Surf Theatre

1154 Boardwalk,
Ocean City, NJ 08226

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Showboat Theatre (Later the Surf) 1929

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Opened in the late-1920’s after the great boardwalk fire. Advertised as a fire proof building. The theater was originally vaudville but then changed to movies. The Shriver chain operated the theatre in the 1970’s. It closed in the early-1980’s and is now an enclosed shopping mall.

Contributed by TC

Recent comments (view all 16 comments)

TheaterBuff1
TheaterBuff1 on August 26, 2006 at 7:55 pm

Now that’s a bit of nostalgia! For how long has it been since youth went to Ocean City, New Jersey during the summer season to earn money for college? For today, of course, rents are so high in Ocean City — driven up primarily by its serving as a bedroom community to provide housing for Atlantic City casino workers, which occured from the late 1980s onward — that any summertime job a young person could get in Ocean City today wouldn’t even begin to pay what the astronomical summertime rents there are now, let alone there still being any money left over to pay for college! So ah, what a totally different world it was way back then, ay MT? For 1975… I was there in 1975 for the whole summer. Stayed on the 2nd floor at 816 Wesley. And that whole summer — from June to September — couldn’t have cost me more than $400, and that was for rent, food and clothes! And it was a time in Ocean City when you could actually be lodging that many blocks back from the beach and boardwalk yet still fully feel that you were at the seashore! And if at that time the Surf Theatre was getting someone rundown as you describe, no one going there would’ve even noticed it. Back then it was a whole different world, and people didn’t think that way. We were sooooo free from that! And even back in 1981 or whenever it was when I saw those two rock movies there (see my comment above) I don’t recall once thinking, “Hey, why are they letting this theater go to pot this way?” (No pun intended.) All I can remember thinking is just what a great theater it was to be in and how super great the sound quality was as I watched the bigger than life images of Neil Young, and Stephen Stills, and Jimi Hendrix and so on on screen! For as long as that much was good, that was all we theater goers back at that time cared about. So for the theater operator it was a far freer experience as well. And I hope they appreciated it. For we sure did! And then came the big nightmare which fully wiped out THAT Ocean City to bring us the one that’s there today. But as they say, MT, guys like you and I got the gravy, huh? For 1975 in Ocean City. All I can think now as I look back is, “WOW!!!”

