For 82 years, the Marblehead Warwick Theater advertised everything from silent films to Oscar winners. But in 1999, the theater closed after megaplexes sprouted in neighboring towns. Since then, the site has been a subject of local memories and trivia, and often people can be seen reminiscing at the entrance of where the theater once stood.
Bucking a trend that has seen many local movie theaters close in small towns, a representative from Warwick Place Realty Trust — which razed the old Warwick last year along with other buildings to build a retail and office complex — announced last week that a new theater would be built on the footprint of the old Warwick. At last Tuesday's Planning Board meeting, Warwick Place's attorney, Paul Lynch, said the development would include a 108-seat theater, and a smaller theater for conferences.
In addition, he said a restaurant was planned for the site, which is zoned for commercial use.
The planned 38,000-square-foot complex is scheduled to be completed by the winter. Marblehead financier Eyk Van Otterloo, who owns and is developing the property, could not be reached for comment, and Lynch did not tell the Planning Board which companies would run the cinema and restaurant. Lynch also did not respond to interview requests from the Globe.
As word spread through the town late last week, the response was overwhelmingly positive. There are still movie theaters in nearby Salem, Beverly, and Danvers, but other communities lament the loss of theirs. Lynn, which once boasted grand theaters such as the Paramount, the Capital, and the Warner, has been without a movie house since the 1970s. And in Swampscott, people still talk about the Surf, which closed in the early 1980s.
“I think it's just terrific; there’s no downside at all,” said Tom McNulty, whose family owned the former 500-seat Warwick from 1922 until they showed the last movie there in 1999.
The Warwick was built by the Libby family in 1917, and sold to the McNultys in 1922. In 1948, the McNulty family commissioned C.I. Brink — the company that built the Citgo sign in Kenmore Square — to construct a neon and steel marquee for the Warwick. In 1980, Tom McNulty reconfigured the theater into two screening rooms. After it closed, the old theater stood mostly vacant for years.
Last year Van Otterloo took the marquee down, and according to McNulty, is having it restored. “The town loved that marquee. It was the ‘Welcome to Marblehead’ sign,” McNulty said.
The news of the planned theater appeared to be a surprise to the Warwick Theatre Foundation, a local nonprofit that had raised over $100,000 in the last year with the hopes of opening a new movie theater at the complex. Beth Wheeler, a member of the foundation's board of directors, said members had met with Van Ottoloo and discussed their proposal — which included a lobby café, a video gaming area for kids, and a theater that could be used for other community events, such as a film festival or streaming of live video from other locations.
“I'm a never-say-never person,” said Wheeler, who believes her organization still may have a chance to rent the property since no lease has been announced to the public. “Our mission was to put a community theater in that space, and if the landlord opts to go with another entity and it's a for-profit entity, then our hope is to in some way work with them and provide some community events.”
As workers inspected recently constructed steel beams at the site, some area residents gushed at the news.
“It was definitely missed. It’s art, and this community needs art,” said Dan Lynch, a Marblehead native and self-described ‘old-timer’ who first started going to the Warwick in 1941. “We watched the newsreels and I followed World War II at the Warwick.”
Another Marblehead native, Brenda Kelley Kim, said a movie theater would give her children a new understanding of community — such as standing in line and have unplanned conversations with people. “Kids are home now, stuck in front of their computers, iPods, and iPads. This will send them out in the community, and they'll be talking to their friends and they'll have a place to hang out.”
Sarah Katz, who is 17 and will be a senior at Marblehead High School, also believes a theater will be an important destination for teenagers.
“I think it's really a creative move,” she said. “It’s a good thing for kids at night. A lot of times we just go driving around and have nothing to do. It will be great to have a local theater.”