By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
Bellevue Theatre President Doreen Sayegh and her father and owner Jesse Sayegh want to revive and reopen the 1922 historical theater in Montclair with a focus on community and the arts.
After being shuttered since 2017, the Bellevue Theatre will open later this year or early next year, Doreen Sayegh said at press conference held in front of the Bellevue on Thursday, May 13. The date also marks the anniversary of the grand opening of the theater, on May 13, 1922.
The Bellevue operated continuously for 95 years until its closure four years ago, when Bow Tie Cinemas ended a lease there.
Doreen Sayegh, who grew up in the theater business and at one time managed the Bellevue Theatre, most recently renovated and reopened The Cranford Theater, a 100-year-old movie theater.
Plans were presented in 2017 by Bellevue Enterprises/Highgate Hall LLC to renovate the facility into six theaters, a restaurant and a bar. But those plans were put aside in January, when Jesse Sayegh terminated Bellevue Enterprises/Highgate Hall LLC’s lease due to what he said at the time was a breach of contract. The group consisted of Luke Parker Bowles, Patrick Wilson, Brandon Jones, Andy Childs, Larry Slous, Vincent Onorati and Steven Plofker.
In January, the group formally withdrew its application for the theater expansion being reviewed by the Zoning Board of Adjustment. The application was originally expected to be approved in March of last year, the same month the pandemic hit. Parker Bowles — a Montclair resident and longtime director of the Montclair Film Festival — said at the time Highgate still wasn’t giving up on the Bellevue, but the group isn’t part of the plans announced Thursday.
Jesse Sayegh told Montclair Local in January that even though Highgate’s plans for the facility had fallen through, he was committed to preserving the building and was considering a residential and retail project with a theater on the ground level.
Doreen Sayegh said on Thursday the owners will keep the facility at four theaters, with one having a stage for live performances.
“We plan on beginning renovations immediately. It’s mostly going to be cosmetic,” she said, adding that although the owners won’t be knocking down any walls, the facility needs a lot of work.
When Bow Tie left in 2017, it stripped the theaters, taking the screens, projectors and the seats, Jesse Sayegh said in January. The facility has also been vandalized multiple times since its closure — police reported one instance as recently as this month — resulting in thousands of dollars in damages.
“It’s been closed for almost three and a half years. And when time passes and there’s no activity, it starts to wear down. So we’re looking at a full renovation, new carpets, new drapes, screens, new projection equipment, new speakers, pretty much a complete overhaul. It’s going to look beautiful,” Doreen Sayegh said.
She said the owners are looking at leather recliners for the downstairs theaters and high back rockers for the upstairs. There will be a concession food area as well.
The owners said they plan to present a “diverse spectrum of film programming, including studio, independent and international releases, and providing much-needed space for live entertainment such as musical performances, as well as film festival screenings, lectures and receptions.
“There’ll be some commercial product, but there’ll be a lot of art and cultural,” Doreen Sayegh said. She is hoping to book Metropolitan Operas, some ballet, a lot of the classics and documentaries. The addition of a stage will create a community center of sorts for live talks with book clubs and poetry clubs.
“It’ll be more than just a movie theater,” she said.
Parker Bowles, from the Highgate group, wandered by the Bellevue on Thursday and came upon the press conference. He said it was the first he was hearing of the Sayeghs’ plans to reopen and was happy about the announcement.
“I literally had no idea about this. We’ve been trying to be in touch with them, trying to work something out but there has been no response. We wish them luck. We think it’s great,” Parker Bowles said, adding he and his partners will be opening five other movie theatres in the area in the next six months.
Deputy Mayor Bill Hurlock said in press release early Thursday morning he was “delighted” by the announcement. He and Mayor Sean Spiller also attended the press conference.
“It will serve as both a cultural hub and economic force for Upper Montclair,” Hurlock said. “This is one of Montclair’s most iconic landmarks.I commend everybody involved for their commitment to restoring this beautiful building to its former glory.”
Ilmar Vanderer, founder of ‘Save Montclair’s Historic Bellevue Theatre’ Facebook page, said the reopening of the Bellevue has hit many bumps in the road and taken many detours.
“There is a light at the end of the tunnel. You know, as Shakespeare said, ‘All’s well that ends well,’” he said.
Plans still call for for adding housing and two retail locations, but that will be in the future, Doreen Sayegh said.
The Bellevue Theatre opened in 1922, designed by architect J.H. Phillips as an entertainment mecca where films and vaudeville acts were presented in ornate Tudor-style settings with tapestries, wooden beams and a tea room.
United Artists acquired the Bellevue in 1983 and triplexed it, obscuring many of the original design elements but also allowing a more frequently rotating schedule of films.
Independent theater operator Jesse Sayegh, then-president of the New Jersey chapter of the National Association Of Theater Owners, purchased Bellevue in 1996, modernizing and expanding the historic theater from three screens to four. Bellevue was leased to Clearview Cinemas in late 1997, and then to Bow Tie Cinemas in 2013, when it assumed the lease. In 2017, Bow Tie declined to renew the lease.