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Rialto Owner of Rialto Theatre to Add Three New Screens In Bid to Increase Film Diversity

Rialto Owner To Double Total Screens


Specially Written for The Westfield Leader

In a bid to offer more diversity to his audiences, the Rialto Theatre’s new owner said he expects to install three additional screens at the landmark cinema, bringing the total number to six. He said plans are also underway for other renovations to take place after Labor Day weekend, which he hopes will breathe new life into the 75-year-old theater.

Jesse Sayegh, who closed his purchase deal with United Artists for the Rialto on June 19, told The Westfield Leader last week he expects to add one new screen in the balcony area, and two more downstairs. The building, located at the corner of East Broad Street and Central Avenue, currently houses two screens on the first floor and a third in the balcony.

He said he expected to create the two additional auditoriums on the first floor by moving the two existing screens forward and creating a corridor allowing access to the new sections. Mr. Sayegh also explained that he would divide the balcony area into two theaters, which he said would improve viewing from all seats on the second floor of the building.

He remarked that four or five of the proposed total screens would continue to show first-run, commercial films which he characterized as "family-oriented or subject matter suitable to the Westfield area."

He said that one or two screens would likely be used to show foreign or art films which are not generally exhibited at theaters in suburban areas. During last year’s successful grassroots campaign to save the Rialto from being converted into retail, supporters proposed that specialty fare would be one way to give the Rialto a unique appeal.

"The whole concept is you have a diversified audience in the Westfield area and we are looking to provide the audience with diversity, but to do this you need extra screens," observed Mr. Sayegh, who said the additional auditoriums will allow him to hold onto successful features longer while simultaneously bringing in fresh product.

"When you have only three screens or so, you don’t have as much flexibility. You might lose a good picture," he commented, noting that he recently had to discontinue showing Ulee’s Gold, which was still doing well at the box office, in order to make room for newer pictures.

Mr. Sayegh confirmed that the six auditoriums would vary in seating capacity, with the two largest holding 300 and 260 seats. Two others would hold 175 and 150 seats, while the smallest two would each provide seating for 100.

Besides the three additional screens, he said he plans to upgrade both the interior and the exterior of the aging building, including sprucing up the front canopy with aluminum panels done in a Colonial style. He also anticipates installing new carpeting and seats, along with an improved sound system, as well as implementing a general cleanup of the building.

Mr. Sayegh said he also plans to replace the Rialto’s "very antiquated" lavatories with brand new, fully-accessible facilities in the area of the building currently occupied by Diane B’s. That store, he said, will move next door to the space which formerly housed Merle Norman Cosmetics. He said he also hoped to restore the natural brick facade on the front of the theater, which had been painted over.

Mr. Sayegh said the time frame for the renovations to commence would depend on how soon the necessary permits were approved by the town’s Construction Office. Westfield Zoning Officer Jeremiah P. O’Neil confirmed on Friday that the theater operator qualified for an exemption from site plan review pursuant to the town’s zoning ordinance since his application called for internal renovations and there is no planned expansion of the current building.

There will be no need for additional parking provisions, he said, since Mr. Sayegh is rearranging the interior layout of the theater, rather than increasing the number of seats.

Mr. O’ Neil said he had already approved Mr. Sayegh’s construction application. The application was still under review last week by the municipality’s Construction Office.

Mr. Sayegh, the President of CJM Entertainment, a company based in Cedar Grove, has been a theater operator for 20 years. Among his other holdings are cinemas with between four and 10 screens in Linden, Cedar Grove, Ocean Township, Upper Montclair and Kinnelon. Although he declined to reveal the exact amount he paid for the theater, recent real estate transactions show the theater was purchased for $1.3 million.

Mr. Sayegh said he has received positive feedback about his plans for the theater from neighborhood merchants in Westfield, who he said have approached him about promotional efforts which would tie together the Rialto’s anticipated renaissance with the business community at large. The theater operator speculated that he may address the Westfield Chamber of Commerce in the near future about doing something in conjunction with the theater’s 75th anniversary this year.

He said the merchants feel the Rialto is a magnet for attracting people to the downtown, adding that the theater is "a landmark building in the community and an emotional issue for the people in the community who worked to save it." The purchase agreement between Mr. Sayegh and United Artists, which was brokered by Anthony Schilling of Relocation Realty in Westfield, was first announced in February after another potential buyer walked away from the deal.

"I think everyone who looked at the Bellevue before and after will tell you what a great job we’re doing over there," commented Mr. Sayegh of his other recent purchase, a theater in Upper Montclair which has already been renovated. "The theater has been well-received, attendance has gone up…people who were there four months ago who come in think they’re in the wrong place…it’s changed so much for the better."

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