Transformation of landmark Westmont Theater nearly complete

A worker high up on a lift works on the interior renovation of the historic Westmont Theater, which is being turned into a Planet Fitness.

After its last picture shows - The Fourth Protocol and Dirty Dancing - the Westmont Theater closed on Sept. 8, 1987.

But soon, after decades of drama and a spirited grassroots campaign in vain to restore the Haddon Avenue landmark as a performing arts and film venue, the Westmont's marquee will glow again.

The former movie palace is being reborn as a Planet Fitness gym.

"We're bringing the building back to life," developer Henry Gorenstein says. "Hopefully, it will be open by the end of the year."

Says architectural engineer Peter Lazaropoulos: "This is a very good transformation."

The Cherry Hill business partners behind the $3 million project are showing me around the Westmont, which debuted as an 1,800-seat vaudeville and silent-movie house on Sept. 5, 1927.

After closing 60 years and three days later, the Westmont became home to the Living Arts Repertory Theatre for a number of years. It also hosted popular music concerts.

But in the 2000s the theater, which had been divided into twin auditoriums in the early 1980s, was vacant, leaking, and slowly disintegrating.

"It would eventually have collapsed," Lazaropoulos says.

Work on the Planet Fitness project began in February; interior demolition alone cost $500,000.

"This is definitely one of the most complicated buildings I have worked on," Lazaropoulos, 58, says.

"It's become a labor of love," adds Gorenstein, 56, who remembers seeing movies at the Westmont when he was growing up in Cherry Hill.

From where the developers and I stand - in what was once the lobby - not a whisper of the Westmont's previous incarnation remains.

The building, listed on the New Jersey Registry of Historic Places a few years ago, has been gutted to the brick walls. The sloping floor of the auditorium has been filled in, and a spacious second floor has been constructed.

There are entirely new electrical and other utility systems, a new roof, an elevator, and a historically accurate trio of 18-foot arched windows on the soaring facade.

"It looks great. And it's great for our downtown," says Haddon Township Mayor Randy Teague, adding that a 24-hour gym should increase foot traffic in the business district.

"I do think it will help," says Stacey Douglas, who opened her Espressit Coffee Shop on an adjacent block of Haddon Avenue eight years ago.

Ray and Mae Skinner, owners of Eleventh Step Books, are not so sure.

"I'm kind of disappointed," says Mae. "I think they should have made it into a community center."

A few doors west, however, Heart Beet Kitchen proprietor Ashley Coyne says her vegan restaurant plans to begin offering breakfast once Planet Fitness opens.

"We expect the [demand for] smoothies will be crazy," she adds.

Whatever its impact on business, Planet Fitness will relight a marquee that has graced the township's main street for decades.

Nick Kappatos, whose company, SignPros, is handling the job, says neon duplicating the original color will be used for the letters out front spelling "WESTMONT."

That's heartening news for video producer Brent Donaway.

Now 36, he was a Rowan University film student when he made an elegiac documentary about the theater, The Grand Old Lady, in 2005.

"I would have liked to see it restored as a theater," Donaway says.

"But to see [the exterior] being restored, and to see it turned into something that is no longer a blight. . . . I'm all for that."

Less enthusiastic is Allen F. Hauss, author of the indispensable book South Jersey Movie Houses (Arcadia, 2006) and, like Donaway, a leader of local efforts to restore the theater.

"Haddon Township . . . has joined the ranks of towns with a gym on every corner," says Hauss, 76, of Maple Shade.

As a regular patron of the old Westmont - I vividly remember seeing Purple Rain there during the height of Prince-mania - I would have loved the theater to show movies again.

Something along the lines of the Bryn Mawr Film Institute would have been sweet.

"If I could have gotten a movie company in there, I would have," says Gorenstein. "I reached out to a slew of them."

Many other local residents have fond memories of and "emotional ties to" the old theater, notes Lazaropoulos.

"We tried to be sensitive," he says. "We have kept the historic exterior and made the interior a functional space that can be used by the community.

"I think we did the best compromise."

kriordan@phillynews.com

267-815-0975 @inqkriordan

www.philly.com/blinq