UPPER MONTCLAIR, NJ - Residents were surprised to learn that the beloved Bellevue Theatre located at 268 Bellevue Avenue in Upper Montclair would be abruptly closing its doors after 95 years. The Bellevue Theatre opened on May 13, 1922.
The last movie was shown on Sunday at 7:45, as dozens of residents flocked to the theatre in a nostalgic display of reverence.
National movie chain, Bow Tie Cinemas, who operates another movie theater in Montclair, the Clairidge Cinema, only informed employees of the closing on Tuesday, just before the holidays. News spread quickly throughout the community and residents sprung into action making calls and signing petitions to reverse this decision.
In a released statement, Bow Tie Cinemas wrote, “Our lease of the Bellevue Cinema has expired, and our last day of operations will be Sunday, November 12."
At around 8pm on Sunday, nearly a dozen residents solemnly gathered in freezing cold temperatures to gaze at a theatre staff member take down the letters on the marquee.
Owner Jesse Y. Sayegh of Coral Springs, Fla. did not respond to request for comment directly. However, his attorney, Angelo Cifelli, of Piro Zinna Cifelli Paris & Genitempo in Nutley, said that his client had been in discussions with Bow Tie Cinemas since late last week to continue the theater's operation.
Since Bow Tie’s lease was expiring, the company did not want to exercise their option to extend the lease, which expires on November 30. The fate of the staff is unknown at this time, as they were not instructed to discuss the matter. The decision to close Sunday is to allow Bow Tie an opportunity to remove their equipment.
Cifelli stated, “They are going to dismantle the theater. They own the equipment, my client owns the building.” He added, “They have made clear to my client that they are going to take all of the equipment out."
Although Sayegh had offered six-figures to buy the equipment, Bow Tie declined.
At the time of publication, a Change.org petition started by Lena Fine had garnered 4278 signatures.
Ava Wigdor and Lara Harvey responded to the petition by showing up to watch one last film. They are close friends with Fine and expressed a nostalgic sadness at the news.
Harvey said, "This has been a really important part of my childhood and its super sad to see it closing."
Wigdor stated, "This is where I saw my first movie and where I've had a lot of birthday parties. So, I wanted to come to one last movie."
Many other attendees echoed the same sentiment.
The Bellevue Theatre has been a significant part of the Montclair Film Festival, so many even wondered what would happen with that location no longer being an option for viewing. Montclair Film leadership responded saying that they would be open to conversations.
Montclair Film Director Tom Hall responded with a statement on Sunday morning saying, "First, we want to say thank you to the Bellevue staff for always being such gracious hosts for our organization, and we are hopeful that the owner of the property will be interested in continuing to have a tenant operate the space as a cinema."
He added, "We remain open to conversations around the future of the Bellevue, but do not have any information about the future of the property at the moment."
Outside of the theatre Sunday night, rumors swirled among attendees about the possibility of famous Montclair residents acquiring the location.
Ilmar Vanderer says that he was there to attend the protest. He was one of the first to arrive around 7:45 p.m.
"I just wonder why both parties, who knew that the lease would be up, waited so late," he said.
Vanderer says that he called Bow Tie Cinemas CEO directly, but suspected after hearing the statement from he landlord's attorney, may have been given inaccurate information about the reasoning for the abrupt closing. He was instrumental in saving the Bellevue Avenue branch of the Montclair Public Library from closing and was hopeful that he could assist in efforts to do the same with the theatre.
"I don't think this is about taking sides between the building owner and Bow Tie Cinemas." Vanderer concluded, "This is about the community wanting to preserve an iconic landmark and maintain Montclair's status as an arts center."
According to the Friends of Anderson Park, Charles Anderson donated the land for Anderson Park and his son Robert was the developer of the Bellevue Theatre, which was designed by J.H. Phillips, a New York architect who also designed the Ringling Art Museum in Sarasota, Florida. The buildings around the theatre are Tudor-style historic buildings.
With the Upper Montclair Business District being a destination for shopping and dining, many business owners and residents alike have expressed that they want the theatre to remain.