Jersey Shore theater that opened 100 years ago roars back to life with restaurant, speakeasy

Business partners Clint Bunting, Brett Denafo and Scot Kauffman stood on the Ventnor Square Theatre stage Thursday night and looked out at the crowd filing into the large room, most everyone carrying a beverage of their choice and a large bag of popcorn.

The smiles on their faces was that of relief and excitement.

“You guys think it was worth the wait?” Denafo would ask the crowd a few minutes later. A huge cheer and applause erupted as a response.

Approximately three years of work came down to this night where friends and family gathered to celebrate and tour the historic theater, which overlooks the center of town, before Saturday’s grand opening. Three summers ago, they purchased the property that sat in disrepair in the small Shore town that is located between Atlantic City and Margate.

Ventnor Square Theatre

Friends and family tour the new Ventnor Square Theatre prior to its grand opening, Thursday, May 20, 2021. Tim Hawk | NJ Advance Media for

“It’s amazing to actually see people sitting in these seats right now. It’s a beautiful sight,” said Kauffman.

The partners from Town Square Entertainment, who also own the Harbor Square Theatre in Stone Harbor and Tilton Square Theatre in Northfield, had to struggle through unforeseen construction difficulties on the nearly century-old building and a pandemic to open the three-screen, early 1900s themed theatre that will offer food, beverages and blockbuster movies.

“It’s really about the community, it’s really the communities, theater,” said Bunting, CEO of the theatre.

The original Ventnor Theatre opened in 1922. The building sat vacant since 2003 before Bunting and company stepped in and purchased the property for $365,000 in August 2018.

Now the building stands out more for its beauty than the once dilapidated structure it was.

Ventnor Square Theatre

The Ventnor Square Theatre during construction, Friday, November 15, 2019. Tim Hawk | NJ Advance Media for

Outside the entrance of the brick theatre a large neon marquee, reminiscent of times past, welcomed the evening’s guests. Most stopped to admire the new look while others snapped a cell phone picture before heading inside.

Once inside, concessions and the bar for Nucky’s Kitchen & Speakeasy split the first floor. A short walk leads to the main theater where the original lights from the 1920s light up the approximately 250-person stadium seating room with a 47-foot wide screen hidden by a gold curtain with the initials VS on it.

Two smaller “boutique theaters” with balcony seating and reclining lower-level seats will provide a more intimate experience.

“The goal is to make it feel like you’re in your own living room but with a better screen and better sound,” Bunting said while describing the two smaller theaters.

Ventnor Square Theatre

Dominic and Jann Mevoli, of Egg Harbor Township, watch a movie in one of the smaller theaters inside the new Ventnor Square Theatre prior to its grand opening, Thursday, May 20, 2021. Tim Hawk | NJ Advance Media for

Two original staircases lead to the second floor which opens to Nucky’s Kitchen and a speakeasy type bar. The bar is just steps away from the balcony section so guests can grab a drink and get back to their seats without losing too much time away from the movie.

The name Nucky’s is a nod to Nucky Johnson, political boss of Atlantic City whose fictionalized character was brought to life in Boardwalk Empire, and keeps with the early 1900s theme, said restaurant partner Patrick Rosenello. This group also owns the Burger Bar in the Stone Harbor Theatre.

The bar on the first floor will highlight whiskey drinks while having limited table seating.

“You just want to get a drink before the movie, this is a great spot to stop,” Rosenello said. The front windows of the bar will open up to Ventnor Avenue where there will be sidewalk seating.

Ventnor Square Theatre

A bartender pours a drink at the first floor bar of Nucky’s Kitchen & Speakeasy at the new Ventnor Square Theatre, Thursday, May 20, 2021. Tim Hawk | NJ Advance Media for

The main dining room and kitchen are located on the second floor. According to partner E.J. Dougherty, the menu will include an elevated sandwich experience to go along with interesting entrees and fun appetizers.

“Lots of stuff that they can carry and go into the theaters,” Dougherty said. Starters include a sausage polenta, crispy brussel sprouts with bacon and sesame-crusted ahi tuna. A few different plays on pasta and chicken and waffles are options for an entree.

More alfresco dining will be offered on the outside balcony which is right off the dining area.

Bunting said that the inclusion of restaurants is what makes their theaters better than most. “We try to give you great food, we try to design beautiful things and keep them as clean as possible.”

Ventnor Square Theatre

A group of people enjoy drinks on the outside balcony of the new Ventnor Square Theatre prior to its grand opening, Thursday, May 20, 2021. Tim Hawk | NJ Advance Media for

Another aspect of the theatre that will put people in the seats is the Dolby Atmos sound system, said theater consultant Ed O’ Brien. The main theater has 58 speakers, 48 of which are surround speakers.

When explaining the system, O’Brien said if something flies past you on the screen “each individual speaker gets the signal in succession so it feels like it’s flying around you.”

During a special demonstration, the guests were wowed as the sounds of nature swirled all around the room and at times shook the floor prompting one excited guest to scream out, “That’s awesome.”

Despite being slowed down by the pandemic Bunting thinks it’s the perfect time to open as more restrictions are being lifted and with summer movies coming out.

Ventnor Square Theatre

People eat inside the main dinning room of Nucky’s Kitchen & Speakeasy at the new Ventnor Square Theatre prior to its grand opening, Thursday, May 20, 2021. Tim Hawk | NJ Advance Media for

For Denafo, the Theatre has a special place in his heart. He grew up in Ventnor and knows the town appreciates the building being saved.

Count Mayor Beth Holtzman as one of those who is excited, expressing that emotion in the dress she wore fitting the motif of the 1920s. She said when she was approached with the idea she was beyond thrilled knowing the theatre will help the city be the best it can be.

“We brought something back to life that some people thought it was done, it was over with,” said Denafo, adding that it has been a very hard project to complete.

Despite the past year when theaters were forced to close and people discovered other alternatives to watch movies, Denafo believes people will come back.

“I think you just need those blockbusters,” he said. “I think that is going to bring people back in again. People are not scared, they’re not anymore, people are ready to come out.”

This week the Marksman, Raya and the Last Dragon, and the classic Dirty Dancing will be playing. The blockbuster next week will be The Quiet Place Part II along with Cruella.

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