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Part 1

Facade of the Loew's Jersey (1932) Photo of The Loew's Jersey circa 1932

The Story of The Loew's Jersey Theatre

Part 1: Once Upon A Time...

Once upon a time, the great film studios of old Hollywood built theatres the like of which no one had ever seen before. They had marble columns that soared to ceilings covered in gold leaf, bronze railings, rich red tapestries and plush carpets. And they were huge, with thousands of seats.

These buildings seemed more like palaces than theatres. Not surprisingly, they came to be called Movie Palaces.

In spite of their name, Movie Palaces were as much legitimate theatres as cinemas. They were equipped with full stages, orchestra pits and dressing rooms, as well as projectors. Because in that long ago time the still-new movies were presented as part of a double bill with live stage shows of elaborately choreographed dance revues or a mix of song, dance and comedy acts -- variety shows once known as Vaudeville.

Most Movie Palaces were also fitted with massive pipe organs. Originally intended to add sound to silent films, these instruments became stars in themselves as organ concerts, as well as audience sing-alongs, became popular parts of the regular programming in many Movie Palaces.

The reason the Hollywood studios built the Movie Palaces was an insight as bold as it was simple: that the theatre building itself should be so spectacular as to become essentially the opening act for the show on the stage or screen, and that together Movie Palace and show would make an uplifting and unforgettable experience.

This insight, in turn, was itself the product of something that can be called "the art of American entertainment" -- a combination of artistry and showmanship that melded the performing arts traditions of the diverse peoples who had come to this country into a new democratic idiom that not only entertained us, but expressed our collective hopes and fears and dreams so dynamically that the entertainment arts became the single greatest instrument in enabling Americans to come together, imagine and re-imagine ourselves, and define our American Experience to the world.

So it was that spectacular Movie Palaces were built across the country in the 1920s. And the public flocked to them.

The elaborate designs of the Movie Palaces were often based on the grand opera houses and palaces of Europe. But the Movie Palaces were unabashedly American in spirit, and unlike their Old World antecedents, were not built for a privileged elite, but for everyone. The banker and the shop girl sat side by side in the Palaces and were equally entertained.

The Loew’s Jersey opened its polished brass doors on September 28, 1929. Journal Square, Jersey City was a regional crossroads with a stop on the “Tubes” subway line that ran between New York and Newark; scores of regional bus and trolley lines also converged there. Two other theatres were already doing business in Journal Square, along with some of the area’s finest shops and restaurants.

Built at what was then the impressive sum of $2 million dollars, the Loew’s was accurately called as “the most lavish temple of entertainment in New Jersey”. It was also one of the state’s biggest theatres, with just under 3,100 seats. And the Loew’s was also one of the best equipped theatres of its day. It was fitted with an arbor and metal cable counter-weight rigging system in its 80 foot high rigging loft, the same kind of system still in use in Broadway’s older houses. The stage lighting equipment was state of the art for 1929, having ten pre-sets. The Theatre’s stage was large for its day, measuring an average 35 feet deep by 82 feet wide, with a proscenium opening of an amazingly wide 50 feet. The orchestra pit included a main elevator plus a second one dedicated exclusively to the piano; overall, it was large enough for 40 musicians. The Loew’s backstage area included ten dressing rooms and a large rehearsal space. And of course, there was the projection booth, originally equipped with VitaPhone sound-on-disk projectors -- the first commercially successful “talking picture” equipment.

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Part 2

 Loew's Organist & Chorus Girls on RoofPhoto of Loew's Organist & Chorus Girls on Roof

The Story of The Loew's Jersey Theatre

Part 2: Years of Glory; Years of Decline

Acts from Manhattan’s Capitol Theatre regularly toured the Loew’s Jersey. Most of the stars of the early and mid-1930s “trod the boards” at the Loew’s, legendary performers such as Duke Ellington, Bing Crosby, Jean Harlow, Burns and Allen, Bing Crosby, Bill Robinson, Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Cab Calloway, to name just a few.

Additionally, some of the greatest films ever made were shown on the Theatre’s silver screen. Found tucked away in the Theatre’s basement, for example, was a script for the screening of Gone With The Wind to the accompaniment of a live orchestra. And one of the brightest stars of the 20th century was, in a real sense, born at the Loew’s. One evening in March 1933, a young and still unknown Frank Sinatra took his date to the Loew’s to see a movie and a live performance by Bing Crosby, who at the time was the nation’s most popular singer. It was there in the Loew’s Jersey’s darkened auditorium watching Crosby on stage -- according to Nancy Sinatra’s biography of her father -- that Frank decided he too could be a singing star

Like most of the other Movie Palaces, the Loew’s Jersey stopped presenting a regular schedule of live shows by the mid-1930s. But the first run movies by MGM, the studio that was founded and owned by the Loew’s company, continued on. During the Depression, Movie Palaces like the Loew’s offered a few hours of luxurious relief from hard times. During World War II, the Palaces were where the home front came together for news and hope.

