Craig O’Connor still remembers walking the five blocks from his childhood home to see the original “Superman” movie at the Summit Theatre in Union City in 1978. The theater served as a cultural touchstone for more than 50 years, first as a vaudeville and burlesque house where Harry Houdini performed and George Burns met Gracie Allen, then as an 800-seat movie theater showing classics from “The Sound of Music” to “Scarface.”
Shuttered in 2011, the four-screen space at Summit Avenue and Thirteenth Street has fallen into disrepair. Now O’Connor and his business partner Carlos Ortiz want to resurrect it, and they hope to do so by tapping into the well of nostalgia for the theater that still exists among Union City residents.
They are nailing down a lease with the building’s owner and have launched an online fundraising campaign on Kickstarter aimed at raising $100,000 towards the theater’s refurbishment.
According to O’Connor, the cinema will show a mix of family and children’s films and art house films, a la Woody Allen or Wes Anderson, pitched towards Union City’s Baby Boomer population.
“There’s no first-run cinema in Hudson County that regularly and consistently plays movies for adults,” said O’Connor, which forces indie lovers to go to New York City or Montclair. Teens in pursuit of the latest slasher flick or summer blockbuster can still head to the Columbia Park multiplex in North Bergen or theaters in Secaucus, Hoboken, Jersey City, or Edgewater, but O’Connor sees a significant niche market left open by mainstream theaters that must devote half their screens to the opening weekend of “The Avengers” and the like.
Agent of change
In the 1990s, the Summit Theatre was converted into a four-screen cinema complex, with a cumulative total of 575 seats. Its closure in 2011 was precipitated by the nationwide switch from 35 mm film projection to digital projection, now the industry standard. At the time, digital projectors cost upwards of $100,000 each, a prohibitive price point for the theater’s owners.
In 2013, a group of Union City residents tried to reopen the Summit as a combined art house cinema, black box theater, and art gallery, but the plans fell through.
Why does O’Connor believe he can succeed where others have failed?
For one thing, he has been working in the movie theater business for most of his adult life. O’Connor started as an usher at the erstwhile Loew’s Theater in Secaucus at age 16 and eventually moved up to become the assistant manager and manager of his own theater. Over the last two decades, O’Connor has worked for Clearview Cinemas, the boutique cinema chain that became Bow Tie Cinemas in 2013, organizing promotions and events at its locations in Hoboken and Manhattan.
“When a theater closes, all the good memories people had leave with that.” – Craig O’Connor
Owning and operating his own theater is something O’Connor has always wanted to do. Where better to do it, he said, than in Union City, where he grew up and where his mother and aunt still live.
While O’Connor still expects to spend $250,000 in total renovating the Summit Theatre’s concession stand, restrooms, and screening rooms, the cost of digital projectors has fallen precipitously in the last four years, with a single projector now costing only between $25,000 and $35,000.
O’Connor and Ortiz are putting their own money down on the project, and they hope to make up the remaining difference through sponsorship deals with Pepsi, Goya, and the like.
Still, the duo are counting on Union City residents to support their efforts monetarily through the Kickstarter campaign, which can only be cashed out if they meet their $100,000 goal by July 14. So far, the fundraiser has only brought in $1,530 from four backers.
Though contributions to the Summit Theatre Kickstarter are technically donations, they come with prizes that could potentially exceed the value of the gift given. For example, everyone who gives $25 will receive two free movie passes and one popcorn and soda voucher. The prizes ramp up along with the value of a donation, culminating in a private screening of a classic movie for 75 people in exchange for a $5,000 donation.
The Kickstarter campaign can be found at www.kickstarter.com/projects/summittheatre/bring-the-movies-back-reopen-the-summit-theatre/.
Giving back to the community
By supporting the reopening of the Summit Theatre, said O’Connor, residents will also be supporting their own community. Opening a theater on Summit Avenue would be a boon to the many businesses on the strip, which have struggled in comparison to the businesses farther north on Bergenline Avenue, according to O’Connor.
“When people go to the movies, they make a day of it,” said O’Connor. “They have dinner and a movie or drinks and a movie.”
O’Connor graduated from Emerson High School in 1988, and he hopes to donate a percentage of all future ticket sales to arts programs in the Union City Public Schools, not to mention hire 12 to 15 teenagers to run the box office and concession stand. The theater could even show educational films for public school classes during the daytime, he said.
O’Connor said his plans for the Summit Theatre have been well received by Mayor Brain Stack and Commissioner of Public Affairs Lucio Fernandez, as well as area business owners.
The most basic benefit of reopening the Summit Theatre would be saving the historic building it occupies, which O’Connor fears will not survive another half-decade.
“I hate to see old theaters closed up,” said O’Connor, knowing that so many of them get knocked down and converted into condos or a drug store chains. “When a theater closes, all the good memories people had leave with that.”
Carlo Davis may be reached at email@example.com.