The story of the Levoy is the story of the people who built it, owned it, worked in it and patronized it. It is a story filled with triumph and defeat, happiness and sadness. It is exactly the story you might expect from an historic icon that’s commanded Millville’s High Street for over a century.
The first Levoy Theatre filled a ten year void left in Millville after the 1898 fire that destroyed the Wilson Opera House (once at High and Sassafras Sts.), Millville’s largest theatre of the 19th century. By 1908 Millville needed a new source of entertainment, and William “Pop” Somers of Atlantic City and Somers Point fame came to Millville seeing the opportunity for his Levoy.
On a side note, Somers was one of the early Ferris Wheel designers, even before Mr. Ferris himself. Only after a lengthy court battle between Ferris and Somers did the famous ride become known as the “Ferris” Wheel and not the “Somers” Wheel.
On January 9, 1908, Somer’s first Levoy was opened. It was much smaller than today’s structure; there were two floors—the theatre on the lower floor and a dance floor on the upper. The first admission prices were 5¢ for one ticket or 25¢ for six.
The early silent flickering films shown in the original Levoy were often accompanied by a vocalist or piano player in the background to follow the action. Only four years after the first Levoy opened it was to be enlarged by Colonel Ellsworth Shaw, a job that took five months, 29 days to enlarge the theatre by two times its previous size.
The Levoy now had a larger stage, and a wrap around balcony. Its facade at this point slightly resembled the facade of the present Levoy. Reopening ceremonies began on November 4, 1912, with William Somers’ renaming of his theatre as the “New Levoy”.
For the next fifteen years the Levoy was Millville’s center of entertainment for silent films and Vaudeville; its main competition came from the Peoples’ Theatre just across the street, also operated by the Levoy’s owners.
The famous Morris Handle and AJ Rovner leased the theatres from Somers in April 1927 and soon decided that the Levoy was the one they were going to invest in. After several months of further enlargements and embellishments the “Theatre Beautiful” of Millville was ready for its grand reopening.
The Levoy was now at its full size—a rumored 1,100 seat lower level, and 300 seat balcony, “one of the largest stages in the east” complete with a large orchestra pit, a marble and chandelier filled lobby and mezzanine, a new $30,000 pipe organ, and a very ornate classical facade that gave the impression of a theatre in a very large city.
The Levoy was “second to none in South Jersey” and the Millville citizens knew it. Over 3,500 people turned out for opening night, September 19, 1927. Silent movies were gaining a foothold in the entertainment industry, but the Vaudeville acts were still the main attraction for the Levoy crowds at the time.
It was not until the introduction and utilization of “The Talkies,” motion pictures with sound, that Vaudeville started to die out—still a very slow process with the high popularity that Vaudeville had achieved.
The last nail in the coffin for Vaudeville at The Levoy occurred on May 28, 1930, when Warner Brothers assumed control of the theatre.
When Handle and Rovner enlarged the Levoy they envisioned a theatre with stage shows and motion pictures, typical of theatres in the 1920′s. The 1930′s brought the first time in history that theatres were built solely for movie use, and Warner Brothers wanted to modernize the Levoy into one of these new movie palaces.
This brought about the third major renovation of the Levoy, in 1939. Different than the other renovations of the Levoy in 1912 and 1927, the 1939 renovation was not an enlargement. Instead, it was mostly a cosmetic renovation consistent with Warner Brothers’ view of what a modern theatre should be.
A new marquee was placed facing High Street; the front doors were changed to the famous half moon shaped doors; the lobby was remodeled to create a new “eye flow principle”; the auditorium had new wall tapestries with illustrations of the earth’s eastern and western hemispheres on opposing walls; the whole theatre was now “scientifically air conditioned” for the comfort of all patrons; and movies were made ever grander by the enlargement of the movie screen and the utilization of the RCA Company’s new “Sound Apex” system.
With its grand reopening on August 18, 1939, the Levoy had now officially entered the Golden Age of motion pictures.
The 1940′s were probably the best years of the Levoy’s movie life. Movies at the theatre would continuously attract lines of people down the street and around the block to view the feature of the day. The movies were America’s favorite pastime outside of baseball—until television.
Television brought movies, dramas, comedies, variety shows, newscasts and more to everyone’s home. Where once people would visit the Levoy several times a week, now they stayed home thrilled and entertained by the new medium. Levoy revenues dropped dramatically, and in 1952 Warner Brothers sold to Eugene Mori, owner of the Landis Theater in Vineland.
During the next six years the Levoy’s slow but steady decline continued. The theatre was now a losing business, and the Levoy’s ownership changed again, this time to Simon Cherivtch, businessman and former Millville Mayor.
Simon took control on August 28, 1958, and quickly made his message clear on what he planned for the Levoy. He stated that if attendance kept declining he would find another use for the building, possibly a modern food mart or small shopping center.
