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March 08, 2023

Steven Spielberg's passion for film was sparked in historic Westmont Theatre

The director's family lived in Haddon Townhip in the 1950s, a time which is fictionalized in his Oscar-nominated 2022 film 'The Fabelmans'

Celebrities Steven Spielberg
Spielberg westmont theatre Provided Image/Camden County Government

Steven Spielberg was honored by Camden County with a historical placard outside the former Westmont Theatre, which the legendary filmmaker often visited as a child when his family lived in Haddon Township.

UPDATE (3/11/23): Steven Spielberg thanked the Camden County Board of Commissioners for honoring him on Wednesday with the historical marker placed outside the Westmont Theatre, "the place where all my dreams began," the director wrote in a letter to county leaders.

"For a budding storyteller that theater was kind of a place of worship and when my father left RCA in Camden to join GE in Phoenix, Arizona, I sadly knew I'd be leaving the memories of so many great afternoons and weekends at that movie palace behind," Spielberg said.

Read the director's complete letter at the end of this article.

Compared to the dinosaur-laden land of "Jurassic Park" and the faraway planet of "E.T.," Steven Spielberg's latest film hits much closer to home, with an autobiographical tale that shines a light on his formative years spent in South Jersey. 

The Oscar-nominated 2022 film "The Fabelmans" references the legendary filmmakers' frequent childhood visits to his local theater in Haddon Township. On Tuesday, Camden County's leaders honored Spielberg by installing a historical placard outside the building that was once the real-life Westmont Theatre, commemorating its influence on Spielberg.

"It is believed that the theater, located about four blocks from his elementary school, is where (Spielberg's) passion for cinema first began after watching several films in his early years," a post on Camden County's Facebook states. 

Spielberg has had an decades-long career, churning out modern classics like "Jaws," "Jurassic Park," "Indiana Jones," "E.T." and "Lincoln," just some of the movies in a portfolio that has grossed over $10 billion. He has achieved many accolades and nominations, including two Oscars for "Schindler's List" and one for "Saving Private Ryan."

While most people (film buffs or not) can name at least one Spielberg film that they've seen, many fewer know about his ties to South Jersey.

Spielberg was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1946 and lived in Phoenix, Arizona, before his family moved to New Jersey in 1952. His father, Arnold, was an electrical engineer who worked for RCA in Camden. The Spielbergs lived at 267 Crystal Lake Terrace in Haddon Township, a house that had been up for sale as recently as 2014.

The family belonged to the Beth El congregation in Haddon Heights and Spielberg was a Cub Scout while living in South Jersey. The director once said scouting "helped me to develop the self-confidence to break into the movie business as a young man,"

While living in Haddon Township, Spielberg attended Thomas Edison Elementary School, which was referenced by Tom Hanks' character in "Saving Private Ryan." Spielberg's school was a few blocks from the Westmont Theatre, where Spielberg watched "The Greatest Show on Earth" at the age of 5 and was inspired to become a director.

"Spielberg was a Haddon Township resident and as one of the most prolific writers, directors and producers in film. We want to honor his legacy, but also lay claim to his formative years that shaped him into the person he is today," Haddon Township mayor Randall Teague said.

The Spielberg placard is part of Camden County's ongoing project to recognize its historical sites. The county has already installed markers at the Camden home of American poet Walt Whitman and at the Merchantville Country Club in Cherry Hill to honor John McDermott, the first American to win the U.S. Open.

Westmont Theatre, at 49 Haddon Avenue, opened in 1927. It originally showed silent films and hosted weekly performances by a 120-piece orchestra. The building had multiple owners through the years util it was purchased by the township in 2000. 

Today, film lovers who want to check the place that sparked Spielberg's career need to lace up their sneakers: the Westmont Theatre building was converted to a Planet Fitness in 2016, though the outside of the building remains intact. It was added to the New Jersey Registry of Historic Places in 2010 and the building's marquee still displays the word Westmont.

Spielberg's family returned to Arizona in 1957, and he eventually went on to film school in California. Spielberg does not often discuss his time in New Jersey, but he did film multiple movies in the state, and "The Fabelmans" highlights how influential the time period was for the future filmmaker.

"The Fabelmans," which stars Paul Dano and Michelle Williams, is a fictional recounting of Spielberg's childhood, family drama and early interest in film. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the movie was shot entirely in Southern California.

While most of Spielberg's films rely on metaphor to impart a message, like aliens or sharks, this latest film strips down those layers to reveal heartbreaking truths about his "formative years."

"This story was no longer going to be about metaphor," Spielberg said in an interview last year. "It was going to be about lived experiences, and what was difficult was facing the fact that I might really tell the story."

Telling the story seems to have paid off for Spielberg, as "The Fabelmans" won Golden Globes for best motion picture and best director, and has received multiple Academy Award nominations including best picture and best directing.

The film is still showing in theaters and can be rented through Prime, YouTube, Vudu or Apple TV. Fans can find out whether the former South Jersey resident will add to his Oscars tally when the 95th Academy Awards air Sunday, March 12, at 8 p.m. on ABC.

Note: This article was originally published with the incorrect address for Westmont Theatre, but it has been updated with the correct location.

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