An encore for storied Westmont Theatre?

The Haddon Township theater, attended - legend has it - by Steven Spielberg and Michael Landon.
The Haddon Township theater, attended - legend has it - by Steven Spielberg and Michael Landon. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 13, 2013

The Westmont, a nearly 86-year-old former movie palace in Haddon Township, may be getting a new lease on life.

Township officials and Lazgor L.L.C., a Cherry Hill real estate development firm, are exploring Lazgor's buying and rehabilitating the old theater, which has been vacant for at least a decade.

Depending on how those negotiations go, by late August the township and Lazgor could enter a nine-month agreement to forge a redevelopment plan.

And while few - if any - are expecting a revival of the Westmont's cinematic glory days, preservationists and other theater fans are hoping for some performing-arts or community-use space, and would most like to see a performing arts center.

"You would really have a beacon, drawing diners and shopping to the downtown area," said Allen Hauss, president of Friends of the Westmont Theatre Inc., a nonprofit advocate that worked to get it on the national and state historic registers.

Opened in 1927, the 45-foot-tall theater on Haddon Avenue is where local legend has it that a very young Steven Spielberg, then an area resident, saw The Greatest Show on Earth and was inspired.

At this point, the township is not looking at a windfall from the sale. Lazgor's offer was $50,000. The township purchased the theater in 2000 for $250,000.

But Mayor Randall Teague said that of about 20 potential buyers, "this is the only group that has shown a legitimate interest," including financial references and a development track record.

One local actor offered $60,000, but, Teague said, "it's not just for sale. We want to be sure who purchases the theater has the funds to rehabilitate it."

The longer it stays idle, he said, "the longer we're not getting paid taxes on the property."

A feasibility report estimated a cost of $3.1 million to renovate the property and include a theater. Teague said the more likely figure would be about $4 million, less if there were no theater.

In addition, the rehab will be subject to preservationist review due to the building's historic status. The theater would probably fetch a higher price if razed, which the historic status bars, Teague said. He noted that town officials had opposed the building's going on the register.

Lazgor has gotten some national retailer interest, the mayor said.

"At this point, there are three or four commercial users that have expressed an interest," said Peter Lazaropoulos, an architect-engineer who is one of Lazgor's two partners. Some of its other projects include a 20,000-square-foot medical and surgical building on Cooper Road in Voorhees, a Wawa on Route 70 in Cherry Hill, and a car wash on Route 73 in Marlton. The partners also manage and lease more than 150,000 feet of office, retail, and industrial space, Lazaropoulos said.

He said his firm was willing to work within preservation requirements and intended to meet with the Friends group and others.

Asked about including performing space, he said he did not think that the Westmont could compete with multiplexes, but "we would love a hybrid." He gave the example of a dinner theater-restaurant.

"At the moment, I'm very happy someone has expressed interest in saving the building," said Friends president Hauss, who wrote South Jersey Movie Houses.

Hauss and others in his group say they think a performing-arts center would be a wise use of the building, bringing visitors and businesses as other towns' restored theaters have done.

"It brings the downtown back to life," Hauss said.

Haddon Township also has the Ritz, another historic theater, which has stage productions. Hauss believes the theaters would provide different kinds of offerings.

"I would love to see the Westmont become a draw for visitors," said William Brahms, a Haddon Township Historical Society member, who said much of the township's historic fabric has been lost.

Brahms wrote a book about the Westmont, published in 2007, a companion to local resident Brent Donaway's documentary about the theater.

According to the book, the Westmont opened on Labor Day 1927. It was a 1,800-seat venue, and 5,000 people showed up. Its first movie was The Unknown, with Lon Chaney and Joan Crawford.

The actor Michael Landon was a Westmont doorman long before he was a star, according to Brahms' book.

Over the decades, the theater passed through several hands. The last movies shown there, according to Brahms, were Dirty Dancing and The Fourth Protocol. The Living Arts Repertory Theatre rented it for several years starting in the 1990s.


Contact Rita Giordano at 856-779-3893 or rgiordano@phillynews.com or follow on Twitter @ritagiordano.

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