Looking for theaters to revitalize

posted by khaase on March 28, 2006 at 2:56 am

I recently fell upon this wonderful site and became a member.

I was doing a search on a local theater in NJ, the Harwan Theater. I had wanted to revitalize it and was hoping somehow I could re-design the space or buy it. I found out the theater is in the process of renovation and re-opening.

I am an interior designer and have always wanted to open my own club/restaurant. I was wondering if there are any theaters that are closed that can possibly be turned into a venue either for live theater, live music, club or a restaurant.

I am all for saving theater in this country but I didn’t realize the amount of theaters we have, unfortunately most of them are closed. I would like to save the architecture and possibly turn an existing run down space into something new and exciting.

Please if anyone can help me in achieving this I would highly appreciate this. Who do I need to contact? I will look into each theater individually if I have to. I would also be interested in saving the building to us as a theater if I felt that was the best use for the space.

Last thing, on average how much does a theater cost to buy? I live in NJ so anything in surrounding states is fine.

Thanks, Kristin

(My email is )

Comments (21)

KenLayton on March 28, 2006 at 9:58 am

Suggest looking at the Gem Theatre in Athena, Oregon here on this site.

Also join the forums at www.bigscreenbiz.com for theater operational information/film booking/projector operating info.

JimRankin on March 29, 2006 at 2:01 am

Miss Kristin: I perceive that you have an abundance of enthusiasm but a profound lack of experience. I strongly suggest that you read a great deal on the subject before even considering investing money in a theatre. If you are rich and only want a job as a play thing, then costs may not matter, but otherwise costs can easily sink even those with deep pockets; there are many such tragic stories out there! Of all the structures you might decorate, a theatre is the most difficult and easily the most expensive to tackle. The suggestion above to go to that web site is a good one, but you will have to do your homework even there by going to their FORUMS and by reading ALL their FAQs as well as the Archived comments for most of them; this will constitute about 40 hours of reading just there.

After that you should visit the BOOKSHOP link on the front page of www.historictheatres.org to find appropriate titles such as “Movie Palaces: Renaissance and Reuse.” By clicking on any title there, you will be taken to its page on Amazon.com where there are full reviews and sometimes a purchasing option. When a title cannot be purchased, it can be sent to your local library via Inter-Library Loan at your request there.

There is no substitute for extensive reading on this subject if you are to be credible and successful. In the case of theatres, that means becoming very familiar with the related studies of Acoustics, Projection (if a movie theatre), Traffic patterns, Building codes and their both national and local fire regulations, Structural techniques and limitations, both Decorative and Safety Lighting, Building Insulating and HVAC, etc, etc. If you have never been paid for a LARGE decorating job, a theatre is NOT the place to start; you are very likely to lose your shirt and hurt others along the way. Theatres are so specialized that many of the biggest firms will not take them on, especially since so much of modern cinema decor is already pre-packaged from a few dozen vendors whom the chains —and most independents— deal with. You will not be able to match their package deal prices, uninspired though the’re decors are.

Exhibitors, which is what cinema owners are called, are not usually interested in decor, but in the largest return on investment in the shortest possible time; and this means as scant attention to decor as possible for 95% of them. For the other 5% it is a matter of hiring notable architects who have their own in-house decorators. Check out the site www.lhat.org for pages of listings to learn of just some of your would-be competition, most of whom are also degreed architects and engineers. Such jobs are a great deal more than throwing up some draperies! And even just draperies for a Movie Palace are far more expensive than you might imagine! Look in the chapter on Theatre Draperies in “Decorative Draperies and Upholstery” by Ed Thorne (1930) and you will get an idea. You might also look at such sites as www.conradschmitt.com to see how some of your competitors are set up.

KenLayton on March 29, 2006 at 2:18 am

And don’t forget about those horrid A.D.A. regulations that can ruin a nice old theater in short order.

carolgrau on March 29, 2006 at 2:47 am

Jim is right, really do your research, My family was in this business for many years, I have been a projectionist for 50 years, as well as managing, don`t be fulled by the lights and glamour.

David Wodeyla
David Wodeyla on March 29, 2006 at 7:31 am

There are several thoughts that cross my mind on this subject. First, reseating an old abandoned auditorium would probably cost upwards of $200 per seat. If you thought reusing old Griggs style chairs from a more modern theatre, don’t because you’ll find problems with floor pitch, location of floor bolts, tired and bottomed out cushions, etc.
Second, to restore an average marquee which hovers over the sidewalk at the front entrance would probably cost in excess of $40,000.
Next, to put in a brand new projection booth and sound system for a single auditorium may be in the vicinity of $200,000. Some old theatres may have original carbon arc lamphouses in place, others nothing. You would have to convert to xenon, put in platters, and probably install speakers behind a screen, and likely rewire the entire building to fire codes.
I’m not sure what a new screen would cost, but you may have to install the framework, and put up new curtains and masking too.
Lobby and public areas would look better in wallcoverings, rather than a simple coat of paint. A visit to the Orpheum in downtown Boston shows how cheesy a rehab done on the cheap can look.
Other major expenses to rehabing an old theatre would be a roof, air conditioning, heating, plumbing for restrooms and concession, as well as carpeting, aisle lighting, and so many other things I probably missed. Imagine the utility bills for heating and airconditioning an auditorium with 1200 seats and a balcony, for example. I think a single air conditioning rooftop compressor would cost about $5000 to install, hooked up to existing electric and ductwork. Many old theatres may not even have that.
The way to success, would be a local group of dedicated people with a vision for it’s use, such as amateur stage shows, or musical use, who are willing to spend years raising funds. They would probably want to incorporate as a non profit, and attempt grant writing for some of the costs.
It’s a huge undertaking, as many would probably agree.

