MARBLEHEAD — In a world of malls and megaplexes, it’s rare to see a new movie theater in the middle of a small downtown these days. But in Marblehead, you’ll find just that — the Warwick Cinema — and some locals consider its opening nothing short of a miracle.
“I never thought it could be built. I never thought that in today’s world, with big multiplex screens, that we’d have a little movie theater for the town. It’s great,” said Cory Schauer, who lives in town.
The theater, which has two screens and shows newly released movies, opened earlier this month at the same location as the original Warwick Theatre. The old Warwick opened in 1917 and closed in 1999. For some Marblehead natives like Marblehead Selectman Harry Christensen, its downtown footprint is considered hallowed ground.
“It feels like home again,” said Christensen, who developed a habit decades ago of looking up at the theater’s marquee to see what movies were playing. After it closed, he continued to glance up, even though the theater and marquee were gone. “Now, I can look up at that with a big smile on my face.”
“I think it’s just terrific. The town has missed a movie theater,” said Tom McNulty, whose family owned the theater from 1922 to 1999.
While the old theater had a neon marquee and 500 seats — in 1980 it was split into two screening rooms — the new picture house is not a standalone business. It is in a new, block-long 38,000-square-foot complex, and shares a ground floor with Palmers Restaurant and a café. On the floor above, commercial office space has been rented out.
The theater and restaurants are owned by a group of investors led by Marblehead financier Eyk Van Otterloo.
Harold Blank of Nahant, a partner who runs the new Warwick, said the “dine-in” model would bring people who want to go for dinner and a movie to the same location.
“It’s a new concept — to mix going out to dinner and going to the movies,” said Blank, who has built and owned movie theaters for the last 40 years in the United States and Argentina.
One screening room at the new Warwick is a traditional sloped theater, with 70 leatherette seats equipped with a serving tray and a call button that will allow people to order a meal or a drink from their seat before the movie begins. The other is a rectangular room with a flat floor that includes a spread of leather chairs and tables where up to 55 people can eat and drink while watching a movie.
The Warwick is one of the few theaters in Eastern Massachusetts to offer dining service during a movie. According to Blank, Showcase SuperLux in Chestnut Hill and Chunky’s Cinema Pub in Haverhill are two of the others that offer in-seat movie dining.
Blank thinks the theater will succeed because of the shared customer business plan. The cinema, Palmers, and the café employ about 100 people, and the building is open at least 16 hours a day.
“If you can find this kind of project, where you can link businesses that complement each other and feed off each other, then I think this is a model for many towns on a smaller level,” he said.
John Ingalls, who owns Palmers Restaurant, said he joined the investors because he believed that people in a small town would still like to eat out and see a movie. “We have a built-in clientele for three businesses,” said Ingalls, who recently opened the L-shaped, 132-seat restaurant at the location. He plans to serve crabcakes, tenderloin sliders, pizza, and other dishes in the theater.
On a recent afternoon, a steady stream of parents and children arrived for a matinee to see “Grown Ups 2,” parts of which were shot last summer in Marblehead and Swampscott. In the lobby, Marilyn Ziff sat on a big white comfy chair and celebrated the Warwick’s return.
“I’m thrilled,” said Ziff, who formerly lived in Marblehead and remembers bringing her family to the old Warwick. Ziff said she likes the idea of a restaurant, café, and theater in the same location. “I think it gives the town a little bit of sophistication. It might bring families together and it’s a good place for children to come, and for parents to know where they are.”
Inside the smaller screening room, boys and girls munched on popcorn and talked nonstop as they waited for the movie to begin. Kelly Keaney sat with her daughter Tess and smiled. “It gives my kids a place to go, and I know they’re safe for a couple of hours. I think any town would be happy to have this,” she said.
Tess, who is 9, agreed. “I think it’s awesome,” she said. “Now we just need a water park.”