Berkeley Cinema

450 Springfield Avenue,
Berkeley Heights, NJ 07922

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Berkeley Cinema 1974

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Open since at least the early-1970s, this neighborhood theater showed first run movies until suddenly closing in early-January 2011.

Contributed by TC

Recent comments (view all 9 comments)

teecee
teecee on March 12, 2005 at 4:03 am

In the 1/17/91 edition of the Star Ledger, this theater is listed under the “Nathan” chain.

izzy272
izzy272 on July 31, 2005 at 6:41 am

My grand parents lived in this area and I can remember going here in the early to mid 70’s. It was at that time part of the Jerry Lewis chain. They use to run a 2 for the price of one on Thursday nights they may still do. I saw Jaws here.

teecee
teecee on August 13, 2005 at 1:22 pm

Some photos that I took in March 2005:
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SPOK
SPOK on August 20, 2005 at 10:15 am

The Berkeley Cinema opened its doors in 1973. The single screen theater was built on the foundation of the old Garden State Farms Milk store, what we would now call a convenience store. Some of the original flooring from the Garden State store could be found in the popcorn storage crawlspace under the projectionist’s booth. The theater was part of the Nathan Cinema chain. Despite similarity in construction, it was never part of the Jerry Lewis theaters. The nearest Jerry Lewis theater was the cinema at the Lyons Grand Union shopping center about 15 miles away.

One of the first movies premiered by the Berkeley Cinema was Marlon Brando’s riske LAST TANGO IN PARIS. This caused somewhat of an uproar in the township as the theater owner reportedly originally promised not to screen movies of an excessively romantic nature. The Berkeley Heights township council held very conservative views. This was the same local government that fought, unsuccessfully, to keep cable television out and denied McDonald’s request to build a restaurant in the Drug Fair plaza. This same council regularly denied the Cinema from having a lighted marquee as it was deemed that this would distract drivers and cause auto accidents. The Berkeley Cinema eventually wormed its way around this restriction by backlighting the large “BERKELEY CINEMA” letters on the roof. After the LAST TANGO debacle, the Berkeley Cinema redeemed itself in more traditionally acceptable showings of AMERICAN GRAFFITI and EXECUTIVE ACTION.

One of Berkeley Cinema’s greatest challenges was that its small size regularly prevented it from affording first run movies. Though this significantly changed in the 1990s, the theater of the 1970s often got blockbuster movies after they had already been premiered in larger multiplexes. When the cinema did procure a major motion picture shortly after its release date, you could be assured that the film would show for weeks, if not months, even though the crowds tapered off to a handful after the first weekend. As I worked at the Berkeley Cinema during its early years, I clearly remember seemingly endless weeks of films like FUN WITH DICK AND JANE, THE DEEP, A STAR IS BORN, and THE GREAT GATSBY. Normally following these major Hollywood releases the theater would receive a glut of real stinkers like BREAD AND CHOCOLATE, THE GAMBLER, and other movies that, if it were the 1950s, would be classified as B-movies. I learned later that this was a block-booking arrangement with the movie distributer. Essentially in order to get a first run blockbuster, you had to also agree to sceen a bunch of celluloid bombs.

On the other hand, the Berkeley Cinema in the 1970s was a great place to regularly see double features. For example, when James Bond’s THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN was released, it was double featured, at least for the first week, with LIVE AND LET DIE. The same occured with 1977’s release of Burt Reynolds' SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT, which was partnered with W.W. AND THE DIXIE DANCE KINGS. You could always bet that a new Mel Brooks comedy would initially be double featured with a previous Brooks' hit. BLAZING SADDLES with YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN and SILENT MOVIE, and so on.

Berkeley Cinema also hosted its share of re-releases such as BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID, MAS*H, THE POSIDEN ADVENTURE, and THE SOUND OF MUSIC. When the theater screened a weekend showing of Julie Andrews' THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE, the theater was mobbed by Julie Andrews fans from across the state.

Hey, what about some of those great matinees? Marx Brothers movies, Don Knotts movies, Three Stooges two-reelers, WILLIE WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, and a bunch of other movies that previously could only be seen on television. Watching Don Knotts in THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN on the big screen was much better than watching it on a 12-inch black and white television.

