Obsessed by the mystery and intrigue of the tiny place, Penkalskyj (pronounced pen-kal-ski) and his wife embarked on a six-year renovation, turning it into a 68-seat movie house. The new Sea Theater opened in summer 2003 to a packed house of silent-film enthusiasts.
The place seemed to perpetually smell of popcorn, and in addition to silent movies, it slid into an easy schedule of film classics, retro revivals, and a few first-run showings offered mostly on summer weekends.
But now the historic theater - which has been called a hidden gem among the pizza parlors and souvenir shops that line this Cape May County resort's main street - could go dark again.
Penkalskyj, who spends every summer helping his 87-year-old mother run her seasonal apartment rental business in Wildwood Crest while he operates his therapeutic-massage practice in Philadelphia, suffered two recent heart attacks.
He didn't open the theater for the season this year, and two weeks ago he posted a for sale sign on the front door. Asking price: somewhere in the mid-$200,000s.
"It was always a labor of love . . . a hobby that grew into a business," said Penkalskyj, remembering the grueling days when he worked nearly around-the-clock to painstakingly refurbish the unassuming, one-story property.
Buried beneath layers and layers of dilapidation - a "lake" of water runoff from leaky pipes was uncovered in what had been the auditorium area - he found the original bones of the old drama queen.
The pitched concrete floor, remnants of red wallpaper, and ornate gold-plated lighting fixtures on dimmers were uncovered in the interior rubble.
In the control room - probably used as a broom closet when the place was a store - the old hand-crank projector was gone. But Penkalskyj eventually outfitted it with a Super Simplex projector from the 1940s. The giant three-tiered platter to spool the 35mm films now stands in the corner. Speakers were a nonoriginal addition to the place.
Unlike the lavish movie palaces that sprang up in small towns and big cities in the 1920s and 1930s as the Tinsel-town craze stormed the countryside with Hollywood "talkies," nickelodeons such as the Sea Theater had a shorter, and quieter, history.
Nickelodeons were usually set up in storefronts with hard, wooden seats and a piano in the corner. Patrons were charged a nickel to watch short films, including melodramas and "scenics."
The first indoor space dedicated exclusively to "moving picture spectacles" opened in 1905 in Pittsburgh and the attraction was so popular that within three years, there were some 8,000 of them in storefronts across the land, film archivist Eileen Bowser wrote in her 1990 book The Transformation of Cinema, 1907-1915, which chronicles the early film industry.
As with many trends that begin on the West Coast and eventually meander east, the Sea may have not have arrived on the scene until the tail end of the nickelodeon wave, contends Penkalskyj, who worked with local historians and other sources to research its history.
Using old maps and tax records, they found the Sea Theater on the rolls for the first time in 1916. But by 1920, the theater was gone from the old journals. It's likely it operated for only a season or two and then devolved into a simple storefront when the talking motion picture industry exploded.
Bigger, glitzier movie theaters became de rigueur in cities big and small. Eventually, such larger movie theaters were built in Wildwood and other Jersey Shore resorts - often on the boardwalks and beachfront areas favored by the tourists.
But the old Shore movie palaces also have turned to sand in recent years. The real estate boom in resort towns, coupled with changes in the distribution of first-run movies, has spawned the age of the multiplex, and the movies have moved to mainland shopping strips and malls.
Last year, a ferocious fight between preservationists and Frank Family Theaters erupted over the Beach Theatre in neighboring Cape May.
The Franks wanted to demolish the circa 1950 beachfront movie house to build condos. They won the fight, and the auditorium section of the old building was razed in the spring. To see a movie nowadays, people in southern Cape May County must travel to the mainland community of Rio Grande, where the Franks own a 12-plex.
"It's sad. I never like to hear about a [silent movie] theater possibly going by the wayside because these places just don't exist anymore," said Hadrian Belove, who in 2006, with two partners, bought the Silent Movie Theatre in Hollywood.
It was billed as the only remaining exclusively silent-movie house in the world. But Belove and his partners "changed the mission" and the name to Cinefamily, and the nonprofit now offers an avant-garde schedule of movies and events that "appeals to a wider audience."
Penkalskyj said his Wildwood theater was finding success with similar programs, and turning a profit, in recent years as a result. He hopes a buyer will retain the historic feel of the place.
So does Oleg Prasicky, 56, of Chatsworth, a member of the Cinema Club of New Jersey, a loosely structured group with a handful of core members and a 200-person mailing list. Members regularly met at the Sea Theater for special movie events. They usually got about 20 or 30 people out for one of their private events, he said.
Prasicky said the intimate size of the Sea Theater made the experience of watching an old film akin to having a showing in a private screening room.
"You can watch a movie and then the theater is small enough that the group can sit and comfortably discuss it afterward," Prasicky said. "It was a wonderful place for a collector to be able to go and have a special screening of a film they may have in their collection but can't view otherwise because they don't have a projector."
Prasicky said the Sea was mainly supported by people "from outside Wildwood" who understood its historical significance.
"If it closed for good, it would be such a loss for the region," he said.
Contact Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-652-8382 or email@example.com. Read the Jersey Shore blog "Downashore" at www.philly.com/downashore.