KenLayton on March 29, 2006 at 9:59 am

Brand new Irwin seats are on sale for $89 each. A friend of mine just remodeled one of his theaters and that’s the price he got on his Irwin seats. Brand new film projection equipment and sound costs no where near $200,000. Many theater equipment dealers have plenty of perfectly good used projection & sound equipment for sale.

JohnMessick on March 29, 2006 at 12:26 pm

Kristin…may I suggest you subscribe to BOXOFFICE MAGAZINE. Or go online to www.boxoffice.com . Many great articles. I look for mine in the mail every month.

David Wodeyla
David Wodeyla on March 29, 2006 at 9:35 pm

Ken, how much would it cost to refinish a concrete floor, removal of the old bolts, and installation of those $89 seats? As for the booth, how much would the delivery and installation of that “good used” equipment cost? What would you estimate the complete outfitting of a new projection booth into an empty old one to cost? Please include the cost of speakers, and installation.

JohnMessick on March 29, 2006 at 10:47 pm

Kristin since you live in Jersey, you may want to pay a visit to the Roxy theater in Northampton Pa. and speak to Richard Wolfe the owner. He has well over 25 years in the movie theater business. He would be a great “go to guy” for any questions that you would have. Although I have never met him, I have read articles on him and the Roxy and even received an email from him. Plan a roadtrip from Jersey to Northampton. You won’t be disappointed in what you will see.

ggates on March 29, 2006 at 11:54 pm

Restoring an old theatre building presents many challenges, from the physical building itself, to it’s operational status in a community that may have changed over the decades. Sometimes, once thriving communities have become economically depressed, and the neighborhoods are no longer viable locations for running film, nor presenting stage shows.
Cost of renovation has to incluce removal of the old, delivery costs, and laborers to receive equipment. If you’re buying Irwin seats at $89 each, how much does it cost to unload 1000 of them off the truck, and how much does it cost to install them? How much does the engineer charge to install a booth, once the equipment arrives?
New construction can sometimes be less expensive than retrofit.

KenLayton on March 30, 2006 at 3:03 am

Costs vary from dealer to dealer. Always check with several dealers. Many dealers do package deals on new and/or used equipment packages. Scott Hicks' American Cinema Equipment (www.cinequip.com) in Portland, Oregon is a great example of excellent prices on equipment packages.

If a closed theater already has some or all projection/sound equipment there it’s likely much of it can be reused. Have a competent theater technician check it out to see what’s needed. Every theater and every building is different.

My friend had his usual theater employees (grunts) unload the new seats at the theater. The seating tech charged $5 a seat for the installation which included cutting off the old bolts, filling in the holes, prepping/cleaning/painting the floor, laying out and installing the new seats.

I’m sure that if a theater had no projection and sound equipment in it that a good package deal on basic brand new stuff would be around $50,000. A person could get a great deal on a used projection & sound package at $20,000. Some dealers include the deliver and installation in that package price depending on location.

If a person were to install that overpriced “DLP” video projection crap then you could look at $200,000 just for the ‘projector’.

I strongly suggest you visit the beautifully restored single screen Chehalis Theater in Chehalis, Washington. It’s a theater that I helped restore and modernize. It had been stripped and converted to a video rental store and a flat floor had been installed. It now puts on several movie showings a day every day on equipment that’s older than I am! It uses a vintage RCA 1040 soundhead from 1936 (retrofited with a red led reverse scan kit), a very old Simplex projector, a 25 year old Super Lume-x xenon lamphouse running a 3,000 watt bulb, a 25 year old Potts/Strong platter, and a complete DTS digital sound system (used). Some of this equipment was bought from the fine folks at American Cinema Equipment at very reasonable prices. This equipment has been running flawlessly every day.

jukingeo on March 31, 2006 at 2:23 pm

Hello all,

Like Kristen, I too am interested in a theatre project. For a while now I was thinking about getting a small to medium sized theatre but not for movies. Unlike Kristen, I would rather go more into catered events and the performing arts. I have done quite a bit of sound and lighting work with Performing Arts and Dance Companies in the past. Many times these companies would like to use a real theatre rather than a high school auditorium. I am also good with computer systems both business and control systems.

