MADISON, NJ – Madison’s historic movie theater is a place where some have seen their first movie. A place where parents and couples can enjoy date night or a night out with the kids. A place with nearly a century of history downtown. Now the theater has closed its doors, and residents are crying out for help from the local government.
An online petition, which has now gained more than 1,000 signatures, asked the Madison Mayor and Council to provide “emergency interim funding to rescue the theater and allow community groups to develop a plan for its use as a not-for-profit movie, arts and cultural center,” said petitioners Sandy Kolakowski and former Mayor Ellwood “Woody” Kerkeslager.
Mayor Conley announced at Monday’s council meeting that the council had accepted the petitioners’ proposal and would meet with Kolakowski and Kerkeslager in the coming weeks to review the request and discuss next steps.
Kolakowski said she was happy to see such a large response from area residents in just a few short weeks. At the council meeting at least 60 people showed up to support the theater in person.
“Many said it’s too late to save the theater,” she said. “I told them I had to try, and I could not live with myself if I didn’t.”
The petition now has more than “300 comments describing how the movie is an essential part of the best of Madison; a place where you can go as a family or feel comfortable letting your kids go with their friends,” she said.
About a half dozen people spoke on the theater’s behalf Monday, sharing memories and lamenting its closure.
We’ve lost “something that brought vitality to downtown, that brought people out on the streets, that appealed to everyone whether it be old, young, single, couples with children,” said Almond Pippa of Ridgedale Avenue.
Some families have lived in Madison for years, when the theater only had one screen. For other, newer residents like Claudine Besti of South Street, the movie theater played a huge role in their decision to move to Madison.
Besti said that when she and her husband had dinner with their realtor at Takuma Japanese Restaurant on Lincoln Place, she was surprised at the old-world feel that encompassed the downtown area and culture.
“We watched kids and teenagers walking back and forth from the movie theater to Romanelli’s pizza place,” she said. “It was like another era. My husband and I decided that this is the place.”
Even a handful of Madison’s youngest residents showed up Monday to express their feelings about the theater’s recent closure.
“The movie theater meant a lot to everyone,” said Luke Shuster, 14, an incoming freshman at Madison High School. “People could spend time together at the movie theater. Overall it benefited the town as a whole.”
Many who spoke Monday, like 15-year-old Dennis Collins, said Madison’s theater had its own special charm, something the town should hold dear.
“It helped our town to have something unique like that instead of another bank or another restaurant,” Collins said. “It was something important that we should really keep.”
Not only does the theater have a special place in the hearts of Madison residents, but it also affects local business.
Kerkeslager said he spoke with several downtown business owners, who told him the theater helped drive traffic to their stores and restaurants. The owners said they “can tell when the movie is over” because people start flooding in.
To Demolish or Not to Demolish
Rumors have arisen that the current owner of the 1920s theater, Saxum Real Estate, plans to demolish the building and replace it with condos.
Borough Assistant Administrator Jim Burnet said he thought the confusion came from a demolition permit obtained by the previous owner late last year to remove an oil tank on the property, a requirement before the sale could be completed.
No applications have yet been submitted to the borough that would suggest what the owner intends to do with the property, he said, so the owner’s future plans are currently unknown.
Despite this, the public outcry against more condos in Madison has been significant.
“If we continue to allow our...local landmarks to be built over with more and more multiple dwelling structures to accommodate all the would-be Madisonians in our world, the Madison that we all know and love; the special character that draws people to our town in the first place, will disappear,” said West End Avenue resident Kathy Dailey.
Bow Tie had negotiated a lower month-to-month lease with the previous owner, who attempted to keep the company in operation at the Madison theater, according to Burnet. That lease was honored by the new owners but despite this, Bow Tie gave a one-day notice—allowable by the terms of its lease—and ceased operations on May 30, he said.
Borough Attorney Matthew Giacobbe said he advised the council not to comment on future or pending applications the theater owners may submit.
“If this property—which is owned by a third party—goes before the planning board or the zoning board, it’s very important that these members of the governing body do not in any way infect the process,” he said.
That is not to say the Mayor and Council are not addressing this, Mayor Conley said.
The theater is “very important, and we hear the passion,” he said.