Town’s lone movie house is history

Photo by Ron Leir The Lincoln Cinema property on Kearny Ave. Fate of the property is unknown.
Photo by Ron Leir
The Lincoln Cinema property on Kearny Ave. Fate of the property is unknown.


That’s all folks! The closing credits have rolled at Kearny’s remaining movie theater, leaving West Hudson communities without any such entertainment spots.

As if in mourning, black cellophane covers poster advertisements for coming attractions intended for the Lincoln Cinema, Kearny and Elizabeth Aves., and a handscrawled notice in the cashier’s window requests mail to be dropped off elsewhere.

A corner retail shop that once housed a café as part of the two-story property at 834 Kearny Ave. housing the theater and commercial space stands desolate and empty.

The Lincoln, like other small Main St. movie houses, was an apparent casualty of economic hard times.

Town Administrator Michael Martello told The Observer that the property, listed as owned by 838 HB Realtor LLC of Plainfield, is in foreclosure and has a tax lien, with reportedly no taxes paid for the second quarter of 2015 and only half paid for the third quarter.

The property’s assessment is $382,500 and taxed for $38,000 a year, he said.

Earlier this year, the property owner had submitted plans proposing to replace the theater and empty retail space with a modest residential development but ended up withdrawing his application.

Martello said he was told by the owner that first-run films were hard to come by because the Lincoln lacked the digital projection equipment required to screen those films and converting to digital from 35mm film would have been very expensive to do.

The cinema at Rutherford’s Williams Center faces a similar issue. A member of the theater’s nonprofit board of trustees was quoted during the summer saying that it would cost $25,000 to convert each of the theater’s three projection systems to digital. A petition drive has called on Bergen County to save the Center which is in need of capital repairs.

Lincoln’s dilemma is a symptom that has afflicted smaller operators in New Jersey and elsewhere, according to Bob Piechota, president of the N.J. division of the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO), of which Lincoln was a member.

“The cost of going digital can be as much as $100,000 per screen,” Piechota said, and because distributors for the most part are not dealing in film anymore, “you either change over or you close. And a lot of our smaller operators have no choice but to close.”

Smaller theater owners, added Piechota, are also competing against “streaming or Pay Per View or Netflix,” not to mention the big chains. “The trend today,” he said, “is the theater with Imax, big screens, reclining seats, with food and alcohol service.”

“To be profitable, the newer theaters today are looking at 1 million admissions a year,” he said, and small movie houses like The Lincoln – with limited seating, even among several screens – cannot compete in that market, Piechota said.

Kearny’s Lincoln Cinema has been around since the 1930s and was converted to a triple-screen theater in the 1970s, suffered a fire in the mid-‘70s, then was made into a five-screen in 1997 and a six-screen in 2006. Now the nearest movie house is the multiplex AMC Clifton Commons.

So now, fans of The Lincoln are left with only memories.

NancyDeb writes on the Cinema Treasures website how during the ‘60s, she “performed on the stage … every June during those years since I attended dance classes in the Judi Terri Dance School which was above the theater and the school rented the theater … for our recital.”

Josh Humphrey, director of the Kearny Public Library, said he still retains “a lot of good memories” about the Lincoln where, “as a kid in the early ‘80s, I first saw ‘Star Wars: Return of the Jedi’ and ‘E.T. the Extra Terrestrial.’ ’’

In those days, Humphrey said, “You’d see lines around the block” waiting to see feature films, “because, otherwise, you’d never see them. Remember, this was in pre-video days.”

Library monitor Bart Vanoostendorp was a Lincoln fan, too. He remembered Saturday trips to the cinema as a boy during the ‘60s and ‘70s, seeing horror flicks starring Vincent Price and comedies like “The Three Stooges Meet Hercules.”

“It was maybe a quarter to get in,” Vanoostendorp said, “and they had a ‘2 for 1’ deal on Tuesdays. Plus, you could get a hotdog and soda for 50 cents each.”

In recent years, Lincoln regulars said, the theater began showing signs of neglect but some came to its defense, nonetheless, on the Cinema Treasures website. As Tom W. of Belleville put it, “There is no 3D, no IMAX, no reclining seats, and the screens do not look as crisp as other theaters [but] regardless of these faults, I highly enjoy the place.”

And Hal Y. of Newark added: “It’s not glamorous or updated at all. Some seats are torn, audio crackles at times. But they offer discounts on specific days and movies are free for children on certain holidays.”

This from Rose B. of Rutherford: “So it’s not shiny and glossy … Its walls are painted like a fifties insane asylum [but] it’s still a great theater. The Tuesday deal is hard to beat and the staff are always kind and courteous. I love this place.”

Al DePoto, writing in The Observer’s issue of Dec. 7, 1978, says that the Kearny’s “first movie theater was opened on Thanksgiving Day in 1908 by Alonzo Nicholas. It originally was called The Crescent and was located on the south side of Midland Ave. between Forest and Elm Sts. Admission was five cents.” The theater closed in 1914.

In 1912, The Arlington Playhouse occupied the former First Presbyterian Church Sunday School at the southeast corner of Kearny and Midland Aves., where local teens thronged to watch Saturday matinees, according to former town historian Jessie Hipp.

“As we youngsters grew older, the place was sneeringly alluded to as the ‘flea house,’ but it was a Saturday afternoon must for us. Parents unloaded their children for a dime each for a couple of hours each Saturday,” where “weekly series like ‘The Riddle Rider’ kept us coming each week for the next derring-do episode,” DePoto recalled.

During WWI and into the Roaring Twenties, patrons could watch silent films of the day featuring Tom Mix, Mary Astor, Lionel Barrymore and Norma Talmadge plus vaudeville acts at The Grand at 25 Kearny Ave. (now an apartment building), The Casino at 95 Kearny Ave. (now the Irish-American Club) and The Temple at 225 Kearny Ave. (now the Copestone Masonic Temple).

Scandal attached to the theaters of this era when, according to The Moving Picture World, Volume 29, the owners were indicted in 1916 for allegedly showing suggestive films like “Damaged Goods,” an adult education film about the ramifications of sexual disease, and for allegedly tolerating men luring little girls into the theater. The owners denied the accusations.

Augusta Treat, listed as the lessee of The Grand, was quoted as saying, “On the contrary, we cater to the high class of people of Kearny. Our patrons are refined and well-behaved. We have fought for years to keep the children out of the playhouses but what can we do? A child stands on the corner and finally some passerby takes him in.”

The Observer could not readily learn the outcome of the case.

In the Depression, these theaters gave way to a new generation of movie houses: The Regent, at Kearny Ave. and Grove St. (now an apartment house), where customers heard a Wurlitzer organ played and appeals made by public officials to buy war bonds; the luxurious Hudson at 65 Kearny Ave. (now the Kearny Family Health Center); and the Lincoln.

DePoto recalled that he was working as an usher at The Hudson when the owners decided to challenge the then-Sunday entertainment ban. The manager, Ralph Reid, warned DePoto he might face arrest “and the first thought that flashed through my mind was that my mother would kill me.” He wasn’t arrested but police did cart off Reid and the cashier. Ultimately, The Hudson carried the day, setting a precedent for other theaters to open on Sundays.

The Hudson eventually closed and an August 1952 fire badly damaged The Regent as its roof collapsed after more than 300 patrons had been safely evacuated.

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