived there, there were three other movie houses on the boardwalk. They were all pretty much big old barns, harkening back to the days before tv, when filling a thousand plus seats a couple of times a night wasn't all that difficult for a hot title - everyone went to the movies then. In the 1970's, the economics of running such places tended towards futility. Aside from the Strand, there was also the Moorlyn, the Village, and the Surf.

The Surf as it is today, with a small marquee to list its shops.
There isn't much out there about the Surf. The other three venues were owned by the Shriver family, but the Surf was owned by someone else. I can't even find pictures from its days as a movie house. I don't know what happened or when, but it seems like it was the first to go. Built as a venue for stage shows and vaudeville in the early 1900's, the building now houses a mini-mart of stores. It was where I saw "Woodstock" on its original release, projected on a screen so large that any of the three side by side panels the movie often used would easily dwarf most screens of our day. I seem to recall it being twinned early on, and that it stayed open at least one winter.

It was there in 1970 that I saw a double bill, a re-issue, of  'Gold Diggers of 1935', and 'Footlight Parade', two of those slightly insane black and white Busby Berkeley 1930's musicals. The Gold Diggers movie includes the stunning "Lullaby of Broadway" number, one of the all time great musical hallucinations. By the time I left the theater for my walk home along a deserted boardwalk, I expected the path before me, as well as the nearby buildings, to turn into hundreds of dancing girls swirling in geometric patterns.

If my memory about the Surf being twinned is correct, then it must have been owned by the Frank family as part of their Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey circuit of theaters. The Franks get the dubious credit for creating the first twinned cinema and the multiplex.

And I definitely remember that the Franks and the Shrivers did not get along.

The other three venues were all owned by the Shriver family. Shrivers Salt Water Taffy, as well as their fudge, and the factory store are a longtime mainstay of the boardwalk. In fact, it was the first buisness on the boardwalk. It is also the home of the best salt water taffy I've ever had to this day.  If you drive across the main bridge to the island and continue directly to the Boardwalk, on your right will be the Strand and on your left is Shrivers. The family sold off the taffy business in 1959, but kept the theaters, several other businesses, and a good deal of prime real estate.

The Ocean City Boardwalk in 1964

The last of the Shrivers was Mrs. Helen Shriver Schilling. She, more than anyone else, was responsible for maintaining much of the older more genteel character of Ocean City and the boardwalk. But Ocean City fell into the hands of people who changed zoning regulations that allowed high rises in, and etc. They destroyed Ocean City, and turned it into an atmosphere redolent of cheap honky-tonks. In 1989, Mrs. Schilling sold the theaters. Her one proviso was that they not be sold to the Frank family, but to someone who would preserve them. They sold for over three million dollars. The buyer did not show up at the closing It later turned out that the Franks had bought the theaters through subterfuge. When they trashed the Strand, it was one of the Frank family who personally ripped down the silk main curtain with the image of Poseidon, tore it to shreds, and threw it into a dumpster behind the theater.

Somewhere along the way the Moorlyn was turned into a twin. In my day, it had a glorious neon marquee, which was preserved even after the initial conversion.

In the 1920's and 1930's, the Moorlyn had an upstairs ballroom. It had a vaudeville stage where the likes of W.C. Fields used to appear. Eventually, the Franks tore it all down and replaced it with a multiplex, with expensive apartments where the stage and ballroom had been/ Here's the new building on the Boardwalk, with a type of signage Mrs. Schilling would have abhorred:

Saddest of all is the fate of the Village Theater. The Village started out as Doughty's pier, sticking out into the ocean. It had a bowling alley, and was home to vaudeville and silent movies. Over the years, the ocean retreated. In 1927, much of that portion of the Boardwalk was destroyed in a terrible fire - but the pier survived. The new boardwalk was built where the ocean had been, and the entrance to the pier was changed to what had been the building's rear. For the remodeling work the theater, now situated alongside a boardwalk off-ramp, had sound equipment installed. An ingenious facade covered the awkward fit of the pier and its new circumstances, designed to resemble the buildings of an old fishing village.

The Village interior made geart use of wood. It was the smallest of the Shriver's Ocean City theaters, but it was a prestige house. It operated continuously until the sale to the Frank family in 1989. In June of 1990, it burned to the ground.

When Mrs. Schilling died, she left the town land she owned on the ocean side of the boardwalk, with a proviso that it never be built upon. The town is now trying to change that. She also left several lots near the boardwalk that are used for visitor parking, and did it in a way that the town hasn't been able to build there yet. And, she had set up her her estate in such a way that executors were instructed to offer the long time tenants of her boardwalk store front buildings a chance to buy their spaces as a co-op. All but one did. They were thus  preserved and saved from the garish primary colors cheap plastic world that the boardwalk became; a gentle reminder of a time when people cared about their community, when life was about more than a quick buck.


