WESTFIELD, NJ — Spots reserved for movie posters on the building’s exterior had been stripped bare, and the lights inside were dark at a time when the Rialto Theatre might typically be preparing for a busy Friday night showing.

The Rialto Theatre shut its doors suddenly this week, surprising the community where it has played films for 97 years. Customers and the operators of nearby businesses expressed concern about the closure of an institution that served as a key draw for local businesses and piece of the town’s identity.

“The Rialto is special because it’s in the heart of the town,” said 17-year-old Will Surks, who serves ice cream at Emack & Bolio’s, just next door to the theater. “It’s a homey place that people go to, even though there may be nicer places elsewhere.”

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Surks said the ice cream shop would have to wait to see what the ultimate impact of the Rialto’s closure would be.

Steven Gorelick, executive director of the New Jersey Motion Picture & Television Commission, while saddened by the closure noted it comes amid a changing scene for the film industry.

“Streaming video has really changed the whole landscape of how we view movies and television shows,” Gorelick told TAPinto Westfield. “I was sad to see the Rialto closing. It’s a little piece of New Jersey history gone.”

John Yu, the owner of NY Korean BBQ, a restaurant next door to the theater, on hearing from a reporter about the closure, walked out of his shop on East Broad Street and gazed up at the marquee showing the announcement.

“If it’s going to close, there’s not going to be any traffic,” Yu said. “It’s going to get slower.”

Yu recalled people lining up for movies in front of the theater for movie openings in years past, but couldn’t recall significant events at the theater drawing customers in recent months.

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Legal Matter

“The theater’s sudden closing is the result of a tenant/landlord dispute between New Vision Cinemas LLC and Rialto Holdings LLC,” said Mayor Shelley Brindle in a statement. “As this matter is currently being litigated, neither party will officially comment.”

Patricia Hanigan, who chairs the board of Downtown Westfield Corporation, the government entity managing the downtown’s special improvement district that local property owners fund through an assessment, called the theater an icon.

“I share everyone’s sadness about the closing of the Rialto, which is an icon of our downtown,” Hanigan told TAPinto Westfield. “It was a staple of my childhood and, as both a resident and a local business owner, I am invested in the ongoing success of Downtown Westfield. I agree with the mayor’s comments about exploring potential opportunities that may arise from this issue, and am confident that the DWC will play a vital role in how this situation continues to unfold.”

Nearby shops recently saw the closure of a Victoria’s Secret location and the shuttering of Lucky Brand’s Westfield store, both of which are on East Broad Street.

Theresa Caruso, manager of Baron’s Drug Store on East Broad Street, said youths often stop by her store and purchase candy before going to the movies on Friday evenings.

“It’s a concern because it’s another vacant building,” said Caruso, who noted the other two recent closures on the block. “There are a lot of businesses that are going out. … I just hope that they get something in there.”

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Alex Caramagno, 16, of Westfield, said he was last at the Rialto theater for a playing of the most recent movie in the Marvel series, “Avengers: Endgame,” which he said drew a crowd following its release last April. While not all of the shows draw a big turnout, he said, certain films still do.

“If you saw ‘Avengers’ there were a bunch of people,” Caramagno said. “For ‘Avengers’ movies, people will flock to the theaters.”

While the Rialto Theatre is closed, the Cranford Theatre in Cranford, which is also owned by New Vision Cinemas, remains open.

In Montclair, the closure of the historic Bellevue Theatre in 2017 prompted a group of prominent residents to sign a lease with the theater's owner and fund a major upgrade that is anticipated to make room for a restaurant and bar to be incorporated into a reinvigorated movie theater there.

Gorelick noted that the closure of the Rialto Theatre in Westfield comes amid trying times for the film industry.

“These days, we have to hope the multiplexes survive with the way things are changing,” he said. “The best way to see a movie is still to go to a movie theater and see it with an audience. To fully see a motion picture, you want that experience. Streaming video can’t duplicate that.”

Email Staff Writer Matt Kadosh at mkadosh@tapinto.net; Follow him on Twitter: @MattKadosh