Showtime at the Avalon Pier

For almost fifty years, this entertainment and shopping complex was an Avalon landmark.

Movies on the Boardwalk

The year was 1928. The Avalon Casino at 17th Street and Boardwalk had been condemned and Mayor Gustavus Bergner saw an opportunity for a new, modern entertainment facility - keeping Avalon ahead of other local resort towns by boosting tourism while also providing a central social hub.

Avalon Casino, Unknown, 1915/1928, From the collection of: The Avalon History Center
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The Avalon Casino on the boardwalk at 17th Street.

Designed by the architect William L. Gibb, Jr. and built by Joseph G. Champion, Avalon’s Municipal Pier and Convention Hall at 29th St. and Boardwalk was completed in the summer of 1929. Costing approximately $73,000, the project was over budget by nearly 50% and delayed several times by weather.

Avalon Pier Opening Day (1929-08-08) by UnknownThe Avalon History Center

Even before its dedication, the large auditorium at boardwalk level was refitted as a 700-seat movie theater to accommodate the latest entertainment craze sweeping the nation: talking motion pictures, known as "talkies."

The first movie to be shown at the new theater was “Coquette” starring Mary Pickford, which screened just before July 4, 1929.

The structure was formally dedicated by Mayor Bergner and Governor Morgan F. Larson on August 8th, 1929. The yellow stucco building included a fishing pier that extended 483 feet into the ocean, an upstairs “Marine Room” to hold dances and social events, four shops, and the movie theater at boardwalk level.

Avalon Pier Dedication Ceremony, Unknown, 1929-08-08, From the collection of: The Avalon History Center
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Avalon Pier Dedication, Unknown, 1929-08-08, From the collection of: The Avalon History Center
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The dedication of the Avalon Pier on August 8, 1929.

The building quickly became the center of Avalon social activities, with the pier entertainment committee (chaired by Mayor Bergner’s wife Albertine) arranging weekly concerts, bridge parties, musical events and dances. This committee booked Stan Gallagher’s seven-piece University of Pennsylvania Orchestra as the first orchestra to play at the Avalon Pier.

Penn Symphony Orchestra at Pier, Unknown, 1929, From the collection of: The Avalon History Center
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The University of Pennsylvania Orchestra in 1929.

Lester Concert Ensemble Flyer, Unknown, 1929, From the collection of: The Avalon History Center
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A 1929 flyer promoting musical performances at the Avalon Pier.

The Marine Room hosted weekly teen dances in the summer and the ever-popular Lifeguard’s Ball each year. There were also community sings, Borough Christmas parties, the Avalon Baby Parade when bad weather threatened, and the Miss Avalon beauty pageant. The Volunteer Fire Department even held carnival-style fundraisers out front on the boardwalk.

Fireman's Carnival Ticket, Unknown, 1939, From the collection of: The Avalon History Center
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A 1939 ticket to the Avalon Volunteer Fire Department's carnival fundraiser. 

Of the stores on either side of the movie theater, most memorable were Pop Gehringer’s store, selling hot dogs, “brown cow” root beer floats, and roasted peanuts, followed by Charlie’s luncheonette and Marian’s Pokerino, which were run by husband and wife Charlie and Marian Moore.

Avalon Pier Shops, Unknown, circa. 1960, From the collection of: The Avalon History Center
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The Avalon Pier, circa 1960.

Between 1929 and 1978, the Avalon Theater screened approximately 10,000 movies.

The Borough of Avalon leased the theater out during most of this time, primarily to J.H. Greenburg - ultimately selling to him in 1971. While he was a lessee and owner, Greenburg then leased the theater for the majority of the time to Hunt’s Theaters, a local chain that managed theaters throughout the area.

Avalon Theatre Payroll (1955-06) by UnknownThe Avalon History Center

Payroll and time registers from 1955 provide a sense of the staff needed to manage the theater at the start of another busy summer season.