MTownsend
MTownsend on August 27, 2006 at 10:33 am

DEAR THEATERBUFF, IT WAS A GREAT TIME YOU ARE SO RIGHT! I LIVED IN AN OLD 3 STORY HOUSE RIGHT BEHIND THE BOARDWALK AT 13TH STREET. I MEAN IT WAS 40FT FROM THE BOARDWALK. I LIVED ON THE TOP FLOOR VERY HOT BUT AT NIGHT A NICE SEA BREEZE WOULD COME IN MY WINDOW WHICH FACED THE OCEAN. THE HOUSE WAS USED TO STORE EXTRA BIKES FOR THE MCDOWELL BIKE RENTAL WHICH WAS THERE. I GOT FREE USE OF ANY BIKE WHENEVER I NEEDED IT SO IT WAS NO TROUBLE GETTING AROUND THE ISLAND. THE MCDOWELL’S ALSO OWNED A SMALL BATH HOUSE THERE WHICH I WOULD CLEAN EVERY 2 WEEKS SPLITTING THE JOB WITH OTHER GUYS WHO WORKED FOR MR MCDOWELL. MY RENT WAS 15$ A WEEK IF I COULD PAY IT IF NOT I WOULD WORK ALITTLE EXTRA AT THE BATH HOUSE. WHAT A DEAL! SINCE GOING TO THE MOVIES IS NOT A TOP PRIORITY FOR PEOPLE ON THE BOARDWALK MY JOB AT THE SURF DIDN’T ALWAYS GIVE ME MANY HOURS. I WOULD TAKE TICKETS AT THE DOOR THEN CLEAN THE PLACE UP AFTER THE SHOWS 2 A NIGHT. WE SHOWED SOME REAL STINKERS THAT SUMMER BAMBI, ONE OF OUR DINOSAURS IN MISSING, APPLE DUMPLING GANG AND TOMMY. AT LEAST TOMMY WAS GOOD. THE PLCE WAS A BLAST TO WORK AT. OLD SCENERY BEHIND THE STAGE, OLD SPOTLIGHTS WHICH STILL WORKED AND OLD DRESSING ROOMS DOWN FRONT. THERE WERE 2 PROJECTIONIST WHICH WERE MY AGE AND A CANDY GIRL AND USHERETTE WHICH WERE ALSO MY AGE. IT WAS A PARADISE. I WAS 17 ON MY OWN AT THE BEACH WORKING ON THE BOARDWALK. PLENTY OF GIRLS NO TROUBLE VERY SAFE. WHEN I NEEDED MONEY I WOULD PLAY GUITAR ON THE BOARDWALK THEN GET SOME HOT GIRL TO PASS THE HAT. I HAVE TO SAY I NEVER HAD ANY PROBLEMS AND I DIDN’T NEED A PERMIT. THE BEACH WAS FREE ALL YOU DID WAS WALK ON IT NO PASSES NEEDED THEN. THERE WAS A SMALL PIZZA PLACE NEXT TO THE THEATER CALLED GUSSEPPI’S WHICH WAS RUN BY AN ITALIAN FAMILY FROM PHILLY. THE OLD MAN WOULD STRUT UP AND THE BOARDWALK IN HIS WHITE APRON SMOKING A BIG CIGAR. THEY OFTEN BROUGHT OVER EXTRA PIZZA FOR US TO EAT. VERY NICE PEOPLE. THERE WAS A SMALL SHOP THERE TOO WHICH SOLD BOOTLEG RECORD ALBUMS, CANDLES AND SUCH. COOL PEOPLE THERE TOO. IT WAS A TIME WHICH CAN NEVER BE AGAIN. IT WAS SAFE, IT WAS FRIENDLY AND FUN. IT WAS REAL WITH REAL PEOPLE AND REAL FAMILIES. NOW I HAVEN’T BEEN BACK FOR MANY YEARS BUT I KNOW HOW MUCH IT HAS CHANGED. MT

TheaterBuff1
TheaterBuff1 on August 28, 2006 at 8:45 pm

I remember 13th Street very well, MT! For between 1978 and 1982 (inclusively) several other guys and I rented each summer at a beautiful old house at 13th and Asbury owned by an elderly widow named Mrs. Bove. We had the whole second floor which had a porch toward the front and another in back. And I can remember that walk between 13th and Asbury and the beach at 13th Street very well because we did it every day! St. Augustine’s Church, the Shannon boarding house, the Outrigger, the Stingray Inn, and yes, where that bike rental place was there at 13th and the boardwalk. And while I well remember the great guitar players up on the boardwalk at night, and some great singers, too, I never once saw anybody doing it for money. And I always figured that was the deal; so long as no panning took place the boardwalk cops would allow it to be without interference. That really changed drastically later though when the boardwalk cops began cracking down on everything and anything. As for the poor choice of movies they ran at the Surf Theatre when you worked there, yes, it seems that the Strand Theatre up at 9th and the boardwalk got all the best ones. And if I remember correctly, wasn’t “Jaws” the hot movie the summer you worked there? For I so remember the name “Jaws” on the Strand’s marquee! But whether it was ‘75 or '76 I can’t distinctly remember now. But I can remember it giving a lot of folks jitters about going in the water! Ah, the power of movies!

As for Ocean City itself, because it was founded by progressive Methodists in the late 1800s for the common man, I and my friends always assumed it was always going to stay that way — carefree, safe, scenic and always easily affordable. And it did straight up to the time Atlantic City got its casinos. And then suddenly everything in Ocean City changed very very quickly. And regretfully I did see a lot of that, most particularly by 1987 when the biggest string of demolitions — and God knows how many arsons — began. All to make way for the new element coming in, as they say. And, of course, rents there just went straight through the roof thereafter. And of course the beachtag program rose up and went into full swing and has been ever since.

Surprisingly, now into 2006, Ocean City still survives as a seaside resort, and believe it or not it’s still “dry,” but geeze, I don’t know anybody who still goes there now or especially why they would. The last time I was there, 1995, I spent more money to be there than I ever had before in my life, and after just those three days I was there, returning back home to Philadelphia was what felt like going on vacation! For it had been so hectic, and so grimy, and so crowded, and so hustle hustle at every turn, that I’ve never had any desire to go back since, at least not to that “all new and improved” Ocean City. But if I could go back to the one in ‘75? Oh-ho! In a heartbeat!!!