Anonymous said...

I like that Mrs. Schilling. She had a visionaries eye ahead.

sdt (a.k.a. stevil) said...

I was often not quite sure where she was coming from. The Shrivers owned a little rest pavilion on the ocean side of the boardwalk. Ocean City promoted itself as a 'family resort'. When the pavilion became a place where teenagers hung out, it was torn down. (This was after I left. Teens were expected to show up for the summer, work in substandard conditions for substandard wages and then vanish from sight into their substandard rooms. I helped run a counter-culture coffeehouse hangout and front for counseling in those days - the money to do it came from the Methodist Church so we got away with it.) I later heard that the town had been responsible, and Mrs. Schilling wanted it rebuilt, bless her.

The Ruiner said...

Stevil, I feel like I should know you.

This is a great piece about the loss of the boardwalk theaters. It is a shame that they are no more. Especially the Strand, which had such stylish Art Deco architecture.

I knew Mrs. Schilling and worked as a projectionist at the Strand and other theatres in the 70's and 80's. I took 6 of the photos you have here and the other post, and am the guy in the video. The history of these places has always been a hobby of mine.

I witnessed the whole deceptive purchase of the theaters and knew the Frank's were behind it. I even went to Mrs. Schilling's house and sat down with her to tell her that the Frank's were already ordering concession equipment for her theaters. She was concerned and said she would make sure they are not sold to them. But obviously it happens anyway.

I hadn't heard about the curtain's fate. People have asked me and I never knew. In 89 One of the Frank's told me had the curtain in a box at the Towne 16, but it would be unusual for him to tell me the truth. But I am glad I was able to rescue a few things from the Strand, like some of the movie star portraits from the lobby.

I can tell you that the Surf was never twinned. It was a single theater, originally owned by the Hunts and later the Frank's. The Shriver Theater Company rented the Surf from the Frank's for years. But it was never maintained, of course, and often had water in the orchestra pit when it rained. Al Kazmark later purchased it and ran rock and roll pictures for a summer or two before converting it to a mall.

Thank you for a nice blog entry. Sorry it has taken me 4 years to find it.

The Ruiner said...

P.S. That's me in the video of the Strand projection room, and I took several of the photos.

sdt (a.k.a. stevil) said...

To The Ruiner - Thank You so much for saying hello! And Thank You for adding your most recent note, as I wanted to thank you for your previous comment, got sidetracked, and had it slip my memory. Well, it stayed in memory, except for those occasions when I got back to the blog and might have answered. My apologies about that.

I hope you don't mind my using your photos and video. If you do, I'll be glad to take them down, and if you don't, I'll be happy to give you credit for them. I collected them while web browsing, never expecting that I'd end up using them in a blog post, so I didn't take appropriate notes for the credits.

The bit about the Strand curtain came from a post by someone who wrote that he had witnessed the event in question. I can't quite recall if it was in a regular blog post, or if it was in a reply on a discussion type forum. At the time I wrote this piece, I was nearing the 'early retirement' option of Social Security (which I took). Over the previous year or two, I'd spent a good bit of time looking up Ocean City, with thoughts of perhaps returning there to live. I bookmarked a lot of stuff for future use, and I may have one for the web site where I found the comment. I'll be glad to look through the mess if you'd like.

Thank You for sharing your memories and pictures of those theatres. I think my heart skipped a few beats when I found the video of the last change-over at the Strand. I watched with an odd mix of exhilaration and sadness. It was such a delight to see theatre curtains again, let alone the Stand's Neptune/Poseidon. To my mind, the video really shows the end of an era, not just one theatre. Well done, sir.

When I first saw that video, I studied the projectionist to see if I knew him/you, and I'm not at all sure of the answer. If it is of any help, I left Ocean City shortly after the election in 1972, and moved to Manhattan.

My (weekly 2 hour)radio show (oriented to big bands and the American Songbook) is currently on hiatus, but for its last couple of years I posted every episode (and am now posting previous shows every week)on SoundCloud, linked from the show's Facebook page - which (of course) links to my personal FB page. If you have a FB account, please feel free to send private messages if you'd like to compare notes, reminisce, discuss other shared interests we might have, etc. The show's page is at https://www.facebook.com/Recycled-Radio-621059471269529/

If you don't hear back from me within a day or so, let me know here, and I'll give you more direct means of contact.

Bestest Wishes.