SOUTH JERSEY developers have found that old movie houses in disrepair can make great locations for new pharmacies. The iconic Harwan Theatre in Mount Ephraim became a Walgreen's. The Century Theater in Audubon became an Eckerd Drug.
But now volunteer groups are trying to rescue some of the remaining theaters.
Neighbors Celebrating the Westmont is dedicated to saving the 1,300-seat Westmont Theatre, in Haddon Township, Camden County, where a young Steven Spielberg once sat mesmerized by the silver screen and Dustin Hoffman sat in disguise to gauge audience reaction to "Kramer vs. Kramer."
And in Hammonton, Atlantic County, the Friends of the Eagle Theatre, a group of artists, elected officials and local residents, has volunteered to get the 95-year-old theater ready to reopen by June.
Allen F. Hauss, author of the 2006 book South Jersey Movie Houses, is nostalgic about the grand, old movie palaces, but not naive about why their marquees have gone dim.
"It takes a lot of money" to restore a theater, said Hauss, 69, a retired educator whose father was a silent-film projectionist. "It also takes an interest in historic structures and in art, and performing arts."
Hauss, a member of Neighbors Celebrating the Westmont, said the biggest obstacle to restoring old theaters is simply that not many are left to save and not enough people care to save them.
The Eagle Theatre probably wouldn't make a good pharmacy. If not for its new marquee, it really wouldn't look like a theater either.
But the Eagle, tucked away on a quiet side street in the "Blueberry Capital of the World," was one of the nation's first silent-movie houses (just a tent at first) when it opened in 1914.
Hammonton officials saw the run-down building, which had been used as a church for decades, as an asset - a way to draw visitors who might stop in for a show, a bite to eat and a gallon of gas before heading home.
"Once we found out it was part of our history and we researched it, everyone got behind the idea of saving this small movie house," said Councilwoman Tracy Petrongolo, trying to speak over the squeal of circular saws in the theater.
The Eagle Theatre has received preliminary approval to be listed on the New Jersey and National Registers of Historic Places, which would open doors to grant money and tax credits.
The Friends of the Eagle Theatre believe that their old movie palace - like the Grand in Williamstown, the Ritz in Oaklyn and the Broadway in Pitman - can be saved if it diversifies. The Eagle will stage plays and musicals, school functions, civic events and graduations, and will be available to rent for weddings and parties.
Broadway owner Peter Slack saw diminishing returns playing second-run movies, but said more than 7,000 people have subscribed for the Broadway-style shows.
"This place has become the centerpiece of our town," he said. "It's different than anything else out there."
Theaters also are being restored in Vineland and Cape May, but more than a dozen movie palaces have closed in Camden, and the two theaters in Audubon and Mount Ephraim, both in Camden County, were torn down for pharmacies in recent years.
The 1,300-seat Century Theater in Audubon hadn't shown a movie since 1979 and served for decades as a warehouse for an adjacent costume store before it was razed in 2003.
"They tore down a really great theater to build an Eckerd across from a CVS," Hauss said.
That Eckerd closed within a year.
A few miles down Kings Highway in Mount Ephraim, a Walgreen's sits on the corner once dominated by the Harwan Theatre, a former vaudeville house where Abbott and Costello, Laurel & Hardy and the Three Stooges performed. The last film that played there was "Rules of Engagement" in 2000; several attempts to open afterward failed.
The administrations in Mount Ephraim and Audubon expressed no interest in purchasing or restoring either theater at the time.
In Philadelphia, Hauss said, the decline is one of the most dramatic on the East Coast: The city's last great movie palace, the Boyd, on Chestnut Street near 20th, closed in 2002. But efforts are under way to restore it.
Collingswood is home to the ornate Scottish Rite Auditorium, a Masonic temple built in 1931 where initiation ceremonies once were performed.
Mayor Jim Maley said the theater, which remained in good condition over many decades because it rarely was used, almost became a wing of a nearby hospital. A $5 million bond in 2003 helped refurbish an adjoining banquet hall now used for weddings and civic functions, and the theatre now draws major musical and comedy acts.
Maley said most boroughs, particularly in this economy, are looking for ways to cut spending, not invest in old theaters.
"Every town has the race to get money in the door to keep services going," he said.
But Ross Melnick, co-founder of CinemaTreasures.org, believes that restoring theaters is an investment.
"People who look at these buildings and say they're dumps and want to tear them down are being shortsighted," he said. "They have to ask themselves, 'What do we want our city to look like?' Do they want something magical, or do they want a pharmacy?"
Hauss has seen the saga play out with the Westmont, which looms over Haddon Avenue with its windows shattered and its entrance fenced off from curious pedestrians.
The Westmont, owned by the Camden County Improvement Authority, is on the table for proposals. A few developers have expressed interest in using the shell of the theater as a shopping center or new condominiums.
Hauss believes that the borough would generally like a developer to maintain the Westmont as a theater and arts center. Mayor Randy Teague did not return phone calls seeking comment.
It will take an estimated $8 million to $9 million to restore the theater to what it once was, Hauss said, and if it's accepted to the Registers of Historic Places in June, getting some of that money might prove easier.
Moviegoers will never be carted out of the Westmont in stretchers, as they were when "The Exorcist" premiered. They won't line up an hour in advance to get tickets to the latest Hollywood blockbuster. But Hauss is certain the Grand Old Lady has a little magic left in her sagging facade.
She may only need a facelift.