PRESERVING THE RIALTO
The first movie theater in the US was built in 1896 in Buffalo, New York. Throughout the early twentieth century, as movie revenues exploded, independent promoters and movie studios raced to build lavish, elaborate, attractive theaters that came to be known as “movie palaces.” The movie palace boom in the U.S. occurred between the 1910s and the 1940s, with the late 1920s being the peak of movie palace construction, with hundreds opened every year across the U.S. Between 1914 and 1922 alone, 4,000 movie palaces opened in the United States.
Throughout New Jersey and the rest of the country, for much of the 20th century, the theater most Americans attended was an architecturally ornate center of the community’s social life. Regarded by many local residents as the centerpiece of Westfield’s downtown, the Westfield Rialto has been a landmark on the corner of East Broad Street and Central Avenue since 1922.
But beginning in the 1960’s, along with and as a result of the rise of malls and suburban shopping centers, theater operators began to build multiple screen theaters within those malls and shopping centers. The years from 1965 to 1970 saw approximately one hundred new shopping center theaters open annually in the United States, each promising ample parking, an array of retail stores, and more than enough room for an inexpensive multiplex. The multiplex era, which took off in the 1970s and 80s, has now given way to megaplexes, containing fifteen or more screens under the same roof, housed in a spacious, freestanding building, surrounded by a vast parking lot, easily accessible by car, and often containing restaurants and bars that are destinations in and of themselves.
The competition presented by multiplexes and now megaplexes would often put towns’ smaller theater out of business. As a result, there are only about 19 towns across the State of New Jersey that still retain their traditional movie palaces, and these theaters have served and continue to serve as anchors of healthy, vibrant downtown areas.
These theaters are worth saving. They contribute to healthy, economically viable downtown, and conversely, their loss can threaten downtowns. They are a historic resource in and of themselves, and meet the goals and objectives of the New Jersey State Development and Redevelopment Plan, which recognizes that the preservation of New Jersey’s significant cultural resources benefits the physical, environmental, and economic quality of life and ensures the retention of the sense of place fundamental to all successful communities.