For decades after World War II, the Landis filled its seats. But in the 1970s, it and the town began a decline.
After closing in 1987, the place was barely tended to until local arts patrons and business people launched the Landis Theater Foundation. The group spent $10 million to refurbish the theater, which reopened to great fanfare with a May 2010 concert by Broadway's Bernadette Peters.
The recession took its toll, however, and this year the theater was in jeopardy again.
Now, Phoenixlike, the Landis is set to rise again.
Appel Farm, the Salem County arts education and entertainment complex, has entered into an agreement to take over the Landis' management and booking. It plans to stage as many as 60 acts a year there by 2014.
"It would have been a tragedy for downtown Vineland if we had let this resource die," Michael Testa, president of the Landis foundation, said last week.
"Appel is a quality organization, and this will be a great marriage," he said. "The stars aligned."
City Council last year approved a $500,000 line of credit for the Landis' operating expenses, and the theater quickly used all but $100,000. As part of the new deal, council last week authorized use of the remainder by the new operators while Appel executive director Mark Packer and his team get up to speed.
The foundation will continue fund-raising, Testa said.
Appel has run its site in Elmer for more than 50 years. The theater there, which seats 200, will be reserved for educational operations and summer camp productions.
The camp and annual music-and-arts festival, this year on June 2, will remain in Elmer. But Appel's other productions will all be at the Landis, which no longer seats 1,200 but which is far larger than Appel's enclosed venue.
"The opportunity to bring quality acts of all sorts - from touring Broadway to comedy to all types of music, from blues to pop to country - to a 750-seat theater may be a challenge, but it's also a gift for us," Packer said.
Events already booked at the Landis - including comic Robert Klein (April 14) and a foundation fund-raiser featuring the Manhattan Transfer (May 12) - will go on.
The year so far has been a financial loss, Testa said.
"Appel has done this sort of thing for a long time. They know how to get grants and have more connections on booking. We are confident they will be able to turn a profit here," he said.
Last month, Sacred Heart High School, just blocks from the theater, got a reprieve from the Diocese of Camden, which had said it would close the school in June.
"We're doing things downtown - with the public market we opened last year that operates Wednesdays through Saturdays, and a bit of an upturn in the economy. But closing Sacred Heart and Landis would have been a disaster," said Sandy Forosisky, Vineland's director of economic development.
Downtown Vineland is a state-approved Urban Enterprise Zone, which allows qualifying businesses to charge half the regular sales tax and to receive some incentives for creating jobs.
Vineland claims to be New Jersey's largest city by area, and Landis Avenue, the business district's main street, is grand and wide. The original Landis theater had air-conditioning before it was standard, headphones at prime seats, and a mile's worth of neon decorating the exterior.
Vineland is not what it was in Mori's day, Forosisky said. But its pulse is strong.
Stephen Wilson and Jill McClennen opened their Sweet Life Bakery down the street from the theater five years ago. The couple are Culinary Institute of America graduates and had good jobs in San Francisco.
"My wife is from here, and we decided we would try a completely different thing," Wilson said. The theater's ups and downs have scared him a bit, he said, but the work of townspeople to revive it and keep Sacred Heart going is why they think they made a good move.
"We are making it, and things look good from here," he said of the bakery and lunch place. "We always wanted more exposure, and more people coming to the theater will do that, I hope."
Appel would like to expand the Landis' draw, Packer said.
"We're sitting here on Route 55, which takes people to the Shore and up to Philadelphia, so we have to capitalize on that," he said.
"There is no reason we can't get acts that have a Tuesday in New York and a Friday in Washington to put in a Wednesday with 750 seats in Vineland. If we have better acts, then people from Cherry Hill and Atlantic and Cape May Counties are only 30 to 40 minutes away.
"There is no more beautiful theater, anyway, I assure you," Packer said.