Historic theater's inner beauty nearly lost to neglect
Carly Q. Romalino, Courier-Post Published 1:18 p.m. ET April 7, 2017 | Updated 3:35 p.m. ET April 7, 2017
PITMAN - When Walt Madison painted the Broadway Theatre's ornate plaster ceiling by himself on a 45-foot scaffolding in 2006, his brush dripped with a mix of paint and pride.
A decade later, the former councilman turned jack-of-all-trades in the theater is proud to rip tickets in the lobby, run the spotlight for afternoon kids shows, and move sets from backstage catwalks.
The retired contractor would have taken this theater job for free, he joked, just to keep the marquee's bulbs glowing.
"This is the basis for downtown. There's a lot of history and a lot of pride," Madison said.
Pitman's downtown district relies on the theater's success, he explained.
When it thrives, Broadway bustles.
When the marquee is dark — like it had been for a handful of years before its current owner — the businesses around the Broadway suffer.
"If the Broadway Theatre didn't reopen in 2006, we would have no fine dining restaurants and probably a 30- to 40-percent vacancy rate on Broadway," said John Fitzpatrick, with the borough economic development commission.
On Sunday, the borough celebrates the theater's impact on the borough — more than 90 years on Broadway and a decade since it was rescued in a sheriff's sale.
An open house supports plans to turn Theater Avenue into an outdoor pocket park and reveals the newest addition to the property, a wine bar open during main stage events.
Donations will benefit the creation of the pocket park, a plaza alongside the theater where the theater's owner Peter Slack and the borough envision a landscaped area for hanging out and drinking coffee or watching outdoor performances. The open house starts at noon with theater tours and ends with Pitman Live!, a performance competition at 7 p.m.
"We took a leap," said Peter Slack, owner of West Deptford medical publishing company Slack Inc., while leaning on the counter of the new wine bar.
"We are the current stewards of this wonderful building and all the history that comes with it and doing our best to make it shine for Pitman," he added.
Slack bought the theater in 2006 in a sheriff's sale auction. Bids on the shuttered, crumbling theater started at $10, he remembered. The bank wouldn't take a cent less than $323,000, he added.
That's how much he paid for the building that hadn't been opened in three to five years.
"It was in awful shape," Slack remembered.
An architect specializing in old buildings told them to open the doors and air it out immediately.
Moisture inside rotted wood and crumbled plaster.
Before Slack, the previous owner operated a movie theater inside. Area churches often used the theater for worship services.
"During one of the services the ceiling collapsed in the balcony," Madison remembered.
Peeling plaster in stairwells revealed old brick. Wooden doors in the house were secured with rope and covered in curling, chipped paint. The rug was shredded, wooden seats splintered and the stage curtain was tattered and ripped.
Renovations and a community cleanup day revealed more bits of the theater in need of repairs.
"We had to put a million dollars into it," said Slack, a Pitman native.
For three months, Madison hand-painted the ceiling and the theater boxes on either side of the stage. Faded wall stencils were replaced with fresh, red and gold wall coverings. Drywall replaced the plaster balcony ceiling that collapsed. The original seats, with iron B's for "Broadway" on each end of the aisles were restored and replaced in rows in the house.
Slowly, the theater's beauty returned.
"(For) most of the kids that I grew up with, this was the place you went on Saturday afternoons to watch the matinees complete with cartoons ... the place that brought us all together," Slack remembered.
"Interesting that it is just that once again."
Its modern-day form hints to what it would have looked like before the Great Depression. The theater opened in 1926 as a vaudeville house drawing acts such as Abbott and Costello. As vaudeville faded, the theater turned to film. In its early days, a movie was just 28 cents.
Memorabilia pointing to its heyday are preserved in a glass case in the mezzanine, including 40-cent tickets from the 1931 showing of Laurel and Hardy in "Pardon Us."
Other hints to the theater past are scattered through the building.
The original Kimball theater pipe organ is played before every main stage show. A swatch of the original red and gold wall stencil is framed above the entrance to the box seating staircase. Plaster ladies room mirrors covered in gold leaf, and lighting fixtures – particularly a half-moon shaped wall lamp with dangling crystals at the back of the theater – are original to the building, Madison said.
The original brass exit sign and message board are hung above the lobby doors.
"There's a lot of pride in this building," Madison said.
As the ceiling's painter, he added his initials on molding above the right side set of box seats.
"Somebody asked me, 'When will it be painted again?' Probably another 90 years. But don't count on me."
Carly Q. Romalino; (856) 486-2476; firstname.lastname@example.org