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Will Landmark Remain Local Cinema?

The Players, (left to right) Anthony Schilling, Michele Picou, Jesse Sayegh, Bud Boothe, David Owens and Mayor Tom Jardim

Does Rialto Gain New Life As Theater Operator Reveals Purchase Pact?

By SUZETTE STALKER for The Westfield Leader and The Times

A veteran movie theater operator has apparently saved the day for the 75-year-old Rialto Theatre, the future of which has remained uncertain for more than a year, by promising to keep the popular cinema intact while also giving it a fresh new look and updated amenities.

Jesse Sayegh, President of CJM Entertainment in Cedar Grove confirmed during a Thursday afternoon press conference in front of the theater on East Broad Street that he recently had reached an agreement with United Artists to purchase both the Rialto Theatre and the Bellevue Theatre in Upper Montclair for an undisclosed sum.

The press conference was attended by Mayor Thomas C. Jardim and former Mayor Garland C. "Bud" Boothe, Jr., members of the "Save the Rialto" Committee and others who have been involved in the struggle to keep the town’s last remaining theater from fading into memory.

Anthony Schilling, President of Relocation Realty in Westfield, which brokered the deal between Mr. Sayegh and United Artists, explained that the agreement, which is expected to be finalized within the next several months, was hammered out after Long Island developer Herman "Hy" Carlinsky abandoned his option to purchase the theater earlier this month.

Mr. Sayegh, who has been in business for 20 years, owns theaters in several other New Jersey communities, including Linden, Cedar Grove and Ocean Township, in addition to the newly-acquired Bellevue Theatre. He said during the press conference that his interest in movie theaters dates back to his youth when he worked as an usher and a theater maintenance worker.

He said he plans to continue offering first-run films at the Rialto, and that he also intends to make some aesthetic improvements, including revamping the lobby, installing new carpets and seating and upgrading the building’s sound system. Mr. Sayegh said he anticipates splitting the upstairs theater to create a total of four screens, but added that during renovations only one theater would be closed at a time to minimize inconvenience to patrons.

Regarded by many local residents as the centerpiece of Westfield’s downtown, the Rialto has been a landmark on the corner of East Broad Street and Central Avenue since 1922. United Artists first announced in 1995 that it was selling many of its small theaters, including the Rialto, the Bellevue and the Pasquack Theatre in Westwood, in order to concentrate on multiplexes which can generate greater profits.

Mr. Schilling confirmed that he and Mr. Sayegh first began discussing the possibility of the latter buying the Rialto from United Artists about a year and a half ago, but that the prospective deal faded because the participants could not come to an agreement on a price at that time. Shortly afterwards, Mr. Carlinsky acquired a contract option to purchase the theater.

However, Mr. Schilling said that he and Mr. Sayegh continued to discuss other real estate deals throughout last year and that during this time he kept the CJM President apprised of the Rialto situation. Once Mr. Carlinsky had bowed out of his contract option, Mr. Sayegh was able to renew talks with United Artists about purchasing the theater.

Mayor Jardim said he was "cautiously optimistic" about the latest upswing in the Rialto Theatre saga, "but given the history of this thing you never know what can happen." Concerning Mr. Sayegh’s background, the Mayor acknowledged that "he’s a well-known theater operator, the economics are right and he’s going to renovate it."

Last year, Mr. Carlinsky, who said he had been unsuccessful in reaching an agreement with a movie operator to lease the building as a theater, had attempted to negotiate a lease with The Gap, Inc. to open a Banana Republic store on the site. Westfield residents protested the plan with letters and telephone calls to The Gap’s San Francisco headquarters, urging the clothing chain not to convert the cherished theater into retail.

The "Save the Rialto" Committee, organized through Westfield MainStreet, utlized the collective expertise of many local volunteers to investigate ways of preserving the theater, which supporters maintained is still economically viable. The Gap, Inc. eventually withdrew plans for a store in response to public pressure, and the committee continued to meet periodically with Mr. Carlinsky to discuss development proposals for the Rialto, including one which called for a combination of retail and a movie theater in the building.

The developer, who had received several extensions on his purchase deadline since October, revealed on February 4 that he had bowed out of his option with United Artists. He told "Save the Rialto" members that he was not agreeable to United Artists’ terms. The committee members had then planned to work directly with United Artists in helping to acquire a buyer for the Rialto who would be willing to keep a theater on the premises.

Discussing his anticipated strategy for competing with multiplexes like the Sony Theatres 10-plex on Route 22, East, in Mountainside, Mr. Sayegh explained that theaters such as the Rialto and the Bellvue offer patrons the comfort and convenience of being able to see a movie in their own neighborhood "Mothers can leave their children for a couple of hours," he observed. "You also have mature people who don’t want to stand in long lines or to travel out onto the highway."

Another incentive for moviegoers to choose the local theater, according to Mr. Sayegh, would be that while mall theaters and multiplexes typically concentrate on the youth market, the Rialto would continue to present fare for all ages, including independent films such as The English Patient, which is currently playing at the Rialto. He said that in the future the theater may also show foreign features in addition to its mainstream offerings to attract an even wider audience.

David Owens, a local businessman and one of the principals of the "Save the Rialto" movement, predicted that under its new ownership, the theater could become a "real showplace." He emphasized during the press conference, however, that the community still needs to give Mr. Sayegh "the support to make this thing work just by going to the movies." He proposed that businesses in the downtown also could encourage people to patronize the Rialto through cross-promotional offers.

Former Mayor Boothe commented that the "Save the Rialto" Committee deserved "a lot of credit" for keeping the theater’s cause alive, and compared residents’ resolve to the "Stop the Mall" campaign of 15 years ago, when townspeople successfully argued against construction of a mall on 18 acres of property along Route No. 22 on the border between Westfield and Springfield.

Editors Note: See related articles in the Archives.

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