The First Movie Theaters In Dunellen
Parties representing movie interests came to Dunellen, New Jersey in November of 1910, to see if the area could support an attraction of this kind. The promoters tried to lease the western store of the Linke building, 380 North Avenue, but couldn’t come to terms with the owners.
A year later, J.G. Wolfe of Scotch Plains, N.J. decided to open a theater at this same location. By December, 1911, Dunellen had its first movie at a 10 cent admission price. In four months, business declined and the doors closed April 13, 1912. Wolfe opened up again in May, featuring a different picture every night, but had to close up for good by June 1st.
Arthur Heatherington of New York, bought two lots and received permission from the Council to build and operate a theater at 214 North Avenue. Work commenced in July of 1913. Fred D. Eckerson was manager and resided in Dunellen with his family. The opening performance was held on September 20, 1913 to a packed house.
In September of 1914, two well-known vaudeville musical actors, Messrs. Field and Ford, concocted a novel act that involved a reel of film first being shown to an audience, which pictured the difficulties they supposedly encountered in arriving at the theater where they were booked, including a wild chase through the local freight yard of the Jersey Central Lines. At the conclusion of the film, the lights came on and the actors completed the rest of the story in person.
Many prominent local personages appeared in the film and Fred Eckerson, sensing the chance to capitalize on the publicity, booked the act at his theater.
Shortly after its first anniversary, the theater was renovated and in January, 1915, Eckerson purchased the Dunellen Theater from Heatherington. However, he soon left for a more lucrative operation and without him, attendance dwindled and operation ceased in early 1915.
The theater was then secured by Messrs. Hilsizer and Hamilton, of the Palace Theater in Bound Brook, N.J. They opened on Memorial Day, 1915. By the 24th of July, the proprietors gave up.
A new team, Messrs. Blau and Shearer, took over that same month and also failed to run a profitable business. Now it was the Elite Traveling Motion Picture Company’s turn. They opened on September 24th of the same year and closed shortly afterward. In October, the theater was again reopened by Fred Dougherty of Dumont, N.J., with the same unfortunate results. Harry Siegel of Elizabeth, started putting on one show a week in April, 1916, but in June, another purchaser took over. It was the Robinson Amusement Company of Trenton, that had great plans, but in September of 1916, the theater was still closed.
In August of 1916, Arthur F. Heatherington was again the owner of the Dunellen Theater. The building remained idle and in disrepair until November of 1918, when the Van Blaricom Lace Company purchased it and moved there.
The novel “Moviola,” published in 1980, depicts the life and times of a fictitious early movie mogul named B.J. Farber, who began his rise with a dry goods store in Dunellen, where he showed movies in the store after business hours. From this modest beginning, he developed a chain of nickelodeons and eventually became the owner of a major fictional movie studio. The author, Garson Kanin, the well-known novelist, playwright, screenwriter and director, used Dunellen as a background because this was a familiar setting. His family moved here in 1924, when he was 12 years old. He graduated from Whittier School and attended Plainfield High School until his family moved to Brooklyn, N.Y.
The Current Dunellen Theater Building
After being deprived of this form of entertainment for several years, Tony Hanko of Raritan, N.J., was granted a permit to erect a $14,000 movie house in Dunellen on Madison Avenue in May of 1921. Two stores were to be included on the first floor. The location of the building was changed to face North Avenue and ground was broken for construction on June 1, 1921. Six weeks later, The Dunellen Amusement Company of Newark, N.J., filed articles of incorpor a daring move: he opened his movie house on a Sunday to ascertain the sentiment of the community. The WCTU, Men’s Forum of M.E. Church, Rev. E.R. Brown, Rev. F.L. West and the Ku Klux Klan rose up and expressed opposition at once. A second Sunday opening caused the arrest of George Hosford, but no action was taken.
The “Blue Laws dispute” erupted in January, 1927, when the movie house was again opened for Sunday picture shows. Chief of Police Owen Mohan and Captain Patrick J. Tarpey purchased tickets for the afternoon show and then put the manager, his wife and the projectionist under arrest and ordered the theater closed. The three were released on bail and they returned to the theater and opened it for the evening performance. Mr. Hosford was again arrested and the place closed.
The defense attorney argued that allowing other businesses, such as the railroad, bus lines, ice cream parlors, and gasoline stations to operate, while closing down the movies, constituted discrimination. Before imposing one-dollar fines for each violation on the defendants, who pleaded guilty, the judge stated that the enforcement of the old statute regulating Sunday observance was the only course for the police department to pursue.
In November, 1927, Meyer Cohen, of the Brook Theater in Bound Brook, purchased the Hosford Theater and ran a contest among local residents to find a name for his new enterprise. The winning name was “Dunellen’s Cameo Theater.” The local theater was incorporated in February, 1928, with an authorized capital of $15,000. On February 14, 1930, the Cameo Theater, again under new management, reopened with the new “talking equipment.”
M.H. Miller became owner-manager of the renamed Dunellen Theater in 1932 and made an effort to persuade the Borough officials to allow Sunday movies. The Dunellen Theater was reopened March 31, 1933 by Morris Marks, formerly with the Reade chain. RCA photophone equipment was installed and admission prices were 10 cents in the afternoon and 15 cents at night, children 10 cents at all times.
John Fiorvanti owned the theater for the longest term, 33 years. Ned and Rick Luca were the owners from 1963 to 1983, when it became the property of the Roberts Theater chain. A group of Indian businessmen took over the theater for a majority of the eighties. Under this management, the theater fell into disrepair and reached the point where it only exhibited Indian films. The operators proposed a plan to raze the historic building and construct a new Indian Cultural Center.
Richard Zupko, whose adjoining eponymous tavern has been under his family’s ownership for years, grew up—as had so many other area residents, attending the theater. Determined to save the theater from the wrecking ball, Zupko purchased the Dunellen Theater in 1989, cleaned up the facility and, combined with his tavern, began making plans to renovate and restore the theater. It’s now known as the Dunellen Theater and Cinema Cafe. Every other row of seats was taken out and replaced with coffee tables. Patrons are now able to eat pizza and all other items listed on the Zupko’s Tavern menu while watching first-run movies, one of few theaters in the country to offer such a total dining/movie experience.
Click on the images below to see playbills from throughout the years.