Frequently Asked Questions

Friends of the Loew’s has been in the news a lot since the Spring of 2013.  There were, unfortunately, some negative comments by the previous Mayor.  Then there was a great story in the Star-Ledger and on NJ.com about our accomplishments.  And now there’s good news from the new Fulop Administration that it is finding some funding to help us make badly needed additional repairs and improvements to the Loew’s.

With all of this, we’ve been getting questions from people interested in knowing more about the Loew’s, FOL, what problems we face and why we can’t present even more programming.  So we put together the following Q&A that we think gives people a better insight into what we’ve accomplished and, especially now with the good news about more funding, how we will continue to make the Loew’s even better.  So we hope you’ll take a few minutes to read the following.  And afterwards, if you’d like even more information about the Loew’s, don’t hesitate to contact us.

Why don’t you do even more programing at the Loew’s?
Because the Theatre can’t handle it yet, in terms of building codes and theatrical equipment.  It needs more work (though the good news is FOL is doing some of that work right now).  

How can that be?  Wasn’t the Loew’s fully functional when you took it over?
Absolutely not.  When the Loew’s closed in 1986, it was readied for demolition: no water, heat, electricity; the projection booth was gutted, etc.  And during the seven year long fight to save it, the Theatre was essentially abandoned - and decayed accordingly.  Before the City bought the Loew’s in 1993, it had gotten several architectural reports which made it clear that nothing worked in the Theatre.  Those reports estimated that it would take about $5 million just to get the Loew’s minimally operational, and $12 million to make the Theatre fully functional.

 If the Loew’s was in such bad shape, how did you plan to go forward?
Well, Friends of the Loew’s wasn’t in charge of the Theatre then, so we couldn’t plan.  The City had bought the Loew’s, but gave FOL no official role or responsibility.

Then how did the City plan to move forward with the Loew’s?
It really didn’t have a plan.  At first, the City talked about “mothballing” the Loew’s – which likely would have meant that nothing would ever have been done to get it open again.  So FOL helped the Jersey City Economic Development Corporation win a $1 million matching grant from the New Jersey Historic Trust to pay for stabilization work – i.e., repairs needed to stop further decay.  The City matched this grant, and leased the Theatre to JCEDC to undertake the work.  But there was NO MONEY for any of the work needed to get the auditorium open for shows again.

In the lease to JCEDC, the City talked about blue ribbon committees to look for more money and make plans to open and operate the Loew’s again, but the City never provided support for any of this.  And making matters worse, it soon became clear that the grant money wasn’t really going to be enough even to just stabilize the Theatre.  So effectively, the Loew’s project was dead in the water before it started.

So how is it that the Loew’s is open now?
At the risk of sounding immodest, it’s because Friends of the Loew’s stepped into the breach. 

But I thought you said you had no authority or responsibility?
We didn’t.  And I guess we could have shrugged and said “not our problem.”  But that’s not what we were about.  There’s a tradition in Jersey City of people taking up the slack for government, and  we realized we had to step up if there was going to be any hope of reopening the Loew’s.  We’d built up a large following during the fight to save the Theatre, so we decided to try to use that pool of people to do whatever we could on a volunteer basis to not only stabilize the Theatre but also get it minimally operational again. 

Use volunteers to do all that work?  Didn’t that seem impossible?
We certainly knew it was an unconventional approach, to say the least.  But it was the only card there was to play – the City had made it clear it couldn’t or wouldn’t do anything else.  And, against the odds, it worked.  We even raised our own money for supplies.  In that way, the $2 million from the grant and match was saved for the work that absolutely had to be done by contractors – new boilers, exterior wall repair, etc.  Everything else that was needed to get the Loew’s open again was done by FOL volunteers:  from rebuilding the projection booth, to fixing burst pipes, overhauling  the marquee, getting the original stage lighting to work again, renovating dressing rooms, and a lot more.  While UEZ money paid to reupholster seats, our volunteers provided the labor to take the upholstered backs and bottoms out and reinstall them after they we redone, and we refinished all of the metal and wood seat parts ourselves – again, all to save money. 

What was the value of all that volunteer work?
If you added up all that it would have cost to use conventional contractors to do what we did, FOL’s volunteers performed at least the equivalent of a couple million dollars’ worth of repairs and improvements needed to get the Loew’s open.

When did the Loew’s open again?
We made the Theatre a collection spot for emergency supplies right after 9/11 (2001), and by the end of that year our volunteer work had made it possible to use the Theatre for film screenings again.  So we thought it appropriate – and important -- to present a film series in tribute to the Pearl Harbor Anniversary and the recent attacks.  After those screenings, the City pressed us to keep using the Theater for events. We tried to explain that more work needed to be done, but the City really didn’t want to hear it.  So, for better or worse, we had to figure out how to keep the Theatre operating.

