The early '90s was a wonderful time to be a child. A pre-teen boy could explore the neighborhood in pair of multi-colored Skidz pants with six or so snap bracelets adorning his wrists without so much as eliciting a second look.
Saturday morning television programming was still kid-centric, providing us with hours of entertainment featuring mutant cartoon amphibians, oiled-up pseudo-gladiators, and hokey professional wrestlers.
And, in Toms River, we were getting a new mall.
Of course, the Seacourt Pavilion wouldn’t be a true mall, but instead a marketplace akin to Boston’s Quincy Market or Faneuil Hall, sort of an old world farmer’s market but with retail stores. As contractors erected the coral and sea foam goliath across from what was at the time the old, dingy Ocean County Mall, hopes were high that this new shopping center was going to bring our town “into the 90s,” as the saying went.
What, you may ask, about the Seacourt Pavilion was so attractive to a young boy? Well, for years the children of Toms River had two choices in toys stores: the Hooper Avenue Toys R Us and the less-fashionable, now-defunct K.B. Toys in the Ocean County Mall.
The opening of the Seacourt Pavilion meant the arrival of a viable third option: Lionel Kiddie City (located in the unit currently home to Toms River Music and Home Goods).
For weeks the “coming soon” signs around the pavilion and poorly-made local television spots boasted a special grand opening pizza party with none other than the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Leading up to the event, my prepubescent mind ran wild as I imagined what this “party” would be like.
I was too old to think that the Ninja Turtle were real but not so old that I couldn’t envision playing with nun chucks, breaking boards with my head, and crushing copious amounts of pizza and soda with real martial arts experts in rubber turtle suits not unlike those worn in the 1990 Ninja Turtles movie.
When the day came and I finally dragged my parents to the Seacourt Pavilion for the party, I was appalled at the sight before me. There were no incredible martial arts demonstrations, no kids breaking boards or fighting with katana swords. Instead, a kid in a furry, Disney theme park-esque Ninja Turtles costume was waiving to children from behind a card table as a legion of teenage Kiddie City employees handed patrons a slice of Pizza Hut pizza on a napkin as they exited the store.
As a result, droves of disenchanted children and annoyed parents sat along the curb outside the store, forced to wash down their bitterness with cold pizza. I, on the other hand, abstained out of principle. The guy was in a Donatello suit. They didn’t even use a good Ninja Turtle. I may have been eight, but I still had standards.
Although I’m sure it isn’t the case, I’d still like to think Lionel Kiddie City was unable to recover from the black eye surrounding this grand opening and that it directly led to the entire company’s downfall. Either way the store was soon gone.
“Gone” seemed to be the norm for the Seacourt Pavilion in those early years. For a while it always seemed as if the shopping center was half empty, with tenants coming and going all the time. While Marshall’s has been there forever, other anchor stores haven’t been so lucky. Nobody Beats the Wiz, despite its terrible company name, had a decent run as the west side anchor where L.A. Fitness now sits. But after its departure, the spot sat empty for the better part of a decade.
For a while, residents wondered if the Seacourt Pavilion would ever live up to its expectations as the mall of the '90s. But maybe it was residents and businesses that just weren’t ready for Seacourt’s new marketplace-style format.
Today, the Seacourt Pavilion is prosperous. New anchors like L.A. Fitness and longtime tenants like Tiger Schulman’s and Cool Beans have helped improve the Seacourt Pavilion’s reputation. However, none of it would have been possible without the firepower of the pavilion’s first crown jewel: the Seacourt Loews movie theater.
The Seacourt Loews was Toms River’s first megaplex theater. Prior to its opening, residents of that time period had only a few choices: the previously lionized Dover Lowes, the small theater in the Ocean County Mall, and the back alley movies behind the Rag Shop on Route 37, all of which are now gone. That alley theater was another one of the local oddities Toms River was teeming with years ago.
Imagine sending your kids to see Ghostbusters 2 at a theater whose entrance is located down a long, narrow, and dimly-lit alley in our Post 9-11/Amber Alert/Megan’s Law society. Apparently our baby boomer parents weren’t too concerned with our well-being. Ironically, the spot where that theater once sat is now a Retro Fitness cardio theater, playing movies daily.
The more ambitious moviegoers could venture into Brick which also had three primary movie theaters at the time. One theater was nestled in a strip mall on the corner of Routes 70 and 88. Since folding it has been refashioned into an IHOP.
Another location, currently home to Freight Harbor Tools on Brick Blvd., was once a multi-screened movie house. And, directly across the highway where The Sports Authority now lives was a small, two screen theater. Of all the Brick theaters, I remember this one the clearest, having bumped along its unpaved parking lot in my dad’s truck many times to watch classics from the Indiana Jones and Back to the Future series’.
The Seacourt Lowes, however, changed everything. Housing 10 theaters, two of which were double-aisle behemoths, the Seacourt Loews was the destination for Toms River’s families, couples, and teens throughout the 1990s. Summer blockbusters would mean lines down the entry ramps and sometimes nearly around the whole complex.
What kid of that era doesn’t remember parking in the Pier One parking lot on a Friday night and sprinting 300 yards just to catch the coming attractions?
During the twilight of my childhood, just before I reached that age where a kid would rather be disemboweled than seen with his family in public, my father and I must have seen a hundred movies there, returning every weekend to see a film – sometimes a classic; sometimes a stinker.
Once again, however, the Seacourt Pavilion found itself perhaps too far ahead of its time. The Seacourt Loews was built just before the movie theater industry transitioned into things like stadium seating and digital surround sound. So, although updates have been made to the facility, the Seacourt Loews has seen more and more patrons heading to Brick or Eatontown’s newer megaplexes, and more recently, Route 37’s Marquee Cinemas.
In a way, the migration of customers away from the Seacourt Loews mirrors my own movement away from those Friday night movies with my dad as I began to spend more time with friends, and eventually, girls.
If you want to get really philosophical about it, the evolution of the Seacourt Pavilion is sort of a metaphor for life. It began with grand intentions and high expectations; stumbled through its awkward adolescence, struggling to find acceptance; and finally settled into a moderate level of success, neither disappointed nor completely satisfied.
And now as I close this column a bit more depressed that my life can be summed up by the ebb and flow of a shopping mall, I think I’ll call my dad and ask if he wants to go catch a movie at the Seacourt Loews … as long as it doesn’t have turtles in it.