The Berkeley Cinema’s nemesis was the Blue Star General Cinemas multiplex in Watchung. The theater manager called the Blue Star Cinema on a regular basis to avoid screening the same movies at the same time. Ticket prices were cheaper at Berkeley Cinema, but Blue Star Cinemas was bigger, ran more shows, and generally had a big cinema feel about it. Ironically, Blue Star Cinemas closed in the 1990s and Berkeley Cinema survived. In the 1970s, Berkeley Cinema’s other closest competition were cinemas in Summit, Chatham, Lyons, and Bernardsville.

One of the biggest drawbacks about the Berkeley Cinema of the 1970s was that you were not allowed to bring sodas into the auditorium. Popcorn and all sorts of sticky candy were okay, but beverages were not permitted. Apparently the theater owner imposed that rule. We no doubt lost signficant sales of carbonated beverages by telling customers that they had to finish their drinks in the small lobby. This oddball rule was overturned in the 1980s.

As motion pictures became increasingly sophisticated, the Berkeley Cinema found it difficult to keep pace. Movies like MIDWAY required additional speakers to give the movie its full effect. It was not until the late 1980s or early 1990s that the theater augmented the solitary speaker behind the screen with multiple surround units on the walls.

Having worked at the Cinema for several years, I have a veritable Santa Claus bag of memories from the early days, but those will have to wait for another time.

teecee
teecee on March 2, 2006 at 8:06 am

Listed as an independent theatre in the 1991 International Motion Picture Almanac. Owner is listed as S. Goldstein.

juggernaut
juggernaut on March 7, 2007 at 4:43 pm

I worked at the Berkeley Cinema for more than 5 years. It used to be a treasure but I assure you it no longer is. The owner doesn’t care about it, and has let it fall into disrepair. It is old, dirty and run by high schoolers. I know how much it costs to run and what could be done with the place and its a shame its not cared for. The place has a spirit, and its fading away.

SPOK
SPOK on September 2, 2007 at 5:10 pm

Berkeley Cinema, Part II

It is time to dip into that big bag of Berkeley Cinema stories I introduced in my August 2005 entry.

I “worked” at the Berkeley Cinema from 1973 to 1977. I use the term “worked” because I was technially on the payroll from 1976 to late 1977 and continued to spend time there into the early 1980s. A couple of my friends worked as cleanup crew at the cinema. The then manager, soon to be a full time law school student, approached them after a matinee and asked them if they would sweep out the auditorium for the fee of a couple Berkeley Cinema movie passes each. Remember that those were the days when it was still thought to be traditional to throw all of your snack trash on the floor of the theater.

My friends had already been cleaning the cinema for a couple months when I was asked to join the team. As cleaning an air-conditioned cinema was a lot more fun than my soon to expire newspaper route I gladly accepted.

After each show the seating rows were deep in dumped popcorn, wrappers, sticky candy, gum, and spills from clandestine sodas. In those days the odd Berkeley Cinema rule was to not allow snack bar sodas in the auditorium.

The job of cleaning the auditorium was a big one particularly as there was a specific prescribed method and no deviations were allowed. First you would walk through the rows of seats picking up the larger cardboard trash. Then two kids armed with long dust pan brooms crawled on their knees between the seats and swept the debris downward to the next row of seats. You then entered the next row and swept this ever growing pile of trash forward to the next row. This continued until you reached the open floor in front of the screen. From there the dune of popcorn and debris was pushbroomed and scooped up into a trash bag.

Big trash was swept up from the aisle carpets and the carpets were then vacuumed. The floor between the rows of seats were selectively mopped.

For this labor after summer, weekend, or holiday matinees and early shows you were “paid” two to four movie passes per day. Originally these passes were for your personal use, but later it was understood that as part of the cleaning crew you were entitled to enter the cinema and see the movies for free. We sold the passes at school, as well as sometimes unabashedly to people waiting in line for a movie, for anywhere from 50 to 75 percent of the door ticket price. The pay, for lack of a better term, was not great, but it generated about six to eight dollars of pocket money per week.

These idyllic days soon changed. The Berkeley Cinema was built during a final 1970s surge of single-screen theaters. This was a time when other larger classic theaters converted their solitary screen space into oddly configured multiplexes. The Berkeley Cinema — and others from that brief era — stood out as stand-alone exceptions. In the 1970s the Berkeley Cinema’s business was one of feast or famine. For first run movies the theater was sometimes so mobbed by crowds that they had to turn people away. Other times there were so few people in the auditorium that the manager would opt to shut off the projector, slip the handful of people in the audience a couple movie passes and close the cinema for the evening. It did not help our situation when during these slow periods an ever increasing number of movie passes were presented at the ticket counter. During one early show there were seven people in the auditorium and six of those seven gained entrance with movie passes.

