VENTNOR, N.J. — It is a lucky town that recaptures an old movie theater left to crumble.

In Ventnor, a Jersey Shore town just below Atlantic City, they’ve now done it twice.

In its latest incarnation, the beloved 1938 art deco Ventnor theater has been meticulously and expensively restored, renovated, literally shored up with steel beams, patiently tended to during a long coronavirus lockdown, and, remarkably, reborn just in time for New Jersey’s reopening, not to mention the summer season.

Unlike the last time, when John Berezowski, a quirky former theater sweeper saved the theater, curated art films, and personally handed out mints and coffee in a theater that still had its red velvet balcony restrooms, this nearly $4 million rebirth comes with state-of-the-art projection, three theaters, a restaurant, and newly liquor-licensed bars on two floors.

The balconies in the new Ventnor Square Theatre have been outfitted with a bar counter and swivel seats that can be rented out for private events.

Nucky’s, the new restaurant and bar that consumes parts of both floors, has expansive front windows that swing out wide onto Ventnor Avenue, adding an incongruously metropolitan feel to a block dominated by Wawa and Sack O’Subs.

The transformation has Ventnor’s elected officials enthusing like they’re writing the latest treatment for the big screen. They can’t believe how this plot turned out. It’s amazing the thing didn’t get torn down, a twist in a town where historic homes seem to be torn down every day, and real estate is at a premium.

“It’s a fairy-tale ending to a narrative,” said Tim Kriebel, a city commissioner who took his future wife to a movie at the old Ventnor Twin when he was 15. He says he knew she was the one when he agreed to forgo Swamp Thing to see her choice, Chariots of Fire.

“A city falls in love with the theater in its main downtown,” he said. “City loses theater. City gets new theater back. That narrative is hard to resist.”

He had been worried that Ventnor, a town wedged on Absecon Island between Atlantic City and Margate, was becoming a “drive-through city.” Now, he says, it will become a destination, helped no doubt by its three new liquor licenses.

‘That’s what’s holding the building up’

Servers like J.J. Ponzio, who used to work at the old Maloney’s (torn down), will be glad to bring you your drink in the balcony, and hostess Sonte Anderson will explain that the brick wall inside the restaurant’s second floor is original, now adorned with retro “Ventnor Social Club” and “Nucky’s Place” graphics.

Pay attention to the steel beams that cross that brick wall. They are not for show.

“That’s what holding the building up,” said Brett DeNafo, one of the partners in the project, along with Clint Bunting and Scott Kaufman. The trio also owns the Tilton Square Theatre in Northfield and the Harbor Square Theatre in Stone Harbor.

Like Ventnor, the Tilton was bought and rescued from the Frank family, whose ownership of nearly all the movie theaters down the Shore had left most in less-than-optimal shape, on their way to oblivion.

After closing in the fall of 2004, with Berezowski giving out his final mint, the Ventnor theater, too, seemed left for dead.

But DeNafo and his partners had a vision that defied conventional wisdom about independently owned movie theaters on the main streets in seasonal towns.

That vision, which now encompasses three locations with a fourth in Cape May County on the horizon, was more successful than the one DeNafo brought to bear when early on in the coronavirus lockdown he tried to defy Gov. Phil Murphy’s orders and open his Tilton Square Theatre.

In movie parlance, it was a short. The theater shut its doors within days after state police began issuing citations, and area politicians grew uneasy.

» READ MORE: Defiant Jersey shore movie theater shuts its doors after three violations

Meanwhile, though, the lockdown was buying needed time for the increasingly complicated renovation in Ventnor. To be blunt, the building was collapsing before their eyes.

“The front of the building was falling down,” DeNafo said. “We brought it in almost four inches. Another year that would have caved in on Ventnor Avenue. We pulled the whole wall completely back.”

‘Only a quick walk from the jitney’

Movie theaters often die, but rarely are brought back to life. When they do, they can thrive, and tell a different story of a place to the people that live there. In Traverse City, Mich., filmmaker Michael Moore restored the historic State Theatre and screens art films. It’s now one of the country’s largest-grossing independent art theaters.

Moore described the area as in “a depressed state and in a rural, somewhat politically conservative area, where the nearest four-year college is 100 miles away.”

Atlantic City was once a bustling movie town, and its blend of homegrown greed, vice, and ruin have inspired filmmakers from Louis Malle in 1980′s Atlantic City, where Susan Sarandon bathed herself with lemons and ate lunch with Burt Lancaster on the porch of the Knife & Fork Inn, to Zack Snyder, director of this year’s zombie apocalypse movie Army of the Dead, filmed winningly inside the then-shuttered Showboat and still-shuttered Atlantic Club casinos.

DeNafo and Bunting are not acclaimed filmmakers like Moore with a personal stake in how their movies are shown, but they have created a similar phenomenon in their ventures with spare-no-expense renovations of neglected local movie houses with reputations more for a comical array of projection and sound mishaps than lushly reclining seats.

(At the old Ventnor Twin, the theater problems often added a subplot: the power mysteriously failing during the conspiratorial The Manchurian Candidate; the crumbling walls adding an odd pathos to The Last Temptation of Christ.)

DeNafo, a Ventnor native, says the Tilton theater was first in the Northeast region for box office receipts over the rainy Memorial Day weekend with newly released and unrestricted screenings of A Quiet Place Part II and Cruella. All three locations, including Ventnor, only open a week, sold out.

The other night, a dozen or so people showed up for A Quiet Place Part II in the main theater, where the seats are comfy but not fully reclining. DeNafo says groups will continue to have at least one seat left empty on either side of them.

The nighttime street was newly animated with people on a mission to get into their seats on time, and the smell of contraband Sack O’Subs wafted in the air inside the 272-seat theater, pleasingly. A few people sat at the bar downstairs, already transforming the streetscape, never mind their Wawa view. Cruella played in one of two 85-seat theaters.

Moisse “Mo” Delgado, an Atlantic City councilman and candidate for mayor, had come over to Ventnor with his son and wife, and stood outside afterward debating the plausibility of various scenes of the thriller.

It was a nice change from debating the latest outrageous accusations ricocheting around real-life Atlantic City.

Delgado later praised the restoration of the theater and recalled seeing that intense screening of the The Last Temptation of Christ in the theater’s last incarnation.

He said he was OK with the project being in Ventnor.

“It’s only a quick walk from the jitney,” he said, referring to the mini-buses that run throughout Atlantic City but stop at the Ventnor border. An improvement in Ventnor would also serve Atlantic City and its residents, he said.

“Vegas was never one strip,” he said. “It consumed all the communities adjacent to it.”

Patrick Rosenello, an investor in the theater’s restaurant who is also the mayor of North Wildwood, said he wished he had a similar development back in Wildwood. The Wildwoods once had a half dozen movie theaters, none of them left. In Ventnor, he said, he was struck by how deeply people still connected to the theater.

“I’m happy to be part of something that has deep historic significance in the town,” he said. “But what I got is how much personal significance this building has. Every person you talk to has a story.”