Every time Denny Mather went to Sun & Surf Cinema in Ocean City, his large diet soda and pretzel nuggets with no dipping sauce (“I’m a very blah guy”) would appear without him uttering a word.
“I walk into the movie theater, and they literally get on the microphone or the headset and call back and say: ‘Denny’s here,’” he said.
For the 72-year-old moviegoer, visiting the Sun & Surf is something of a ritual, as common as a trip to the grocery store. In the kind of place where most of the customers come and go with the season, the employees made an effort to remember him — and his pretzels.
But on Labor Day, the sun will set on the Sun & Surf, which opened in 1972 with just two screens, aptly named “Sun” and “Surf.” One of two movie theaters in the 9-mile resort town — which sees its population boom from thousands to millions during the summer — the Sun & Surf became a rainy-day favorite for Ocean City’s summer crowd, alongside indoor mini golf and arcades.
Earlier this year, owner STORE Capital sold the eight-screen cinema for redevelopment, garnering more than $7 million.
“The local real estate market changed over the years and the highest and best use of the land was no longer a free-standing movie theater,” read a statement from Donald Fox, president and CEO of Fox Theatres, the building’s tenant.
It’s likely to be demolished to make way for town houses, the buyers say. Down will come the bold red-and-blue facade just a couple of blocks from the border with Delaware. The marquee along Coastal Highway had already disappeared, a victim of 2020′s Tropical Storm Isaias.
Nick Tekmen, owner of Ocean City’s Gateway Hotel & Suites and Rehoboth Beach’s Quality Inn, purchased the 2-acre lot in July with two partners and the intent to build a hotel there. But they worried the hotel market was saturated, and decided to pivot to houses. The plan is to develop more than 50 “upscale” units, complete with a community swimming pool, he said.
”Behind the lot is residential housing anyways, so it kind of fits in into the neighborhood,” said Tekmen, who is also a board member of Ocean City Development Corp., a nonprofit focused on revitalizing the town’s historic downtown.
The loss of the Sun & Surf leaves Ocean City with just one movie house, the Fox Gold Coast, in the back of the mall a couple of miles to the south. There is a theater in West Ocean City, Flagship Premium Cinemas, just across the southernmost bridge from the barrier island that is Ocean City proper.
Lachelle Scarlato, executive director of the Ocean City Chamber of Commerce, said it’s a difficult juggling act for the beach town: providing enough entertainment and lodging for summer visitors, while creating an attractive place to live year-round.
“Things will ebb and flow and come and go, and we certainly value their contribution for many, many years here in Ocean City,” she said of the Sun & Surf.
Sun & Surf manager Andrew Seyler said some customers have learned the news of the closing from signs — displayed alongside movie posters — aglow in the lobby. He’s heard them say: “What?” as they walk inside.
“50 years of movie memories end in the summer of ‘22,” reads one sign, mounted beside a poster advertising a new 3D version of that summertime beach favorite, Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws.”
Yes, the classics came back this summer to Sun & Surf, including 1981′s “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” It was a deliberate effort, Seyler said, to evoke 50 years of memories from the bayside theater.
“It was my plan to bring back some of these old movies if we could,” he said, “because when people come in and find out, they’re like: ‘Oh, I saw this movie here when I was a kid.’”
Among the theater’s most memorable moments was hosting the 1986 premiere for “Violets are Blue,” a film starring Sissy Spacek that was shot in Ocean City.
And at the close of another summer season, the theater’s departure is a reminder that even in Ocean City, where age-old businesses loom large, all are impermanent — vulnerable to the whims of a real estate market that saw prices soar in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. In 2021, for instance, it was Ocean City’s iconic Phillips Crab House. New owners have given the seafood house a fresh look and a different name this season.
The loss of the Sun & Surf is also a reminder that the echoes of the pandemic are still playing out in the resort, though town officials tout continued strong tourism, hopefully into the fall, with the Oceans Calling music festival poised to draw crowds in late September.
The coronavirus dealt a harsh blow to the movie theater industry everywhere, closing cinemas for months in 2020 and slowing the flow of blockbusters from Hollywood. At the Sun & Surf, a brick wall was painted bright white and the parking lot briefly became a drive-in before masked moviegoers were allowed back inside, Seyler said.
The pandemic also opened the floodgates for streaming services to offer box office hits to viewers on their living room couches. Attracting people back to the plush recliners and big screens has been nothing short of a “war,” Seyler said.
“This whole summer that we’ve been almost back to normal was all about getting people back to the theater,” Seyler said. “And, thankfully, some of the big movies — like ‘Top Gun’ — [were] a huge hit for us.”
After the lights in the lobby flick off for the final time Monday, out will go the red leather recliners, purchased as part of a 2015 renovation. The seats, many of them now scuffed and torn, were offered to local nonprofits. Fire stations, youth groups and mental health organizations all laid claim, eager for comfortable furniture — and pieces of Ocean City history.
Had the recliners been put up for auction, theatergoer Vicki Parrott joked that she might have purchased one.
The 53-year-old remembers her first movie at the Sun & Surf. Badly sunburned after falling asleep on the beach during senior week in 1987, she stopped in to see “Predator.” The Arnold Schwarzenegger flick was enjoyable, though the hard auditorium seats of that era were not.
“I just remember thinking, ‘Oh, God. When I stand up, this is going to rip the blisters off my sunburn,’” she said.
When Parrott started bringing her children to the theater, the seating — beloved, but admittedly rickety — was the butt of the joke. When they were young, her children had difficulty keeping the seats open. They’d sit, folded like tacos, before the big screen.
After the seats were replaced by heated recliners, the family started going to the theater more, she said, often walking from their nearby home in Fenwick Island, Delaware, to play mini golf and eat ice cream before seeing a movie.
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“It’s just the tradition of making it an event,” she said. That will be lost without the Sun & Surf.
Mather, who also lives in Fenwick just a few blocks from the theater, said his love of the theater began after he moved to the beach from Baltimore in 2007 to pursue a real estate gig. He paid for an advertisement on the Sun & Surf screens. After his face lit up the theaters, employees started to recognize him and remember his favorite snacks.
“It would be an overstatement to say it’s like a home away from home. But still, it has been a very, very comfortable place for me to go,” he said. “Because it’s the exception that they have somebody who doesn’t know who I am.”
Some days, Mather would have a theater to himself, like during the offseason or on sunny summer days when much of Ocean City takes to the beach. But on rainy days, or when big movies came to the theater, Mather wasn’t alone. He’d taken to purchasing tickets online so he could be sure to nab his favorite seats.
For regulars like Mather, the Gold Coast theater will be a reasonable alternative, though it offers a change of scenery and fewer screens than Sun & Surf.
“It’s gonna be a big change,” Mather said. “Since we’ve been here, it has always been there. Not in the same format, you know, with the nice chairs and all that stuff, but nevertheless, it’s been a fixture. So it’s a shame to see it go.”
Baltimore Sun librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.
This article has been updated to correct who sold the cinema. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.