UPDATE 2/28/2019: The Beacon Theater has opened! Click here for A Little Beacon Blog’s feature article.
The construction office of Highview Development Corporation is covered in layers of white pages of blueprints, dusty artifacts collected from the project on the other side of the door, and yellow sawdust blown in from the demolition going on just beyond that door. The room has the feeling of a temporary office setup, one you might see in a portable trailer parked alongside a construction site. But the wall opposite the room's door is lined in windows that overlook Main Street, as this office is on the second floor of the dilapidated Beacon Theatre, at 445 Main Street.
Rumors have been circulating about the fate of this historic building, which sits in the heart of what was apparently known as "Theatre Square." [3/6/17 Edit: The name "Theatre Square" is referenced to in Wikipedia at the time of the research period for this article, the week of 2/20/17, and still needs to be validated.]
Though it survived bulldozers of urban renewal, the building closed as a full-time theater in 1968. Tenants over the years have included a church group - who painted the walls purple and installed purple seats - as well as a company offering private rentals to store roofing materials, and for a moment, an actual theater company. That company, 4th Wall Theatrical Productions, initially bought the theater from then-holder, The Ehrlich Company, who previously owned several other buildings in Beacon including The Roundhouse and One East Main.
When restoration costs became too high for the theater company, 4th Wall approached one of its board members, Robert McAlpine, who owned the construction company doing the renovation work on the Beacon Theatre, to see if he was interested in buying it. Robert's son Brendan McAlpine, a lawyer turned developer hailing from Long Island, DC, NYC and now Beacon, stepped in to put together a financing deal to purchase the building from the theater company. The revamped vision for the historic site included new apartments. Some Beacon residents were resistant to such a plan.
After months of Planning Board meetings and expansive revisions to initial plans, the dust has cleared a bit. What has emerged is a mixed-use project made up of a movie theater, a concession stand serving delicious beer and wine (movie ticket not required), and rental apartments. Harry's Hot Sandwiches and By A Thin Thread will remain tenants in the building's street-level storefronts. One could surmise that Brendan was consumed so much by the history of the building while working in the office, that the building dust got into his blood, leading him to change course on his renovation plans and more deeply incorporate a restoration of sorts on the theater, which once showed "photo-plays" in the 1930s.
There are four partners in this movie theater project: Brendan McAlpine, Mike Burdge, Jason Schuler and Scott Brenner, each bringing different expertise to the table. After I met with them last week to get a hard-hat tour of the building, I had a few follow-up questions for Brendan. His reply: "I’m happy to talk all day about this exciting project."
Brendan's first concepts of the building's renovation included apartments, as well as a space to be used in a variety of ways. "A big part of the building hasn’t been in real use in a long time," says Brendan. "When I looked at the project, it was important to me to keep it an arts or community space. But it was vital that the project didn’t fail." Brendan looked into theater business models, and found that, "Generally speaking, entities that are theaters tend to not have cash flow and support loans. Pretty much, any theater you see has a public component of financing for it. Those that do not, tend to not last very long. The way to make it work was to shrink it down and have the other components to it. That’s why we came to this mixed-use approach with the rental apartments and event space."
At the end of the day, Brendan wanted to bring in movie and food professionals to partner on the project - namely Mike Burdge, Jason Schuler and Scott Brenner - who know the performance and food spaces well. Each currently runs his own business: Mike, from Beacon, started Story Screen; Jason, a native of Hopewell Junction, founded Drink More Good; and Scott, who descended from Plainview, NY, is a partner at Drink More Good.
Pop-Up Movie Theater Gets Permanent Home
Over the past few years, you may have caught wind of Story Screen, the pop-up movie experience started by Mike Burdge. It first took place in his apartment, then in other people's homes, then at Jason Schuler and Scott Brenner's Drink More Good storefront on Main Street. Most recently, you may have caught a show at other restaurants, like Stock Up and Oak Vino. Story Screen will now have a permanent home at The Beacon Theatre, supported by a creative concession stand and bar in the main lobby. You can expect to find Drink More Good's Root Beer there, along with other signature cocktails and must-have popcorn.
Says Mike about the pop-up movie model: "I would take over a restaurant's space after business hours, license the films, and turn the space into a make-shift theater for one night." Mike's initial movie night showed "Groundhog Day" and was hosted at The Main Squeeze, a juice bar he managed just off of Main Street. Next he did a Beacon Horror Show, and a few screenings at Drink More Good. "Those went over so well, that we decided to do a Christmas one, and those did so well, that we set up a screen and a better sound system." Jason and Scott felt the movie experience fit with their brand. "We saw the importance of this nomadic pop-up theater, and we incorporated it into our space (Drink More Good) to bring it a permanent home," says Jason.
