By NANETTE LoBIONDO GALLOWAY
The newly rebuilt Ventnor Square Theatre in Ventnor officially opened to the public Saturday with a ribbon cutting, but a couple hundred close friends of the building’s redevelopers got a sneak peek Thursday evening at the 1920s-inspired decor.
Theater owners Clint Bunting, Scott Kaufman and former Ventnor resident Brett DeNafo and their partners held a soft opening that featured an open bar, refreshments and a preview of the phenomenal Dolby Atmos sound system in the largest of three movie screens that will rock customers in their reclining seats while watching the latest action movie.
The group purchased the beleaguered theater in August 2018 and after years of unexpected challenges, structural issues, beam replacements and a pandemic shutdown, they unveiled their painstaking restoration to the glory days of Hollywood cinema.
Cost overruns increased their planned $3 million investment into about $5 million, but nothing deterred the Town Square Entertainment Group from revitalizing the Ventnor City institution.
Bunting said the project would not have been possible without the support of former and current city commissioners.
“I’m relieved. We had to overcome a lot of hurdles, but what I love most is that it is going to be a big part of the Ventnor community. It touches everyone,” he said.
Planning Board member Lorraine Sallata, who reviewed the organization’s plans for the building, which had been shuttered for more than a decade, in December 2018, congratulated the developers for sticking with it.
“They did a phenomenal job restoring this building,” she said. “They kept the integrity of the era and it’s beautiful.”
The place will transport moviegoers back to the Nucky Johnson era of glitz and glamour in the Roaring Twenties, with an art deco décor, bar and second floor restaurant named for the famed Atlantic City powerbroker.
Mayor Beth Holtzman dressed for the occasion in a black-fringed, flapper-style frock that she purchased a year ago in preparation for the grand opening celebration.
“I wanted to fit the motif of the 1920s,” she said. “When you guys came to us with this idea, we were so out-of-control excited. And today, it came to fruition and I am beyond excited.”
The theater boasts a state-of-the-art ticketing system, a 272-seat main theater and two smaller theaters that seat about 85 people. There is a bar off the first floor lobby and a full service bar and restaurant on the second level that will be operated by E.J. Dougherty of Cape May Court House, who operates their restaurant at the Harbor Square Theatre in Stone Harbor.
DeNafo, whose parents still live in Ventnor, said it was a meeting with the mayor that convinced Bunting to take a chance on Ventnor.
“This is a great town that has been through changes over the years,” DeNafo said.
He credited his friend Joe Schaffer for arranging a meeting with the commissioners when the team was looking to purchase the building.
“It was a team effort from day one,” he said. “That’s the big part of this, it’s a community, it’s Ventnor, we love it.”
Commissioner Tim Kriebel, who said he had his first date with his wife Jennifer at the theater, visited the Stone Harbor Theatre and got “goose flesh” when he saw it and asked to talk to the owners. That’s when he learned that they had already spoken with the Frank Theater owners about purchasing the Ventnor site.
“It was just great timing,” he said. “The building was falling down into the street and we had to move the bus stop to keep commuters safe. This theater will be the future barometer for Ventnor. If they do well, we will do well.”
Former resident Carly Quinn said she frequented the theater when she lived in Ventnor during her 20s.
“I saw the first of the new Star Wars trilogy here. I would love to see it again with this new sound system,” she said.
Judy Davenport, who was visiting from Wildwood, said she was excited for the owners.
“I love the speakeasy theme. I hope they do very well,” she said.
Movies shown in the first weekend included “Dirty Dancing,” “Four Good Days,” “The Marksman” and “Raya and the Last Dragon.” The new Disney blockbuster “Cruella” and “A Quiet Place Part 2” will premiere on Memorial Day weekend.
For movie listings, see Ventnor Square Theatre – Home (squaretheatres.com)