by LOUIS C. HOCHMAN
It would be easy to assume the group long hoping to renovate the Bellevue Theatre had moved on from Montclair.
But please, don’t think that, urges Luke Parker Bowles.
This week, Montclair Local reached Parker Bowles — a Montclair resident and longtime director of the Montclair Film Festival — through email before connecting further by phone. His signature line wasn’t one for “Bellevue Enterprises,” the organization of locals and industry players who until recently planned to breathe life into a building on Bellevue Avenue that Bow Tie Cinemas left behind in 2017. Instead, the signature line called him the managing director of “Cinema Lab/Bradley Lab.”
That’s Bradley, as in Bradley Beach, in coastal Monmouth County — where Parker Bowles and many of the same partners who’d been in on the now-defunct (or, as Parker Bowles might put it, defunct-for-now) Bellevue plan just announced they’re hoping to reopen the former Beach Cinema.
Things are moving fast. Cinema Lab/Bradley Lab this week publicly announced a Kickstarter campaign to help finance the purchase of the single-auditorium beach building — which they’re reimaging as “the Bradley,” a three-auditorium theater with a stage for live events, elevated concessions and alcohol service (the broad outlines of the idea should sound familiar to anyone who’d been following the Bellevue project). Parker Bowles said the group expects to close on a purchase of the property in the next few weeks, and open by summer. He said no zoning or planning issues threaten to hold things up.
So, instead of opening the renovated Bellevue, Parker Bowles and his partners will do more or less the same thing at the Bradley? Not at all, Parker Bowles said.
“I think it’s really important — these were running in tandem. We were putting the work into each. It’s just, from an optics side … one fell apart and one came together at the same time,” he said.
What’s the issue with the Bellevue? It depends whom you ask.
Earlier this month, Bellevue Enterprises/Highgate Hall LLC sent a letter to Montclair’s planning department, withdrawing its longstanding application for a theater expansion that would have included six auditoriums (up from the current four), with airline-sized seats, showing first-run movies and offering in-theater dining and beverage service. An indoor-outdoor bar would have been on the first floor, and a restaurant on the second.
A zoning board application was close to approval in early 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic interrupted it along with the rest of normal life. Another hearing was never scheduled. And in a statement to Montclair Local, Bellevue Enterprises — Parker Bowles, Patrick Wilson, Brandon Jones, Andy Childs, Larry Slous, Vincent Onorati and Steven Plofker — said “after a significant amount of time and money was invested, we could not come to an agreement with the theater’s current owner.”
That owner, Jesse Sayegh, Jesse Sayeghsaid the group attempted to make “a lot of demands that no rational landlord would accept” and said he terminated the group’s lease over “breach of contract.”
There’s a lot neither side is saying about exactly what went wrong. And Parker Bowles said this week he’s not eager to get involved in a public back-and-forth — asking to leave his response to Sayegh at a simple “The fault did not lie in our hands.
“We are simply now focusing our efforts and our positivity on the Bradly in the interim, and will readdress the Belleview if and when the opportunity comes,” Parker Bowles said.
But throughout Parker Bowles’ most recent discussion with Montclair Local, he spoke more about “when” than “if” — holding to his earlier characterization of the collapsed deal as “an intermission, not an end”
“I would say it’s ‘Watch this space,’” Parker Bowles said. “One doesn’t date someone for three years and then just move on from the relationship.”
He immediately acknowledged: The metaphor is awkward. But he said the sentiment stands.
But, since the area is zoned for housing and retail, Sayegh said last week that he will seek approval from the town to renovate the Bellevue into retail and a theater/auditorium on the first floor and residential units on the second and third floors.
“The building will not be torn down. It will be preserved,” he said.
The area was never zoned for a theater, although the town has allowed the theater use and approved it again for a 1997 expansion. Parking has never been offered on-site, which would have to be addressed through the planning board.
Plans for the Bradley
As of late Thursday afternoon, the Kickstarter for the Bradley had raised more than $21,000 of a stated $50,000 goal, with 141 backers on board and nearly a month to go in the campaign.
Parker Bowles said the purchase from owner Showroom Cinemas (which is still advertising the property as for sale in a listing that touts its new roof and HVAC, and a tax bill smaller than that for most Montclair homes) will happen with or without the crowdfunding. He declined to disclose an expected purchase price, and Showroom’s advertisement doesn’t list an asking price.
He’s joined in the venture by Jones, Childs, Wilson, Onorati — all also part of the Bellvue grup — as well as Bradley Beach resident and IFC Films president Arianna Bocco.
He expects the Bradley to demonstrate a concept for a theater that could have success in many communities in the post-pandemic world — including in Montclair. Not too big, but not too small, with a mix of first-run and arthouse flicks drawing people to a comfortable, not-overly-packed environment.
“We are ahead of the pack in the future of what movie theaters are going to be,” he said.
— With previous reporting by Jaimie Winters