It has been more than 80 years since the Westmont Theatre opened in Haddon Township to showcase traveling vaudeville acts and silent films. And decades since a young Steven Spielberg sat in its darkened rows watching movies play across the screen.
Now town leaders and a small but dedicated group of residents hope they are close to bringing the Westmont into its latest act.
In recent months, the town has been in talks with competing groups of developers to reopen the historic theater in downtown Haddon as a venue for Broadway shows, classic films, and musical acts, said Mayor Randy Teague.
The Westmont, considered by film historians to be the last of the great movie palaces in Camden County, showed its final movie in 1986. Since then it has floundered in various stages of redevelopment, and it now sits in decay, its once-grand marquee falling apart, its 1,200-seat theater vacant save for raccoons and pigeons that find their way inside.
"It's a real shame what's happened," said Allen Hauss, a member of the civic group Neighbors Celebrating the Westmont and the author of a book on South Jersey movie houses. "You have almost nothing in the way of arts in Camden County. And here you have this last example of the golden age of theater architecture. Our hope is it will be saved."
Haddon Township took control of the Westmont in 1999, eventually entering into a development deal with Joanna Pang, owner of the Trocadero Theatre in Philadelphia, in 2004. But when relations between the township and Pang soured, the development company obtained an injunction preventing Haddon from signing with another developer, and the Westmont was left in limbo in court.
That injunction was lifted by a federal judge last summer. Now, the town has a proposal from Fieldstone Associates - a developer from Bridgewater already in the planning stages on a residential and retail development down the street - to convert the theater into shops and apartments, though saving the facade.
While town leaders are keeping an open mind, the proposal is already raising opposition among some residents. "I don't think that would be accepted by anyone," Hauss said.
Advocates for the Westmont, opened in 1927, are pinning their hopes on two other developers, who have yet to submit formal proposals but have expressed interest in running the Westmont as a working theater, Teague said. Haddon is keeping the names confidential while negotiations continue.
But with an estimated $5 million to $7 million in renovation costs, and the volatility of show business, there remain the same questions that have shrouded the Westmont for the last decade, including whether running a theater in a small South Jersey town would be profitable.
Even the mayor admits it's not an easy sell.
"You have to be able to pay off any financing and maintain your operating costs. The biggest problem with renovating a theater is the sheer cost," Teague said. "But we think it would be a great draw."