On the road ahead, with it still uncertain what impact the legalization of gambling in Pennsylvania is going to have on Atlantic City’s (no casinos have opened up here in Pennsylvania yet but will over the next several years), Ocean City may be in for another major transition again, but no one knows yet what that transition is going to be. I myself, of course, would like to see it get back to being the good old down to earth Shore again. But who knows? So much of the old Ocean City was torn down since the mid-80s onward. But, both the Strand and the Surf Theatre buildings are still there. The Strand got chopped up into a multiplex, and the Surf the last time I saw it had been made into a big open mall. But the good news is that at least they weren’t demolished completely! And as Springsteen sang in that song of his, “Atlantic City”: “…Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact; But maybe everything that dies someday comes back.” So that’s one way of looking at it anyway!

MTownsend
MTownsend on August 29, 2006 at 1:17 pm

I KNOW THE GAMBLING ISSUE IS A BAD MOVE FOR MANY AREAS OF PA. I GREW UP IN PA, LANCASTER COUNTY TO BE EXACT AND NO AMOUNT OF GAMBLING CAN DESTROY AN AREA ANY WORST THEN THE WAY LANCASTER HAS BEEN DESTROYED ALREADY. CRIME OUT OF CONTROL, HUGE DRUG PROBLEMS,CONJESTION AND SO ON. WHAT A SHAME FOR SUCH A BEAUTIFUL AREA. ALL THE DRIVE INS AND OLD DOWNTOWN THEATERS WENT YEARS AGO AND REALLY WHY WOULD ANYONE WANT TO GO TO DOWNTOWN LANCASTER AT NIGHT ANYWAY. TOO BAD THAT JOB AT THE SURF IN THE SUMMER OF 75 WAS IT. YES THE STRAND DID HAVE JAWS SHOWING THAT SUMMER. I HUNG THE BILLBOARDS FOR THAT MOVIE AND OTHERS THAT SUMMER INCLUDING ‘FUNNY WOMAN’ ON THE SIGNS WHICH WERE LOCATED ABOVE THE VILLAGE THEATER. MT

TheaterBuff1
TheaterBuff1 on August 30, 2006 at 9:11 pm

Far beyond simply being bad, casino gambling coming to Pennsylvania is unconscionable. Till now, casino gambling has only been located in remote places where most people don’t really live permanently, because trying to combine the two is totally impractical. And it’s not like Pennsylvania somewhere along the line completely lost it’s ability to provide people with a main place of residence. Or, its ability to be prosperous without the need to introduce gambling. I think, though, that it is very fair to say that Pennsylvania is now under a leadership that’s totally out of control, a renegade state government that is. For it’s not as though casino gambling is being debated on in Pennsylvania right now. Rather, it was voted into law two years ago by the state legislature with the citizens of Pennsylvania having no say about it whatsoever. Er, I believe that’s called “despotism”?

Now as for Lancaster, Pennsylvania, I wasn’t aware that it had gotten as bad as you describe, but at the same time I am not shocked at all at this point. In my mind I think of Lancaster being synonymous with the Pennsylvania Amish as seen in that Harrison Ford movie, “Witness” — which for the most part is just to show how much the media does create its own reality. Meantime, to the best of my knowledge, no casinos are being proposed for that vicinity. Rather, they seem only to be targeting spots in Pennsylvania that are doing very very well and where the thought of introducing a casino is proposterous. One of the most notable places currently being targeted is Gettysburg, home to the historic battlefield as well as the recently restored Majestic Theatre. The Majestic Theatre is where President Eisenhower went regularly whenever at home at his farm there. Of course there’s national outrage against a casino coming to Gettysburg, even drawing Walter Cronkite out of retirement, and the local citizens there are up in arms, but with the new Pennsylvania law saying a casino can be built there, it’s like there’s no law. That is to say, that is the new law, that and that alone.