Mind you, our teenage cleaning crew was hardly the solitary source for the glut of movie passes, though we were immediately tagged as the culprits. Indeed the cinema managers (who were also the projectionists in such a small theater) handed out numerous yellow movie passes to friends and family. Those working the ticket counter often scooped up the incoming passes to hand out to their own friends and family. Further stressing the situation was that township police officers, firemen, and their families were provided identification cards that allowed them unlimited free movies.

By 1975 we were no longer paid in movie passes. Every couple of weeks we were given one or two passes as a courtesy, but for the most part our labors at the Berkeley Cinema were treated as gratis. If you complained you were reminded how much you benefited by being allowed to see movies, eat popcorn, and drink sodas for free. As kids we did not care that much as the theater was still a great place to hang out and see movies including R-Rated flicks. This benefit was not enough to sustain everyone in our group and a couple kids abruptly stopped showing up at the cinema. For those of us who remained our duties now included shoveling snow, cleaning the bathrooms, standing on the top of wobbly stepladders changing air-conditioning filters, and other tasks that truly befitted a paid employee. Occasionally I was asked to play the part of usher. I was several months away from legally obtaining work papers from school, but I dressed for the part, armed with a flashlight, and paid under the table.

By 1976 the whole concept of a teenage cleaning crew faded away. By then I was legally a part time usher at the theater. Not only was it my duty to tear tickets and patrol the aisles, but during breaks between movies I was tasked to sweep out the theater, vacuum, shovel snow, and all the other tasks I previously completed as a non-payroll kid. As a part timer being paid $1.85 an hour I was clearing more money than I ever did as an unofficial custodian. The primary downside was that my extra cleaning duties before business hours or in between shows was pegged at a maximum of an extra half hour or hour per week. The remainder of the time I was off the clock.

It was a lot of fun working at the Berkeley Cinema and it was always understood that the money would never be great. In 1977 my friend and I, both ushers, were the last survivors of the original cleaning crew. When he moved on to more traditional unionized part time employment offering double the hourly pay, substantially more hours, and benefits I was left to evaluate my options at well. As a high school senior playing on varsity teams and driving a second hand car the allure of a higher paying job was increasingly on my mind. As fate would have it I found a job elsewhere and left the Berkeley Cinema without notice. It was a childish bit of drama on my part, but one that was somewhat provoked by circumstance.

A projectionist in training, related to the Berkeley Cinema’s then manager, joined us an occasional usher. Those occasions increased to the point where my hours shrank while my counterpart’s grew. It was explained to me that the theater could no longer support a staff of two ushers, but as a long term member of the cinema family I would be kept on for Sundays only. The writing was all but on the wall. It came to a head one rainly early Autumn day.

The Berkeley Cinema hosted a sold out crowd. I had been at the theater since before it opened cleaning, picking up trash around the outside of the building, and shoveling mulch around the shrubs by the sidewalk — all while in my leather shoes, good slacks, jacket and tie. It started pouring rain outside. Darting out of the deluge into the theater lobby where the manager, projectionish usher, and candy counter woman were involved in a heated discussion about something or other. Whatever the subject of the argument, the manager was visibly upset.

In the worst possible timing the manager shoved a five dollar bill in my hand and told me to run across the street to buy him a sandwich. As the rain was falling with biblical intensity and had turned Springfield Avenue into a river, I responded that I would run across as soon as the rain let up a little. The manager pressed me further and observed that I was already soaked from the rain and that he would give me a garbage bag to wear as a poncho. As lightning flashed and thunder boomed in concert with a curtain of heavy rain, I again deferred to wait a few minutes until the rain storm slackened.

My observation about the rain was deemed insubordinate and shortly thereafter all of us in the lobby were given handwritten work lists of all the tasks we had to accomplish. My list covered both sides of the lined sheet of paper and was chock full of outdoor tasks including digging up the mushrooms that were growing by the side of the building. After finishing my voluminous tasks I re-entered the lobby dripping wet, saturated with perspiration and with shoes and trouser cuffs muddy. By that time the earlier tension had all but disappeared and the manager, usher, and candy sales staff were all talking and joking around in the lobby. As I walked through the door the manager laughed and observed that I looked like a drowned rat. I suspect no other worklist other than mine was completed that late afternoon.

