By Maddie Orton
It was a 90th anniversary party for the Beach Cinema at Bradley Beach Historical Museum, but at times it almost felt like a funeral for a beloved art form.
“Gone are The Lyric on Cookman; The Ocean, later called Baronet, on 4th Avenue,” speaker Gary Crawford, former cinema projectionist, reads from the podium.
That’s because the Beach Cinema, a vaudeville house-turned-movie theater, is one of a disappearing few. It’s a one-screen, independently-owned cinema, where the popcorn butter is real and ushers wish you ‘Goodnight’ at the end of the show.
The Beach Cinema opened in 1925 and was the Palace Theatre then. Around that time, matinee tickets were a quarter, and Rin Tin Tin was up on the silver screen.
Cheryl Miller is a long-time patron of the theater and a history buff. She dressed up for the occasion.
“It’s really important to be able to preserve cinemas such as these, which I know are very hard to find,” she said. “It just evokes an era that will never come again.”
That’s why Bradley Beach Historical Museum curator Don Lewis reached out to the cinema’s owner, John Esposito, with a request: Could the museum exhibit items the theater doesn’t need anymore?
“Fortunately, the theater kept a lot of their old materials and artifacts,” Lewis said. “In the basement, they found the original ticket collection box, which we had somebody in the local neighborhood here restore for us.”
That’s not all. Inside the box were nine cent tickets. Also unearthed and displayed are horn speakers and old carbon arc lamp projectors.
Gary Crawford ran that projector and others around the area from the 1970s to 2014 when the Beach Cinema was forced to go digital. He says it was a unique job.
“I’d go see a different movie every night,” says Crawford. “[It’s] kind of a secret job. They didn’t remember you were up there. If you were out of focus they knew you were there, but if you did change over from reel to reel and they didn’t notice you did it, you did your job well.”
That happened every 20 minutes or so. Projectionists looked for cue marks on the upper right corner of the screen indicating they had a matter of seconds in which to switch the reel.
When asked if he ever fell asleep between reels, he replied, “Yes. Twice. Once in Eatontown Drive-In, the screen went white and the horns were blowing.”
Crawford still works at the Beach Cinema periodically to switch out the current features for new arrivals. To him, the theater is the real deal.
“The new multiplex cinemas, they’ve got all the charm of an airport terminal,” he said. “They just don’t know what theater is.”
If that’s true, then Esposito is an expert. And he’s got the fans to prove it.
“When I saw all the people here I was amazed that so many people really love the theater and turned out to celebrate and hear the history of the theater,” Esposito said.
Part of that history is its patrons. Beach Cinema played host to not one, but two, of Batman’s Jokers: Jersey’s own Cesar Romero and Jack Nicholson.