Of course, the question, though, now is, how is New Jersey going to be impacted by this? For most of the casino-going traffic it gets now does indeed come from Pennsylvania. And it is that, moreso than anything else, that caused the Jersey Shore to change as much as it has since you were there last, and for it change for the worst the way it did, and which has firmly held it in that greatly worsened position ever since. But it could well be that Pennsylvania’s gambling, once it gets into full swing, could cause New Jersey’s currently thriving gambling industry to collapse completely. In combination with this, in today’s world there are those who for many years now have held onto the belief that one day the Jersey Shore could restore to what it had been previously — in many many ways it being the same as refuges from Cuba living in Florida today awaiting the death of Fidel Castro and the collapse of his regime so they can return to restore Cuba to its onetime glory once more. But whether that’s just wishful thinking on their part or realistic I don’t know. I know that for myself personally I gave up on Ocean City, New Jersey after everyone else did. But now with gambling coming to Pennsylvania I’m being forced to take a second hard look at it. For at least shell-wise, both the Surf and Strand Theatre buildings are still there.

As for Ocean City’s Village Theatre, I never went to it, while I see Cinema Treasures has it down as having burned to the ground in 1990. And from the looks of it it apparently was but yet another of the many arsons I mentioned in my previous commentary. And till now, seeing CT’s description, I never knew it was that historic! Aside from that, though, I still believe the Strand and Surf were Ocean City’s best theaters, and like I say, shell-wise at least, they are still there. But, where’s Ocean City itself going from here? For that’s the big question. And nobody knows the answer to that yet I don’t think.

kencmcintyre
kencmcintyre on March 9, 2007 at 4:53 pm

Here is a 1929 postcard of the Showboat:
http://tinyurl.com/3anxkw

TheaterBuff1
TheaterBuff1 on June 13, 2008 at 10:43 pm

As always, thanks for the great photo link, Lost Memory! This particular photo looks to be straight out of a film noir movie…with a whodunnit clue perhaps offered up by that mysterious ladder silhouette at the upper right. Do you know, by chance, if the man who’s running this Surf Mall now is the same man who owned it when it was last a theater? In both cases it looks to be his style.

Mts83
Mts83 on June 14, 2008 at 9:27 am

Thanks for the comments on my photo from Flickr! (Lost Memory Posted) The next time I’m over there I’ll try to get a daytime exterior shot, or perhaps interior.

TheaterBuff1
TheaterBuff1 on June 15, 2008 at 1:50 am

Yes, it was a great photo, Mts83, though it would be cool if that building could one day be a theater again. But an awful lot would have to change for that to be, at least if the effort were to be successful. Meantime, it will be interesting to see the interior shots you hope to get the next time around.

As for the mysterous ladder silhouette in the last photo, suggestive of something you’d see in a film noir movie, it got me to wondering, how many movies were filmed on location there in Ocean City? I can name two, EDDIE & THE CRUISERS and TATTOO, the latter starring Bruce Dern, but any others? For with Ocean City once having been a vacation spot of choice for actress Grace Kelly and the actor Errol Flynn before her, you would think a lot of major films were shot there over the many years, though those are the only two I’m aware of.

jlaymon
jlaymon on July 19, 2008 at 12:08 pm

I worked as a projectionist (occasionally) at the Surf in the late 1970’s, just before Shriver’s let go of the lease and Al Kazmark(?) then leased it for rock films.

When I was there, the theatre was owned by the Frank company but operated by the Shriver company. Unfortunately, the Frank company was not about to do any maintenance on the building when a competitor was operating it. So the roof leaked terribly and there were times when we would rope off the first 10 rows of seats because of standing water.

But the building was interesting. It was never meant to be a palace, but there was a very large stage with ropes and sandbags along with a very old dimmer panel. I remember those dressing rooms too. And the spotlight (MT). I remember playing with that too.

The projection room had a large fireproof battery room attached to it to provide clean power for the original sound system (long gone). And from the proj room you could walk through a door out onto the roof of the marquee. That was pretty cool. Start the movie and then check out the girls on the beach!

There was no air conditioning, but there were 2 or 3 very large fan rooms on the roof that exhausted hot air from the ceiling.. Those fan blades were giant.

Anyway, I included a little history of it on my web page:
http://www.moorlyn.com/Showboat.htm

Thanks for the memories!

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