By Tim Kelly
Ocean City’s historic Moorlyn Theatre, the first and now last movie house on the island, has closed its doors and is listed for sale, its owner confirmed this week.
The Moorlyn is one of the oldest businesses in Ocean City and one of the first attractions on the Boardwalk. It began operations in 1901 as Moore’s Bowling Casino, housing a bowling alley and later a roller skating rink, according to the Ocean City Historical Society.
The Moorlyn achieved its niche in town history in 1921 when a 200-seat theatre replaced the roller rink. The following year the property was renamed the Moorlyn Theatre, and save several interruptions in between previous ownership changes, it has been showing films ever since.
Today however, the iconic property’s future is uncertain. The Ocean City Tabernacle, owner of the property since 2012, has listed it for sale with an asking price of $1.1 million, according to a Tabernacle official.
“It wasn’t working out for us,” said Virginia A. Weber, Chair of the Board of Trustees. “We closed it permanently and we’re looking for a buyer.”
The Tabernacle had renamed the property the Moorlyn Family Theatre and developed a programming mix of live stage performances, first-run films and classic movies from the theatre’s glory days. Concerts, stage plays, magic and comedy shows were among the live entertainment offerings. In this incarnation, the Moorlyn Family Theatre more closely resembled its original mixed use, which included Vaudeville and concerts.
According to Weber, a lack of patronage was not behind the theatre’s closing but rather a full plate of building operations.
“We had too many buildings to manage,” she said.
Nevertheless, the Moorlyn was not immune to the trend of films being delivered digitally on smart television and handheld devices, which has eroded the number of people willing to go to theatres nationwide.
In recent decades three other boardwalk theatres ceased operations showing movies. The Strand, which is now the home of Manco & Manco pizza; the Surf, since reborn as the Surf Mall; and the Village (demolished) left the Moorlyn as the lone remaining place to catch a flick on the boardwalk.
Weber said the sale was being handled by the Linwood-based firm, Foresite Commercial Realty and the agent, Samantha Roessler. Efforts to reach Roessler were unsuccessful on Thursday.
Earlier in the week prior to confirmation of the closing and pending sale, several people walking the boards waxed nostalgic about the movie palace.
“I used to love coming here as a kid,” said “Boone” McCamey, a lifelong Ocean City resident. “I would ride my bike to the movie theatre. How many kids have that opportunity? Especially today, it just doesn’t happen. But I would jump on my bike, grab a slice of pizza and go watch a movie. It was great.”
“It’s a shame (so many boardwalk theatres have closed),” said Marilyn Lippincott of Cinnaminson, Burlington County, who was strolling the boards Tuesday in front of the Moorlyn. “There were (many more theatres) here at one time and you could choose from a wide variety of films. It was especially good on a rainy day when you couldn’t go to the beach.”
The first films shown at the Moorlyn were silent movies. An organist provided musical accompaniment. According to Wikipedia, Hollywood was producing sheet music for use with films and some big city theatres employed entire orchestras for this purpose.
By the 1930s, the technology to make movies with sound became widely used and the so-called “talkies” made silent films nearly extinct. The Moorlyn kept pace with the changes and packed in large crowds.
A few years earlier, a major fire ripped through the boardwalk, destroying much of it as well as many of the businesses. Somehow the Moorlyn escaped damage. The boardwalk was then rebuilt atop concrete pilings and relocated a few dozen yards closer to the ocean. The Moorlyn itself was physically moved. It was placed on rails and dragged to its present location by horse-drawn teams.
Over the next three decades the theatre thrived, bringing great films from Hollywood’s golden age to large audiences of vacationers and residents.
However, the 1970s rise of TV made the first big dent in movie audiences. The Moorlyn’s auditorium was made into two theatres and in the 80s into four, according to the website cinematreasurers.org. Thus, the historic theatre kept pace with an industry-wide trend of multi-screen theatres, also known as multiplexes. The Moorlyn survived this way for a time, although it closed for several periods in between changes in ownership.
Approximately 10 years ago the theatre took on its final structural reconfiguration as storefronts, which now include Kohr Bros., Starbucks and Verizon Wireless were built on the boardwalk side of the building. The iconic Moorlyn marquee and ticket box office were removed. A new art deco style marquee inspired by the one it replaced, was installed on the Moorlyn Terrace side. A residence was added on a second story level above the storefronts.
During this period, the facility was owned and operated by the Frank’s Theatres chain, which eventually sold it to the Tabernacle.