By Alan Burke
MARBLEHEAD — When a group of determined Marbleheaders banded together with the idea of reopening the town's storied Warwick Theater, it seemed a forlorn hope, the sort of thing that only happens in the movies.
Now, thanks to an exciting plan to develop the block where the Warwick is located, the Marblehead 20/20 Foundation is readying a proposal that would have first-run movies showing in town once again. And some knowledgeable people think the idea will have genuine box office appeal.
Meanwhile, the project by Marblehead developer Eijk van Otterloo will replace the Warwick structure and two other buildings besides in favor of a modern complex devoted to commercial and business interests.
"We have been fortunate," Town Planner Becky Curran said, "that people are willing to invest here in this economy."
The 20/20 Foundation, a group of community leaders interested in downtown improvements, had originally sought to save the Warwick building, closed as a theater in 1999. Long since used as a gym by the now-departed YMCA, its interior has lost its seats and screen. Moreover, said the foundation's Michael McCloskey, it's begun to betray the fact that it was built in 1919.
"The building was just used up," he said. "The old theater wasn't very attractive."
Thus, the foundation has adjusted its plan. Instead of saving the building, they want to locate a theater in van Otterloo's structure. McCloskey hopes to offer a proposal for two screens featuring luxury seating and food service. The building will fall, but the developer has agreed to save and incorporate both the facade of the Warwick and its iconic marquee.
"I'm very pleased to see that," McCloskey said. "That was very unexpected. ... We're happy the facade will stay, and the marquee is very important." Better still, he added, the developer is open to the idea of including a theater and is waiting to see "a seating plan" and "a business model."
A new theater could easily be a winner, said former Selectman and Town Clerk Tom McNulty, whose family owned the Warwick from 1922. Running it himself from 1973 to 1999 and winning a comfortable profit, he finally sold the building because of the impossibility of obtaining first-run movies. Those went to large chains that could hold them for weeks.
"That was sort of the end of the road," he said.
Yet, that sort of distribution is no longer the rule, McNulty noted, and small theaters like CinemaSalem are doing well showing first-run features.
Meanwhile, he believes nearby residents would appreciate a small neighborhood theater. In Marblehead, there is a strong sentimental attachment to the Warwick, as well.
"People would come into my office as town clerk," he recalled, "and they'd say, 'You know, Tom, I almost didn't vote for you because you closed the theater.'"
Retail space will go on the ground floors, said lawyer Paul Lynch, who represents van Otterloo, with offices on the second and third floors. The project only awaits a final approval by the town.
That would come from the Zoning Board of Appeals, Curran said. The new complex would have 38,000 square feet, with parking for 89 cars in back. A theater is an "allowed use" for a building in that block.
"The town will be thrilled to have a theater there," she said.
"This is going to be a community-based theater," McCloskey said.
In addition to movies, he suggested it could be used for all sorts of public events, including the "streaming" of ballgames and the like.
"There will be a stage," he said, opening the door for live performances.
"I'm certain we can come up with the correct business model," McCloskey said. "I'm certain that people will go to the movies again in Marblehead."