BY ETHAN FORMAN
---- — MARBLEHEAD — The Warwick, this town’s iconic movie theater, is back.
Fourteen years after closing its doors, seemingly doomed by competition from the multiplexes, the gleaming new Warwick cinema has opened in Warwick Place, along with a cafe and a new Palmers Restaurant. The complex also includes offices and retail space and was built on the site of the old Warwick, which stood there from 1919 to 1999.
The cinema features two theaters showing first-run movies. The restaurant is the second location for Palmers; the other is in Andover. For the commuter crowd, the cafe opens at 6 a.m., serving coffee and pastries.
It’s all part of what is called a dine-in theater concept. Soon, moviegoers may be able to sip a beer and eat crab cakes while watching a film.
The complex has had a soft opening, but people have already found it. Friday afternoon, families packed the theater for a showing of the locally filmed Adam Sandler comedy “Grown Ups 2.” They sat in lounge chair-style rocker seats complete with armrests that swivel over one’s lap to form a tray table.
While the movie theater is open for business, the operation is a work in progress and is opening in stages. As moviegoers bought popcorn and headed to their seats Friday, contractors were busy putting the finishing touches inside.
The three entities — the restaurant, cafe and theater — are one operation employing just under 80 people. They are all connected by a long corridor with picture windows and a view of Pleasant Street. One can wait for a movie in comfortable upholstered chairs at coffee tables.
The development of the theater and restaurant, along with other retail space and offices at Warwick Place, has the potential not only to revitalize a once dilapidated block at 123 Pleasant St., but to set the standard to boost the fortunes of small towns.
“This is exactly what small towns and medium-sized towns need,” said David Groom, co-owner of Groom Construction of Salem, which built the project on property owned by Eyk Van Otterloo.
“The more businesses, the better the thriving community we have in Marblehead,” said Deb Payson, executive director of the Marblehead Chamber of Commerce.
“This could be a nice model of small-town, midtown America, because you really can’t build a theater of this quality and have a stand-alone,” movie theater developer Harold Blank of Nahant said.
Blank has worked for major theater chains and built theaters in six countries, including several in South America. He is one of the partners in Warwick Entertainment, which includes Palmers, the Cafe at Warwick Place and the cinemas of Warwick Place.
“We have three businesses, which will hopefully synergize and make a successful entity,” Blank said.
The theaters are also part of the trend of dine-in movie theaters over the past decade. Blank estimates there are more than 800 such theaters in the United States. Blank said the dine-in amenity, including having a glass of beer or wine and ordering from a tavern type of menu, is about 10 days away.
John Palmer Ingalls, owner of Palmers Restaurant in Andover, said he and his staff, including head chef Lee Fannon, sous chef Kirk Vanacore and pastry chef Melissa Selvon-Cornelisse, have been putting in long hours to get the restaurant and cafe going. Fannon came from Palmers in Andover, which now has a new chef, Travis Brown, Ingalls said.
The cafe opens at 6 a.m. and runs until 8 p.m. The movies run until midnight.
“The intent is to work the building 16 hours a day,” Blank said.
The restaurant has more than 100 seats, including the outdoor patio and bar. It features modern furniture, large crystal chandeliers, a large, square bar and a spacious dining area.
There are more than 100 parking spaces out back.
“It’s going very well,” Ingalls said. “We are opening in stages. It’s such a big project, plus I have Palmers in Andover, so I want to keep up the reputation and good food that I have had for 25 years.” Palmers opened in Swampscott in 1988 before moving to Andover in 1995.
Warwick Place is more than a theater complex in that it will feature other stores and offices.
The three-story, 37,000 square-foot building has taken the place of the old Warwick Theater and a former commercial building. The top two floors are office space that was leased before the building was finished, Groom said. The retail space is 90 percent leased.
Patriot Properties, which develops appraisal and tax billing and collection software, relocated its 50 employees from the Clock Tower Business Center in Lynn to most of the second floor of Warwick Place this past winter, according to a statement on its website. Patriot Properties is also a limited partner in the development.
Groom said that when the theater opened last week, he caught the movie “The Heat” and was impressed by the theater’s “huge, comfortable seats.”
“Everyone in there was just, like, ‘Wow,’” Groom said.
The first theater at Warwick Place is a traditional one with stadium seating for 65 and spacious leg room between rows.
“Every seat is a good seat,” Blank said.
The second theater has 50 seats with high-backed chairs set around tables. It’s a screening room that could host parties and corporate events, along with movies. Plans are to experiment with dining service in this theater during the movies.
Blank said the all-digital projection systems are the same kind used at big-chain cinemas. One of the theaters has a full 3-D movie system.
“From my perspective, it’s important to make certain that the presentation of quality film comes before doing something different with a movie theater. ... The systems in this theater are equal to any major multiplex in America, Blank said.”
One touch that Groom said has not been installed yet is the new Warwick Theater sign. The former neon sign could not be repaired, but a replica of the old sign, featuring LED lighting, should be installed within the next two weeks.