In childish bravado I completed my evening usher duties and officially ended my ended my Berkeley Cinema employment by not showing up to work the following weekend. The sad part is that nobody from the theater even called to see where I was.

We outgrow many things in our lives and the Berkeley Cinema was one of those significant moments. In the summer of 1978 a full six months after I walked out of the cinema I was back at the front door waiting to buy a ticket for a movie. The staff waived me in without payment and the manager came out and treated me like a long lost best friend. From that point onward I stopped by the cinema to say hello every couple months. Rarely did I ever have to pay to see a movie.

The Berkeley Cinema was good experience and the first real job requiring me to complete a Federal 1040 EZ Form. It also taught me how dramatic exits are not necessarily the best way to go.

SPOK
SPOK on January 13, 2011 at 8:16 pm

OUT OF BUSINESS

The Berkeley Cinema closed, at least for now, effective the evening of January 2, 2011. At first I thought the information was just a rumor, but the report was later verified after I read several internet articles. The closing came as even more of a surprise as I drove past the theater only a week before Christmas 2010 and the new “Tron” movie was advertised. At the time it looked like the movie was attracting a healthy size crowd. Apparently the theater closing came without warning or explanation.

I sincerely hope the Berkeley Cinema reopens. It was one of the few surviving stand-alone cinemas (aside from those on military bases) in New Jersey. It would be a shame to see the building used for something other than a movie theater, though I doubt the Township would allow it to become a church or bank (as so many old theaters eventually seem to end up). Maybe this is the opportunity for the Berkeley Cinema to finally make the move into the 21st Century and become a Cinema Cafe. The transition to a theater eatery might be just the thing. Indeed, this change saved numerous other small cinemas, particularly those in some of the southern states.

I will have to make a trip back to my old home town sooner than planned to get a close up look at the Berkeley Cinema. I worked there in one capacity or another from 1974 to 1977, but continued to drop in and visit with old acquaintances until the early 1980s. When I worked there I was a budding amateur black and white photographer and took hundreds of photographs in and around the Berkeley Cinema. In fact my first crude attempt at 35mm night time exposure photo was taken of the Berkeley Cinema the evening of December 25, 1976. As you might have guessed, the camera was a Christmas present. Maybe it is time to take one final photo to close the chapter. I did the same thing when nearby Drug Fair closed.

I will post more information as it becomes available.

SPOK
SPOK on February 26, 2011 at 12:23 am

Found myself in Berkeley Heights late afternoon yesterday and stopped at the Berkeley Cinema to get a look at the theater for myself. As it has barely been two months since the cinema closed it does not yet have that abandoned look. If movie posters had been hanging in the outside display cases it would be easy to imagine the cinema as opening for business that evening. I took several digital photos of the building exterior and walkways. The asphalt front drive is pretty torn up, but that has been a recurring problem over the decades. Even in the mid 1970s the driveway sagged in places and would get noticeably worse if anyone parked there for any length of time.

The fully grown trees on the east side of the building are a far cry from the barely rooted shrubs of the 1970s. The rear parking lot is much different than it was when the cinema first opened and the Foodtown plaza shared the rear lot. Where the condominiums and apartments now stand was once nothing more than waterlogged thicket. Sherman Ave used to curve left abruptly at Summit Ave before Sherman Ave was paved through the thicket and connected to the shared parking lot. At one point, especially after several trip-and-fall incidents, the Berkeley Cinema’s sidewalk was extended through the parking lot. Only a small stretch of the original walk remains.

Did you ever wonder about the large boulders lining the edge of the parking lot adjacent to the Berkeley Cinema? In the mid 1970’s the Berkeley Cinema driveway, as well as the paved road leading downhill into the Foodtown plaza, were level with the liquor store and bakery parking lots. Cinema patrons often parked in the liquor store lot and walked over to the Berkeley Cinema. Despite posted warnings the owners of the adjacent property eventually had the boulders placed at the edge of the parking lot to dissuade movie-goers from parking on liquor store property. Years later curb stones were added to better define the edge of the respective parking lots, but the boulders still remain to this day.

As noted in my previous posting, I hope that someone else seizes the reins of this theater and keeps it running as a cinema.

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