While I don’t mind a restoration project, I would rather get something that can be used. Or at least can be used while slowly being restored. In terms of size I found something between 700 and 1000 seats would do fine. As for style I am leaning towards Art Deco myself…but will go with anything from that era and prior.

While I do have a good idea of how a theatre is run and I have put on shows before…I really do not know too much about restoring one. I will admit I most definately will need help here, even though I am good with my hands and have restored antiques before. Still, I have not restored an entire building before.

KEN—I am very happy for you that you have successfully restored a movie theatre and business is good. I saw pictures of it and am amazed at what you accomplished. How did you take care of the floor problem? Was the floor of the video store temporary and could be easily removed? Ironically, this same exact thing happened to a theatre in my neighborhood. It first was a single theatre, then it became a twin miniplex. When it went out of business a video store moved in. They did a nasty though, they filled the floor in with concrete. I am curious if you have done work on other theatres as well, specifically performing arts theatres.


KenLayton on April 1, 2006 at 5:47 pm


That floor the video store put in was a wooden floor. It was easily dismantled and the wood reused elsewhere in the theater. The photos posted here are not the latest ones. The theater has a heck of a good kick-ass DTS digital sound system, new touch screen boxoffice ticketing system, huge Cretors “President” model popcorn popper, new cupholder theater seats, and a wonderful owner Daryl Lund (everybody local calls him “the big D”).

I have helped in the restoration of 7th Street Theater in Hoquiam, Wash. and the “G” Theater in Mossyrock, Wash. I had restored the sound and projection at the Skyline Drive-in theater in Shelton, Wash. but new owners (who don’t care) took over and have run it into the ground.

I am in the process of helping the Opera Pacifica (www.operapacifica.org) group restore the Fox Theater (1,000 seats, single screen) in Centralia, Wash for both stage shows and movies. They have some pictures on their website under Fox Theater restoration. I located them some ten-year-old Irwin seats with cupholders which they were able to get for FREE! I have some Eiki xenon 16mm projectors setup temporarily until we get some 35mm projectors later this summer. Their roof leaks in the original projection booth so they must wait till summer to get that squared away before I can install 35mm movie equipment and sound system.

jukingeo on April 2, 2006 at 6:18 am

Hello KEN

Wow, you lucked out with having the floor wood. The theatre by me that was converted has a POURED floor. It wasn’t well done either. While you cannot readily see it or feel it, a ball will roll to the back of the store.

Yeah, I am a fanatic of the new digital control systems myself. But the old mechanical/electrical systems still hold their charm though. I would go either way depending on the function. If the theatre was more suited to a nostaligic, or ‘museum’ quality, or even for ‘school’ purposes, then I would try and track down all period correct equipment. But for day to day business functions, the new digital systems make things easier. In my case, for live work, I know for sure, I would have to put in digital mixing consoles as well.

Oh, man…sorry to hear about the drive in theatre. Nothing is more disheartening when all your good work goes to waste on people that don’t care.

I will follow your work on the Opera Pacifica as that seems more along the lines of what I would be looking for. You managed to get all 1000 seats for free? Oh man, if I should fall into a deal like that.

I do admit I am not up on movie projection equipment. I have only done sound and stage lighting in the past. Good luck on fixing the leak. Flat roof buildings can be a REAL pain in that aspect. I knew one guy that was so teed off with his building always leaking that he actually built an entirely new pitched roof (like on a house) over the old roof. While it was expensive, his problem was solved and now he even has a nice storage space as well.

Well, I am off!


mikea on April 6, 2006 at 7:51 am


We have a theater that you could purchase.
If interested, please contact Mike at the infomation below!

Thanks and as always have a great day!

Mike A.

RyanReinike on April 7, 2006 at 12:58 pm

Kirste, it is encouraging to hear your interest in this and your particular aims, it seems I’d like to do the very thing both you and Geo1 mention. I’ll send you an email directly.

Geo1, please drop me an email and I can fill you in a bit on what I’m planning.

I’m in the beginning stages of assembling a consortium of advisors to solidify a business plan for the acquisition and development of a particular theatre. If anyone else is seriously interested, or would like to make themselves available to lend their expertise, please contact me.

Thanks for the time.

khaase on April 7, 2006 at 11:34 pm


I would love to help you in any way I can, as far as design is concerned or even people to contact. Where are you located and where is the theather located? My direct work email is


raubre on April 15, 2006 at 1:14 pm

I would love to see the King’s Courth in Pittsburgh reopened again. Looks like a castle. It was used in recent years as a concert venue, but then was shamelessly closed again.

jcsims on June 19, 2006 at 7:27 am

We restored an old theatre. www.georgianatheater.com Go to “Conversations” page; Click on “Letter to Mr. O'Quin” Link.
Good Luck

pboykin on January 3, 2008 at 4:13 pm

I have been trying to restore a movie theatre myself in Durham NC. It would be a movie theatre and have a house that would be a bar as well. If anyone is interested in maybe becoming involved I am looking for investors. email me at


TLSLOEWS on April 21, 2010 at 3:28 pm

There are plenty out there all you need is energy and a lot of money,good luck.

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