When Brendan reached out to the trio to consider a renovated theater with a big screen and stadium seating, the movie experience makers said yes. "I’m from Beacon," says Mike. "The Beacon Theater has never been open and operational in the way that it could be since I've lived here. I am a huge movie buff. I love stories. To have a gigantic theater that is just sitting there and not doing anything was really sad. My friends used to own the coffee shop that is now the After Eden antique shop, and we would watch movies behind the shop out back in the parking lot. We could see the inside of the theater while we watched movies outside. It was just weird. I thought about using the theater, but then I found out how much money it would take to renovate it. To be a part of its renovation now, to bring it back to life, that’s a really cool, cool, cool, cool thing. I’m getting goosebumps just talking about it."
Initially, the theater was set to be on the second floor of the building. However, it kept feeling "not quite right" to the partners. How would there be a movie theater upstairs, and an amazing concession area downstairs? As the partners mulled it over, it became clear that the only way to proceed was to put the theater on the first floor. It was pricey, and involved a 17-foot excavation of the ground beneath the theater. "It meant we had to pour concrete walls, beams, soundproof walls to a crazy degree," says Brendan. "Costs did go up, but in the end, I think we will all be much happier with the results."
The decision left the partners with more than just a better flow of foot traffic, it legitimized the theater. "What became clear was, when the theater is on the first floor, it has legacy. What we have gained is the historical purpose," exclaims Jason. "We worked really hard to keep the community aspect in the model, and this flow of how people will come in will help ensure that."
History of The Beacon Theatre
The site for the theater was originally known as the Dibble House (as explored in A Little Beacon Blog's Beacon Restaurant and Bar article) which included a roller skating rink in 1886. According to Wikipedia and the Beacon Historical Society, the Dibble House "was torn down in 1927 with plans to construct a new and modernized theater that would be large enough to accommodate larger crowds for the rise of films, known then as 'photo-plays.' "
The Great Depression stuck, and stalled the development for six years. The theater reopened in 1934 and was an immediate hotspot, serving moviegoers, performers, and regulars of the Wonder Bar, a favorite night spot of World War II soldiers stationed at the Army Air Corps Base at Stewart Field.
The soldiers took the ferry across from Newburgh and hopped on a bus up Main Street to listen to jazz bands perform out on the marquee, according to an article from the Beacon Free Press. Dated June 12, 1985, the profile piece captures memories from Ann McCabe Hanlon, whose father co-opened the Wonder Bar. "Many romances started there," recalls Hanlon in the article. The space's interior was a red coral, had a dance floor in the center, and a bar that curled around the room in an L-shape. The chef, named Wong, was even imported from New York City. The restaurant was open until 1950.
The Scene and Screens
The next incarnation of The Beacon Theatre includes plans for three screens. Two of those will have stadium seating, with "plush and cushy" chairs. One will have 85 seats, and a small screening room next to it will seat 25. An open floor-plan private screening room that can hold 50 people will not have chairs fixed to the floor, and will be available as a rentable event space to be used for various purposes: birthday parties, yoga classes, a big meeting, anything.
The movies you can expect to see at The Beacon Theatre will be ones you can catch at a Regal Cinema, and indie movies as well. The lobby/bar area will be the upscale concession stand that serves cocktails, beer and wine. In fact, the partners intend for patrons to be able to hang there without ever seeing a movie. This is Jason's area of expertise, being a professional barkeeper and cocktail designer, as well as a creator of after-hours experiences. (Most notably to Beaconites, he produced Ella's After Hours, which boasted delicious flatbread pizzas, other appetizers and creative cocktails at Ella's Bellas.)
Says Mike about the availability of movies in Beacon: "There are tons of music and art galleries. Those areas have been created and preserved here, but not films." While the increasing number of moviemakers who live in the Hudson Valley and in Beacon has prompted such business creations as the rental house and production studio CineHub and The Beacon Independent Film Festival, there was no permanent home for a big movie screen.
Speaking of preservation, some elements of the original theater are being refurbished, while others no longer exist. Among objects being restored are the light sconces, which will be cleaned up and returned to their original elegant state. A sconce hangs on the wall in the picture below, ready to illuminate the ornate details.
"When businesses open up in Beacon, they are expected to bring something community-based, artisanal-based," says Mike. Scott chimes in: "We are all community-oriented people, which is how this project came together in the first place." Before we head downstairs to tour the raw excavation and leveled dirt that is currently the stadium seating, Jason offers a final reflection on the project: "Anything that opens in Beacon needs to be raising the bar. Our focus is on what [the community can] expect from the theater."
Nailing down an opening date is always tricky with construction projects, so keep your eye on this one, and think spring or summer. The partners won't reveal an exact open date, but Brendan is sure of one thing: "We have a couple of cool surprises that we want people to discover."
When you smell the popcorn as you walk by, you'll know they are ready.