The Windsor Theatre, which stood on Main Street (at the corner of Erwin Place), is another of
West Orange, New Jersey's many lost buildings. It is prominently featured in John Dandola's
newest 1940's mystery novel, Dead During Intermission.


After forty years of searching for a photograph of the theatre, none could be found so on the book's front cover is an artist's imagining of how the Windsor Theatre would have appeared during its heyday in the 1940's. It was recreated using vintage photos of similar theatres as reference and interviews with local patrons from that era.

"The result is fairly accurate from what I recall of the building in its last throes," says Dandola. "Basic architectural designs for small town movie houses were limited so the Windsor would have looked like hundreds if not thousands of others with a tweak or custom alteration in style here and there. It was not too garish and comfortably small boasting 950 seats. To be honest, I really don't think it held that many seats especially since it had no balcony. We used to go there for Saturday matinees when I was in grammar school."

In trying to imagine local movie houses, it has to be realized that individual architects were not called in to work from scratch as they would have been for the grandiose movie palaces in major cities. The building of local movie theatres was on a similar basis as the building of family homes where you will find similar, mirror image, or exact duplicates of the same styles and floor plans within a neighborhood. The interiors of such movie theatres would be subtly elegant with a decorative ceiling in the center of which was usually not a chandelier but an ornate lighting fixture. Niches were often positioned along the side walls but heavy draperies were the most common wall decor as was the case in the Windsor. Such draperies also served as sound-proofing from outside traffic and the rumblings and bells of the trolleys which ran along West Orange's Main Street.

"Is the cover illustration a tad idealized? Probably," Dandola states. "We chose to give the best rendition of what was possible and affordable to achieve at the time. This is the general shape and appearance of the building. Whether it was less spruced up in reality is of little consequence. Think of it as doing a portrait of George Washington. Do you really want to add his small pox scars?"

The Windsor Theatre had originally opened in 1927 as the Llewellyn Theatre. By the mid-1930's, it had been renamed the Edison Theatre. Its "Edison" name was very short-lived due to objections by the Thomas Edison family (the inventor's laboratory and factory were catty-corner across the street). It changed its name and management to the Windsor in the late 1930's possibly deriving that name from the recently abdicated King Edward VIII who became the Duke of Windsor in 1937.

As the Windsor, it was one of the six area movie theatres used for the May 16, 1940 World Premiere of M.G.M.'s Edison, the Man starring Spencer Tracy. Tracy, himself, attended the premiere events as detailed in Dandola's mystery novel, Dead at the Box Office. Although Tracy toured all six theatres during that evening, all of the photos were taken at the Hollywood Theatre in East Orange due to its name on the marquee, its fashionable locale, and its close proximity to the Hotel Suburban where the M.G.M. cast and publicity machine stayed. Even though the Windsor was within sight of the Edison lab and factory, that wasn't used to any photographic advantage.

By the late 1950's, the Windsor had  been  renamed yet again as the Majestic but a seediness began to set in. The marquee was minimalized and the number of entrance doors was reduced. It was mostly open only for Saturday movie matinees until 1962 and possibly into 1963.

For a year or two or three, it tried and failed to be a community theatre presenting plays. By 1965, it was turned into the Admiral Benbow Inn restaurant which featured a sailboat floating in a pool surrounded by dining tables and a sidewalk greeter dressed as a pirate with a real parrot perched on his shoulder. Local criticism was that the food wasn't as good as the atmosphere. Failure again. In 1966 or 1967, it was transformed into the rather shabby-looking Carnaby Street disco. A few too many physical altercations brought that to a close.

Circa 1970, the marquee and the lobby were removed and a coating of stucco (the so-called brand name Garden State Brickface) was given to hide the multitude of sins created by those removals and the ensuing alterations. The interior was also gutted to transform the building into a warehouse, which it functioned as for longer than it had been a theatre. Now it's been renovated into a gymnasium for the West Orange Community House which has always stood next door.

A second lost West Orange building figuring prominently in the plot is the old hat factory which stood near the corner of Main Street and Mount Pleasant Avenue. When the hat company folded, the building was made over into offices and workspaces for other industries. Dandola had relatives who worked there and having been in the building during his youth, he was able to create the drab interior rather accurately for this novel.

Unbeknownst to Dandola, his childhood was one of exploration since his family worked in various venues around town and he often went off visiting them. None of that seemed important until so many of those buildings were torn down leaving him with a wealth of memories about how they once were even though no photographs seem to exist.

 
 
Both the image & text are Copyright 2023 by John Dandola, Ltd. All rights reserved.
A Lost Movie Theatre Recreated for the Cover
of a Mystery Novel Set in the 1940's
The Windsor Theatre as it would have most probably appeared in 1944.