VENTNOR, N.J. — Clint Bunting showed up on Ventnor Avenue with a sledgehammer on the very day he and his partners closed on the old Ventnor movie theater this summer. And he hasn't stopped since.
After successfully buying and transforming the Stone Harbor theater into a year-round theater with a bar and upscale burger restaurant in 2016, Bunting and partners Brett Denafo and Scot Kauffman have set their sights on another historic Shore theater: Ventnor's long-dormant, decaying but beautiful, beloved old Art Deco movie theater smack in the center of town.
As they did in Stone Harbor, they bought the property from the Frank family, which until recently had kept a tight hold on numerous old Shore movie houses, closing some and keeping others open, but barely.
The Ventnor property was in danger of collapse when the Franks finally agreed to sell for $400,000. It had last been open in 2003, when John Berezowski, the movie buff who was operating the theater, would screen art films and give people mints on their way out. He'd even bring you coffee in your seat if you asked. It's the last of dozens of old movie theaters on Absecon Island, though Tropicana operates an IMAX in Atlantic City.
"We're excited," Bunting said Thursday as he gave a tour of the cavernous inside, where original deco ceiling tiles were unearthed, and where water had previously been pouring in through a hole in the roof and Hurricane Sandy had left mold and water. "This is a leap of faith a little bit, but someone stops by every day and says thank you."
In Ventnor, they found the bones of the nearly century-old theater still strong. They are putting in $2 million to gut and renovate the inside, and say they will reopen by Easter with three screens, including a 290-person stadium-seating theater with a near-IMAX-sized screen, two smaller screens, a downstairs bar, and an upstairs restaurant and bar with New Orleans-style balcony seating out on top of the marquee and along an extended balcony the length of the building overlooking Ventnor Avenue (and the Wawa).
They're painting the outside a historic burgundy with gold lintel trim (Bunting says the paint will help seal and protect the old bricks). The copper pediments will remain. Two original interior staircases, which once led to second-floor restrooms with elaborate sitting areas, will now lead to the restaurant and balcony. The inside vibe will be speakeasy, Bunting said, with lush colors.
They have bid on the second of two liquor licenses made available for this formerly BYOB town after a 2017 public referendum. The first one went to the owner of Philly-based Santucci's Square Pizza, which plans a restaurant in the old Arrow Hardware Store farther south on Ventnor Avenue.
Denafo met Bunting after Bunting purchased the Stone Harbor mall on 96th Street, where Denafo has a bar and grill. The two partnered in purchasing the Stone Harbor movie theater next door, renovating the theater, and adding a bar and restaurant.
The Harbor Square Theatre in Stone Harbor has been wildly successful, even in the winter months of this Shore town.
"It took off there," Denafo said. "It's very nice. The seats are comfortable, it has 7.1 Dolby sound, it's the biggest screens in Cape May County. Everybody wants to come to our theater. Now in January on the weekend, you can't get a parking spot."
All around them, Shore movie theaters were closing down, including two on the Boardwalk in Ocean City that had also been owned by the Franks, the Moorlyn and the Strand. The trend had been toward the multiplex, then to the couch, and now, back around toward a boutique, higher-end theater experience.
Denafo, who grew up in Ventnor and whose parents now own the Wonder Bar in Atlantic City, began thinking about the movie theater of his childhood.
"I'm a Ventnor boy," he said. "I said to them: 'Hey there's a theater over there. This concept might work in Ventnor.' If there wasn't a liquor license, we probably wouldn't have done the movie theater."
Mayor Beth Holtzman and other Ventnor officials scrambled to lay out the red carpet, putting pressure on the Franks, whose Florida-based company has since filed for bankruptcy, to fix up the building or face condemnation. They finally sold.
"Ninety-nine percent of people did not want this theater torn down," said Denafo. "They wanted the theater saved. It's a part of Ventnor history. It's been there since 1922."
The movie sits on an iconic block of the part of Ventnor some call "North Beach": home to Shore favorites Sack-o-Subs, Mento's Water Ice, AAAA Bike Shop, and Domenico's. The developers tore down one adjacent building to allow access to a lot behind the building for parking. Another nearby lot is expected to become a municipal lot that will add parking as well.
There will be a downstairs bar opening onto the street, perfect for a pre- or post-movie drink, or for a post-beach beer or collegial neighborhood happy hour, the owners say. The restaurant and bar will function independently of the movie theater. You can do one without the other.
It also is part of a neighborhood bordering the Chelsea section of Atlantic City, where Stockton University has just opened its Atlantic City campus, which is starting to attract trendy new businesses, like Drip N Scoop, the popular coffee, doughnut, and ice cream shop from Ocean City that is opening a branch on Ventnor Avenue near Bartram Avenue, and a Poke Bowl shop on Ventnor near Dover in Atlantic City.
Many in the North Beach section of Ventnor expect to see spillover development from Stockton in the coming years.
Holtzman said she was "beyond excited" for her Shore town, which sometimes gets overlooked, being in Margate's and Atlantic City's shadows.
"It's the best thing that has happened to our city in a very long time," Holtzman said. "I'm confident it will make our town change in the most positive way."
Denafo says he hopes to pay homage to the last era of the theater and to Berezowski, who tried but was unable to buy the place from the Franks, by continuing the quirky little ritual of giving patrons a mint on their way out.
"I think I'm going to keep the tradition," he said.