Warwick Cinema, a landmark in Marblehead for more than 100 years, has survived the pandemic and is reinventing itself again.
“We’re thinking outside the box,” said Johnny Ray, who co-owns the Warwick and the adjoining restaurant ,The Beacon. “We’ll be doing events other than movies. Of course, we still do first-run movies all the time.”
COVID-19 shut down cinemas for months and slashed profits as people shied away from public indoor spaces. The pandemic also prompted big changes in the movie industry, said Ray.
“Hollywood started releasing movies in theaters and streaming simultaneously and people got acclimated to that. People made investments in their home entertainment systems.”
Ray hopes Hollywood will produce new blockbusters that will lure people back into theaters, including the Warwick. He also believes adding live music acts and other events will give people more reasons to return. He is hosting musicians in the two theaters and art shows in the lobby.
On Sept. 8, sports agent Sean Stellato of Marblehead will be at the Warwick to sign copies of his new book, “No Backing Down.” A documentary about the book will play in one of the theaters.
“We chose Thursday, September 8, because it coincides with the season opener of the 2022 NFL season, so we are having a party at The Beacon to watch the game after the book signing.”
Ray has also developed an app, Warwick TV.
“We produce original content that you can’t see anywhere else,” Ray said. “It will be very localized to our area. We’ll have a show, Live from The Beacon, bringing in entertainers and artists. We’ll interview them, too.”
The app is available now with an introductory video, but Ray hopes it will officially go live in December.
“You can download it now and watch it grow,” he said.
A group of Marblehead business owners opened the Warwick in 1917. “They used to show silent movies with an organ player,” Ray said. The original theater had 500 seats.
The McNulty family bought the theater in 1922, which some say marks the real birth of the Warwick. Ray is branding events this year with the 100th anniversary theme.
The McNultys owned the Warwick until 1999, making several changes over the years. In 1980, they divided the theater into two screening rooms.
Ray calls the Warwcik “hallowed ground” where many Marbleheaders have fond memories of date nights and evenings out with friends. Deb Fox Gansenberg remembers her first date at the Warwick in the early 1980s. She and her boyfriend saw Raiders of the Lost Arc.
“It was dark, small, we sat in the back,” Gansenberg said. “The seats were worn and squeeked. I actually have special memories of the Warwick on rain days, too, when Children’s Island couldn’t go out to camp and we stayed at the old YMCA (acrss the street) and the McNultys let us go in and watch movies.”
One of the earliest recorded Warwick memories dates back to the 1920s.
“The Warwick Theater in Marblehead was available for Saturday afternoon special movies when I was growing up in the twenties and there used to be thrilling serials which always ended just as some disaster was about to happen,” wrote Marget Whitten Howard in a document archived at the Marblehead Museum.
“We used to sit in the back of the theater and roll candy balls down to the front — it was in the days before popcorn. There were always news events, previews of coming attractions and the MGM lion and its roar.”
The Warwick has faced changing trends and challenges before — like when megaplex theaters shut down many smaller, independent theaters in the 1980s and 90s. New owners tore down the original theater and rebuilt it in 2013.
Harold Blank, the Warwick’s director, is more optimistic about the post-COVID movie world.
“This spring, Batman opened and it was the beginning of cinemas coming back to life. In May, we had Top Gun, then Jurassic, Minions, Elvis and all of a sudden there were all these pictures in movie theaters and people came back. Business in May and June outdistanced prior years by a lot. That’s a real statement that ‘Hey guys, movie theaters aren’t dead.’”
Blank is looking forward to upcoming releases, including Black Panther: Wakanda Forever on November 11, Disney’s Strange World at Thanksgiving and Avatar: The Way of Water on December 16.
He says Marblehead is lucky to have the Warwick.
“To have a little theater in your town — a place for first-run movies, family movies, blockbusters — it’s a real plus for the community.”
And Ray promises that the theater is here to stay.
“The Warwick has a permanent imprint in town, a historic imprint. Because we’re a boutique theater, we can continue to show movies and continue to do it our way.”