The Garden Theatre opened its doors on September 20, 1920, with a showing of Civilian Clothes, starring Thomas Meighan. The event also featured a live orchestra with palms and ferns arranged on the stage. The Garden’s name comes from the location, where a rose garden once bloomed next to the Bainbridge house; built in 1766, the house is now home to the Princeton Historical Society.
Built originally to accommodate Princeton University’s Triangle Club, The Garden took on a new life as a movie theater when Triangle moved to McCarter Theatre in the late ‘20s. The Garden changed hands several times in the next few decades.
In 1937 the Garden theatre had its first movie theater competition of the Princeton Playhouse, with a seating capacity of 1,200 (double the Garden's). The Princeton Playhouse was located only a few blocks away on Palmer Square. Unlike the Playhouse, the Garden specialized in showing foreign films.
Sameric Corporation ran the theatre from 1975 through 1988, turning the facility into a twin theatre in 1981 known as the Eric Garden Theatre. The theater had been dark since October 1992 when United Artists, which had been running the theater since 1988, decided it was no longer financially viable. The Theater Management Corporation, which operates neighborhood theatres throughout the northeast, began leasing and managing it in 1993, after it was quietly purchased by Princeton University.
The Garden Theatre opening of "Jaws" in 1975. Photo by Michael Cushman
The University and Theater Management spent nearly $200,000 on the building over seven years. The theatre closed temporarily in August 2000 and reopened in June 2001 after a $1 million renovation. After the renovations, the Garden Theatre featured new seats, bathrooms, and projection and sound equipment. The roof and electrical system were repaired, and some stadium seating was provided.
The renovation was overseen by two architects and one general contractor. Princeton architect George Fett was responsible for the exterior of the building. The interior was designed by New York City architect Robert Strada. General contractor Stephen Ventor, also of New York City, specialized in movie theater construction.
During renovations the balconies were taken out. Despite the beautiful aesthetic, their first use was for segregation (although the theater’s segregation had ended more than 60 years earlier). When the theater reopened, it lost 20 percent of its 600-seat capacity.
In 2014, Renew Theaters took over management of the Princeton Garden Theatre, closing the facility for more than a month for major renovations, including new carpeting and paint, a new HVAC system and popcorn machine and other improvements. The theatre reopened just in time for the Fourth of July, now showing independent, foreign, and classic films for local movie lovers.