Avalon Theatre Account Book (1949-06-11/1950-11-02) by First National Bank of Stone HarborThe Avalon History Center

All over the United States, movie admissions boomed in the 1940s, then dropped dramatically by the mid-1950s (due to the popularity of television). Nevertheless, screenings of new blockbuster and classic films continued each summer in Avalon.

Pier Memories

In Dave Coskey’s 2005 book, “Pier Memories,” many shared their connection to the theater:

“I started out sweeping up (no child labor laws in those days) and graduated to usher and then ticket taker. At 11 years old, I had the responsibility of opening the theater for Wednesday matinees, taking the tickets and locking up again.”
- Herbert Highfield

“I also remember sitting in the movie during high tide and feeling the vibrations as the waves hit the pilings below.”
- Joe Hoffman

Avalon Pier (Winter), Unknown, 1920, From the collection of: The Avalon History Center
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Avalon Pier Postcard, Unknown, 1930/1945, From the collection of: The Avalon History Center
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"Avalon Pier, Side View" Postcard, Douglass Candy, 1960/1980, From the collection of: The Avalon History Center
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Avalon Pier in the Snow, Unknown, 1968, From the collection of: The Avalon History Center
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Photos of the Avalon Pier from the 1920s to the 1960s.

"Going to the Avalon Theater was an adventure. Dragonflies would often cross the beam from the projector and would be magnified on the screen. They looked like monsters.”
- Peggy Boyle Beuchele

"It always seemed to have what I called that familiar ‘seashore’ aroma. A touch of mildew I suppose. I remember the roar of the waves under the floorboards at high tide.”
- Dan Keen

Both Sue Keen and Doris Jackson Lafferty remembered the young handbill distributors who showed up at the theater in the morning, were assigned a route, and returned empty handed for their movie passes.

Avalon Theatre Handbills, Unknown, 1965/1971, From the collection of: The Avalon History Center
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Handbills for weekly showings at the Avalon Theatre.

End of an Era

The last first run movie to be screened was “The Pride and the Passion”, playing for two days in September, 1957. The last day of the season sold 63 matinee tickets and 265 evening tickets, totaling $205.05.

Theatre Engagement Invoice, United Artists Corporation, 1957-09-21, From the collection of: The Avalon History Center
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A 1957 invoice from the United Artists Corporation for theater screenings of "Pride and Passion."

The movie theater, like the pier itself, was a magical place in its heyday. But times were changing - the same movies were screened year after year, and ticket sales declined.

The charm of hearing the waves under your feet, smelling the popcorn from Charlie’s wafting through the doors, hearing shrieks of laughter from Marian’s Pokerino, or the dancing from the Marine Ballroom upstairs was no longer enough.

Avalon Pier (1935) by UnknownThe Avalon History Center

All that made the theater so special couldn’t combat the crumbling infrastructure of the building. Ongoing renovation costs could no longer be supported.

Avalon Theatre Pre-Demolition (1979-07-23) by Avalon Police DepartmentThe Avalon History Center

After the 9 pm screening of “Hooper,” starring Burt Reynolds, the doors closed forever on September 9, 1978.

Repair estimates were sought the following year, but renovation costs ran upwards of $80,000. So, a painful decision was made. In early 1980, the entire Avalon Pier building was demolished.

Avalon Pier Demolition, Unknown, 1980, From the collection of: The Avalon History Center
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Theatre Seat Armrests, Unknown, 1970/1978, From the collection of: The Avalon History Center
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The demolition of the Avalon Pier in 1980 (left); wood armrests from the theatre (center); the new building on the boardwalk (right).

Today, a new structure stands in its place on the boardwalk with shops, food, and amusements, but the memories and recorded history of Avalon's beloved movie theater remain.

Avalon Pier Model, Unknown, 2004, From the collection of: The Avalon History Center
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A model of the Avalon Pier.

The Avalon History Center

Want to see more? Visit the Avalon History Center to explore our full exhibits in person!  

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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