Why did you start with film?  Some people say all you ever wanted to do was show old movies.  Is that true?
No, not at all.  But film had a few immediate advantages:  We had the volunteer expertise to rebuild the Loew’s projection booth, and we were able to get donations of all the equipment needed (worth over $100,000 at the time).  And showing movies is relatively cheap, compared to live shows.  So it made sense to start with film.

What makes doing live shows so much harder?
For one thing, the Theatre’s stage lighting hadn’t been upgraded since the place was built.  But there has been a tremendous change in theatrical lighting in the decades since the Loew’s opened, so most shows simply can’t be put on using only the old lighting in the Theatre.  Secondly, the Loews had no functioning sound system for live shows.  And there was a laundry list of other things necessary for live shows that the Theatre lacked – from spotlights to stage curtains to two-way communications.  So most shows – everything from community theatre to major pop acts – would need to bring EVERYTHING in to the Loew’s. And that was expensive; not just the cost of renting equipment, but also of carrying it in, setting it up before the show, and taking it down and carrying it out afterwards.  Making matters worse, the Theatre’s stage load-in doors had been sealed years before, and couldn’t be opened.  This meant all the equipment that had to be brought in for shows had to be carried all the way from the Boulevard.  More time, more hands, more cost. 

Then there’s the problem that the Theatre doesn’t meet modern building codes.  The most important of these relate to fire detection and suppression.  In theory, the Theatre could be forced to close because of this.  Fortunately, FOL has developed a management plan with the Fire Prevention Bureau that minimizes risk and allows us to operate on a limited basis.  But one part of this plan requires us to hire at least one Fire Marshal whenever the Loew’s is open – and that adds to the cost of putting on shows here.  Last year alone, FOL paid Jersey City $15,000 for Fire Marshals.

And because of the fire code issues, we can’t use the Theatre’s balcony.  That means over 1,100 seats can’t be sold.  For some larger shows, that’s another financial roadblock.  There’s even a question about how many shows the Fire Department can allow without some code upgrades.

Because of all of this, it’s not yet been possible to work with producers and promoters to bring a regular schedule of major shows into the Loew’s.  And without that steady business, it’s not possible to support the kind of paid staff and services the Theatre should have to operate on a regular basis.  That’s a catch-22.

But some things do happen at the Loew’s – don’t they? 
You bet.  In fact, we do more and more each year.  We work with a few promoters who’ve been able to put together some larger scale concerts that can succeed here despite the problems. (But the concert business has had its own problems over the last year or two, thanks to the bad economy, and that’s cut even more into the number of concerts here). 

But aside from concerts, we produce or co-present a range of programming, including community service events, a three day festival of plays and other live performances, an independent film festival, student programs, and more.

And of course there’s our monthly classic film series, which prompted the Village Voice to call the Loew’s the “Best Movie Theatre in New York”.

In 2012 alone, we hosted 77 events.

Are you getting a lot of money from the City to do all this?
The City directly pays the Theatre’s utility bill to PSE&G, and that’s a help.   But FOL gets no direct subsidy from the City.  We pay our own way.

Then how do you do all this despite the problems you described?
We’ve been able to bolster revenue from our film shows, rentals and donations by creating a niche business in hosting weddings at the Loew’s. (This also brings people from far and wide into Journal Square). This added income has been especially important in recent years, because to meet the demands of doing more – despite the limitations – it was necessary to create two full time paid positions and to use per diem help for some shows. 

But our volunteer program remains critical to allowing us to operate the Loew’s despite the limitations that otherwise would make those operations economically infeasible. 

Isn’t Friends of the Loew’s kind of small to be running such a big theatre?
FOL’s annual operations and budget reflect the Theatre’s current ability to operate.   When we increase that operational capacity, we’ll have the need and means to grow. 

So how can the Loew’s move forward? 
We thought we had that answer ten years ago. 

In 2004, Jersey City seemed to finally recognize the asset it had in Friends of the Loew’s and wanted to help us move ahead more quickly.  As a result, the City finally gave us a lease on the Loew’s and also agreed to use sales tax-based UEZ funds to pay for the most critical fire code and other building repairs.  That seemed fair since the City would simply be bringing its own building into line with its own codes.  And the City also agreed to help FOL deal with problems that are familiar to growing enterprises:  hiring necessary staff and planning for increased operations.  Altogether, it was a workable plan for moving the Loew’s forward. 

So what happened?
An only-in-Jersey City turn of events:  Just a year after agreeing to the Lease, the then-City Administration tried to repudiate it -- by saying it had “lost” the official copy.  FOL was told to get out.  It was an inexplicable reversal that destroyed all hope of significant progress, undercut our ability to raise other funding and ultimately caused us to waste four years of time and a lot of money in legal wrangling.  And all during that time, the City refused to provide the funding it had promised.

