Shore Musings: Movie Theaters Are Finally Back in Cape May County

By Collin Hall

With the opening of the County Commons theater in Rio Grande in June, the revitalization of the old Moorlyn Theater in Ocean City, and the recent restoration of the Sea Theater in Wildwood – now “Old Movies by the Sea” – Cape May County’s movie theater drought is finally over.  

Wildwood Crest used to be home to a theater right on the water, where the Crest Fishing Pier is now.

I hope that these theaters find success. It was exhausting to find parking at the county’s only theater in Stone Harbor on a busy summer day. That theater is beautiful; its exterior marquee and sloped, carpeted walk-up to the box office makes movies feel like an event. Frank’s Theater in Rio Grande felt a bit slouched and unloved in the final years of its life. It certainly didn’t make a good case for movie-going to those who might be inclined to stay home. 

There’s something special about seeing a new movie in theaters, surrounded by the warm bodies of people who all showed up at the same place at the same time to do the same thing as you. It’s important to experience visceral art and storytelling, even better when that happens in the presence of others.  

But even as new theaters open in Ocean City, Wildwood, and Rio Grande, the bones of old movie theaters are still littered across the peninsula. There was the old Bayshore 8 Theater in North Cape May, now a Dollar Tree. The old Beach Theater in Cape May is still partially vacant. There was once a “Crest Theater” in Wildwood Crest where the Crest Pier is now. Movie theaters were commonplace on the Wildwood boardwalk in the mid-20th century.  

Frank Theaters was one of the only movie theaters in the county for many years. Though it was a bit run down, and its atmosphere rather dire, I’m glad it was here.

These were places of gathering. If you wanted to experience art, you probably had to leave your house. I moved back here – my home county, where much of my family is from – for a job at the paper a year and a half ago. As someone looking to re-connect to this community, it has been hard to find those central gathering points, where people come together for a shared social activity.  

My grandparents, who have lived here since the late 1960s, tell me that there were once lots of excuses to meet other people in public. Religious attendance was a given for most, community centers were always bustling, social clubs were a dime a dozen, and small mom-and-pop stores stocked useful items for year-rounders. The prevalence of those social places feels like a myth to me, like hearing about a unicorn that once lived at the Cape May County Zoo.  

I’m thankful that the Cape Commons in Rio Grande is branding itself as a year-round “entertainment complex.” It’s open concept, with bars and bowling lanes and arcade machines and all the right ingredients for social interaction. More of that, please! More movie theaters, more places where people gather to bump into strangers outside of bars.

The old Beach Theater in Cape May still sits partially vacant.  

Outside of the sheer adrenaline rush I get from a movie theater, it’s just a nice excuse to get out of the house. People my age – we’re typically referred to as Gen Z – report the highest rates of loneliness out of any generation in American history. People my age are incredibly likely to report that they don’t have meaningful friendships. And yeah, that feels about right to me.   

I didn’t know most of my neighbors growing up. I never had anywhere to walk to in my isolated suburban neighborhood, and most days in high school, I didn’t feel like I had anywhere to go besides my gaming PC. 

Even if the change is symbolic – movies are making as much money as ever despite fewer theaters – the shrinking theater industry feels like a symptom of a wider problem: Americans are too isolated from one another.  

I love going into a theater and chatting with people about the flick we’re about to see. I love smiling at the clerk who asks me what size popcorn I want. Those flickers of social interaction are meaningful, and occasionally escalate into friendship. We can’t let them die out.