This was a serious threat to the Levoy, since everybody knew that Cherivtch had bought the Peoples’ Theatre in the early 1950′s, closed it, and converted it into a modern store. But by October of 1958 Simon’s choice had become clear.
He was going to keep the Levoy open and try to make it better than ever. For the first time in almost thirty years the Levoy stage was about to have live, big name entertainment during “Millville Week”.
A parade up High Street welcomed Olson & Johnson, former Vaudeville stars, and their “New Hellz-a-Poppin’ Yock and Roll Revue of 1959”. But even after all this hype and publicity the crowds were disappointing to Cherivtch—only half of the house was full. Cherivtch’s next attempt to raise revenues was his stunt on February 22, 1959, a Sunday night.
Simon was ready to open the Levoy for a Sunday movie even though it violated a Millville city ordinance. About 2,000 people turned out to see this occur, but Cherivtch eventually decided not to get arrested by opening the theatre. This ordinance finally changed in for good in 1964.
Throughout the 1960′s Cherivtch tried many times to bolster Levoy crowds and revenues. He started parades (even with elephants!), gave silver dollars out to children at Saturday matinees, and had lottery drawings for ticket stub holders.
Many of the matinee kids soon gave him the nickname “Uncle Simon” because of all of his generous schemes. Simon wanted the Levoy to be successful, but soon became tired of trying so hard to maintain an unprofitable business.
His plan of renovating the Levoy into a store became partly true in the early 1960′s when he modified the front part of the building and opened 2 stores there and installed apartments above.
The new lobby was more spartan than before and one third of its original size. The original symmetry of the twin marble staircases on either side of the lobby had been destroyed. The ticket booth was moved to the right side of the building and the auditorium was reconfigured with about 400 fewer seats to accommodate the new storefronts. This occurring several years after other modernization efforts had removed the chandeliers and organ and installed plainer wall tapestries covering the 1939 tapestries (including the two murals of the earth).
Cherivtch tried several times to sell or lease the Levoy—to groups like the Jaycees or even to regional theatre circuits, but all were unsuccessful in running the theatre and the title eventually went back to Simon.
The early 1970′s brought a new round of problems to the Levoy. The general flight of patrons from the downtown to the new Mall combined with two Multiplex cinemas opening in Vineland was taking away much business. But worst of all, because of low revenues, basic maintenance and upkeep began to slide. The building and its systems started to deteriorate. In 1972 the Levoy closed for several months “for alterations” when the first major exterior alteration occurred.
The large false wood eave that hung high above the marquee was hanging out some 10-12 inches from the building. This was ordered removed—and was, on July 7, 1972.
Soon afterward the four wooden pilasters (flat columns) were also taken down, leaving only wood beams to show where these decorative elements once stood. The 1972 shutdown and renovation were only temporary setbacks because the Levoy would soon reopen, but it was a sign of things to come.
The seats were old, the balcony was often closed, and movies were all second run, but it was still open for business, this time until July 1974. Once again problems with electric, wiring, heating, and the leaky roof were cited as problems.
For the next four months the Levoy’s new leasee, Seymour “Sy” Siegal, planned an optimistic comeback for Millville’s 66 year old theatre.
Improvements were made, promotions like the 5¢ movie were brought back, and the Levoy’s occupancy permit was granted on November 13, 1974. This temporary reopening lasted for a month, and then an extra week was added on.
This stop and go game with City Hall came to an end on December 24, 1974, when the Levoy was permanently closed because of the lack of substantial improvements. This put an end to Sy Siegal’s efforts, and once again the title went back to Simon Cherivtch.
In October, 1976, the issue was not whether the theatre would reopen, but whether or not the building would be demolished!
The Levoy’s leasee at the time, Theatre VI Corporation of Long Island, was given 60 days to make minimum safety repairs on the building before the city would undertake demolition proceedings.
The theatre never reopened, but it was not demolished either. Instead, it just remained vacant for several more years until a bright young man, Joey Pierce Jr. got involved. Joey came back to Millville with dreams and ideas. He championed preserving and using older and historic structures rather than tearing everything down in the name of progress. Through Joey’s efforts the Levoy was purchased from a subsequent owner and was designated as a structure of Historic value by the State of New Jersey.
Joe Pierce Jr worked tirelessly to preserve the building for future generations by repairing numerous roof leaks and by establishing an organization to Shepard the project into the next century. Sadly Joey died at a young age and his dream was all but lost.
A grass roots effort to pick up where Joey left off was initiated and with the help of dozens of volunteers and thousands of supporters a new plan was developed to open the Levoy once again. Restoration was not an option due to the physical decline of the building so the volunteers opted for Renovation of the fabled theater. What you see today is reminiscent of the Levoy of the 1920’s but with all of the modern functionality. Joey’s Historical placard and photograph grace the lobby of the theater as a reminder to all who pass though those doors of the power of one man to affect so many in such a positive way.