The Montclair History Center gave a presentation on the Bellevue Theater, which closed in November 2017, on Bellevue Avenue in Upper Montclair. The Jan. 17 talk aimed to explain the importance to Montclair not only of the Bellevue Theater, but cinemas in general, and Friends of Anderson Park presenter Lisanne Renner also looked at possible future uses for the building – of which, alas, few involved a movie theater.
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 replaced wood-frame pedestrian buildings in central Upper Montclair, which became 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 at the Upper Montclair post office (now Coldwell Banker) a few steps from the theater.
Phillips envisioned a movie theater that would not only fit into the neighborhood but also have the cozy feel of a Tudor-style home. He produced a design reminiscent of an old English tavern, with a lobby and lounge that evoked images of an Elizabethan mansion and an auditorium resembling a stately hall. The original auditorium, Renner noted, had a stately appearance that was accentuated by steel beams made to resemble oak. It was one of the many styles experimented with during the country’s movie theater building boom of the early 1920s, when Hollywood began its long domination of American popular culture; Montclair’s other theaters, the Clairridge and the Wellmont, were also built in 1922. (The Bellevue opened on May 13 of the same year.)
During its 95-year history as a functioning cinema, the Bellevue included amenities such as a balcony, as well as a second-floor cafe, Highgate Hall. Far from a beatnik or early ’60s Starbucks cafe, Highgate Hall offered full meals such as lobster Thermidor, sirloin tips or stuffed turkey, and director Laura Cutler had the murals changed on a regular basis. the walls. The first film ever to screen in the cinema itself was that of DW Griffith Storm Orphans. Ironically, Griffith’s Birth of a nation, which romanticizes the Ku Klux Klan and racism, recalls an uglier chapter from Montclair’s past; the city’s cinemas were separated for many years. (In another ironic twist, Nate Parker’s 2016 film Birth of a nation – about Nat Turner’s Slave Revolt in 1831 and purposefully named after the movie Griffith – played at the Bellevue.)
Other films screened over the years at the Bellevue included the series Flash Gordon, The Rocky Horror Picture Show (a permanent element), the 1972 film by Bernardo Bertolucci Last Tango in Paris (which, although critically acclaimed, was a highly sexual film that sparked controversy with locals dismayed at its screening), Paul McCartney’s concert film Wings Rockshow, the comedy of Michael Caine Educate Rita, and, more recently, the Star wars movie Thief one. Renner pointed out that a trip to the Bellevue was a rite of passage for tweens and teens from Montclair who first went to the movies on their own, without their parents.
Most of the interior elements documented by Renner – the orchestra pit, the silent film era organ screen, the rustic chandeliers – were long gone before the theater closed. It was converted into a three-room theater in 1983; a fourth was added in 1997. When it closed, one of the two windows that were built into it had been taken over by the theater for the expansion of the concession stand. It was also ironic, as those storefronts had been included in Phillips’ design as a hedge against the possibility that the movie 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 theaters could replace home video stores.
The evolution of the business model, Renner said, is precisely what led Bow Tie Cinemas, the last owner of the Bellevue, to avoid renewing its lease. The chain refused to sell the equipment to keep it open as a theater, presumably to avoid competition for its other Montclair property, the Clairridge. (The Clairidge had become the Bow Tie venue for foreign films, independent films, and more serious Hollywood fare, while the Bellevue was primarily a venue for popcorn movies and blockbuster franchises.) there are many ideas on 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 film showing and retail, as has happened with small theaters. elsewhere. The building owner has indicated a preference for a “durable tenant” to take over the space. This tenant will not be the Montclair Film Festival; festival organizers say they can’t afford it. Renner assured residents that the historic nature of the building would be preserved; it is located in a historic district and the Historic Preservation Commission is expected to approve any changes to the exterior. And as if that wasn’t enough, resident Ilmar Vanderer, who lives in the neighborhood, has launched an effort to save the Bellevue; the historic Bellevue theater of the Save Montclair group is accessible to its Facebook page.
Whatever the outcome, the Bellevue Theater is likely to survive in one form or another.