When the City finally admitted we really had a lease, it again pledged to provide moneys for the code repairs and to help FOL plan and grow.  But the City never applied for those UEZ funds, even thought it had more than $12 million available.  And in the end, the City lost all that money because the State essentially confiscated all unused UEZ moneys.  And  even after formally acknowledging the lease and pledging to work with us, some City official still questioned it and spoke of trying to get rid of FOL.

Couldn’t you fundraise?
We do get donations.  But fundraising professionals will all tell you that major funders and foundations expect to see support from your local government and a plan for moving forward.  Obviously, we’ve been hobbled in both of these respects by the City’s previous lack of support.

Why was the City hostile to FOL?
Frankly, that puzzles us.  If you look at the most successful of the big old theatres like the Loew’s that have been saved and reopened around the county, the one thing they have in common is a dedicated, home-grown organization leading them, protecting them, and pushing for them to best serve their communities – which is what FOL does.   But over the years, some City officials have complained that we haven’t done enough  –  forgetting that it’s been the City that hasn’t been able to do most of what it was supposed to do, and that what we’ve  accomplished has been done in spite of that.  And previous Administrations seemed to think we were just “do-gooders” or “amateurs” who liked to sweep the Theatre.  They talked about wanting “outsider professionals” to step in and run the Loew’s.  Those Administrations just couldn’t believe that a local, grass roots organization could boot-strap its way through serious problems and grow from advocacy into professional operation to become a major , positive force in our City – which is exactly what we’ve done. 

But you do use volunteers so much; doesn’t that mean your operation is amateurish?
Absolutely not.  For one thing, the key people here have experience in stage operations, lighting, sound, projection, ushering, accounting, personnel, building maintenance, marketing and management.  That they choose to donate their services out of dedication doesn’t diminish their professional skills. 

But the most obvious way to answer the suggestion that FOL is somehow not professional – i.e.,  capable – in what we do is our record.  FOL defined and carried out a plan to get the Loew’s open again when the City was not able to do so.  And we’ve since been operating the Theatre for a wide and growing variety of functions – working successfully with major promoters, smaller producers and local organizations.  And we’ve done this despite major problems and the inability of the City to fulfill pledges to help -- conditions that would have prevented anyone else succeeding.   

So how do you grow and continue to improve the Loew’s?
Most immediately, FOL is using its own money and labor to undertake some of the critical stage upgrades that are necessary to increasing programming.  This equals hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of improvements according to the most recent architectural planning for the Loew’s.  And it will make it far easier to present big and small shows at the Loew’s.

Secondly, FOL won some $700,000 in grants from the Hudson County Open Space Trust Fund that is being used to deal with some of the building code issues that limit operation.

But cooperation from the City remains key.  And now we have every reason to hope that will happen.

For one thing, Mayor Fulop’s record of working with community-based groups and citizens working to make the City better means we think he understands and values FOL. 

And just as importantly, the announcement that we will be getting $2.5 in funding for further renovations from redevelopment projects in Journal Square shows that the City under Mayor Fulop is finally finding ways to help FOL and the Loew’s. 

Will the money the City just announced is going to the Loew’s be enough to do everything needed to make the Theatre fully functional?
No.  More will be needed.  But the really good news is that the new show of confidence by the City in FOL together with the real commitment of some funding will make it easier for FOL and the City to actively seek additional funding.

So what are the immediate next steps?
Continue with our stage and other technical upgrades, spend the County money, and work with our architect and the City to figure out how best to use the funding Mayor Fulop just announced.

And now that accelerated progress seems likely thanks to the new cooperation from the City, FOL will start the work of planning for expanded operations – everything from mapping out increased staffing needs, to developing bigger budgets, to talking with promoters about increased bookings.  To augment our own experience, we’ll use our contacts in other historic theatres and arts management to bring in experts who can consult on the latest trends and economic issues in large theatre management. 

As you get bigger, will you still work with volunteers and local organizations?
Absolutely, Volunteer power has proved to be more than an economic necessity for the Loew’s.  It’s been an absolute good because it provides a way for people to get involved in and give back to their community.  We won’t give that up. 

And from the beginning, we’ve said that the goal for the Loew’s is to be more than “just” a venue for major concerts.  It’s our arts center –  a stage for a great variety of events, from national acts to local programs.  That’s what we do now, to the extent the Theatre’s condition allows.  And that’s what we’ll do even more of as we continue to improve the Theatre.  It’s how the Loew’s can best serve our community, and it’s the way to ensure that the community remains supportive.