The years after World War II brought changing times and economics to the movie business. An anti-trust lawsuit forced movie studios to split away from the theatres they controlled. And new, much plainer theatres were built along the highways leading to the newly forming suburbs. By the late 1950s, barely 30 years after they had been built, Movie Palaces were being closed. In the coming years, hundreds of Palaces that were once the pride and joy for their communities had become forlorn, decaying hulks, or worse, were torn down.

The Loew’s Jersey actually managed to stay open as a first-run movie house much later than most other Movie Palaces. Well into the 1960s, for residents of Hudson County and people from as far away as Bergen and Essex Counties and even Staten Island a show at the Loew’s was the definition of a great time out on the town. And remarkably, the Loew’s survived in better condition than most other Movie Palaces; even renovations in 1974 that turned the auditorium into a triplex left the Theatre’s ornate walls largely intact.

Demolition Is Scheduled

But in 1986 time seemingly ran out for the Loew’s Jersey. Journal Square remained a transit hub, with thousands of commuters passing through it every day. But nearby malls had lured away much of the high-end retail business that the area once enjoyed. Similarly, new multi-plex cinemas had stolen much of the Loew’s Jersey’s business. More and more, only rowdy teenagers still went to the Loew’s. Many of the people who once found hours of pleasure in the Theatre simply forgot about it. The Loew’s was sold to New Jersey’s largest developer, and the grand Movie Palace closed its doors in August 1986 with an installment of Friday the 13th. Demolition was scheduled for the following April.

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Part 3

Loew's Auditorium - Circa 1995Interior of The Loew's Jersey circa 1995

The Story of The Loew's Jersey Theatre

Part 3: A Community Crusade

By reputation, Jersey City didn’t seem like a place where a grass roots battle to save a landmark could be waged and won. A headline in the local newspaper declared “Historic Walls Of Loew’s To Come Down”. But a determined group of residents believed they could make a difference and set out to save the landmark Loew’s Jersey Theatre.

It turned out to be a six year crusade.

In that time, the initial band of preservationists grew into an organization called Friends of the Loew’s. We spoke to community groups and mounted displays at local events. Thousands of people signed our petition asking that the Theatre be saved. We filed a friend of the court brief that convinced a judge to turn aside a demand for an immediate demolition permit for the Loew’s. We drew hundreds of people out to speak in favor of saving the Loew’s at a dozen Planning Board and City Council hearings on the Theatre. And perhaps most importantly of all, we brought people back to the Loew’s by staging small productions and film screenings in the Theatre’s ornate lobby.

In all of this, Friends of the Loew’s made people remember the Theatre and what it once meant to them and to Jersey City. But far more than just creating a sense of nostalgia, we made people understand that the Theatre could be an important economic and cultural resource to benefit Journal Square and the whole region in the future.

A series of City Council votes backed our position. Finally, Friends of the Loew’s proposed that Jersey City buy the Theatre from the developer that wanted to tear it down. In the early morning hours of February 2, 1993, after listening to dozens of speakers in support of the Loew’s, the City Council voted by a margin of one to buy the Theatre. The purchase price was a bargain at $325,000.

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Part 4

Loew's Auditorium - Circa 2012Loew's Auditorium, circa 2012

The Story of The Loew's Jersey Theatre

Part 4: Restoring the Glory

To fill the funding gap and make the Theatre project real, Friends of the Loew’s has undertaken a unique volunteer-based construction program. Every weekend volunteers are working at the Theatre. They do everything from minor repairs to major construction. All of the equipment and supplies they use are purchased with money privately raised by Friends of the Loew’s.

While unconventional, this approach has nevertheless been remarkably successful; to date, volunteers have accomplished over $1 million in repairs that were necessary to make the Theatre usable again but for which no funding was available. And beyond this, FOL volunteers also fill the administrative gap by providing vital assistance to the Theatre’s Director.

In addition to being an economic necessity, this aspect of the Loew’s project, taken together with the fact that the initial impetus for saving and reopenning the Theatre came not from planners and officails but from ordinary citizens makes the restoration of the Loew’s a unique expression of the potency and importance of community involvement and volunteerism.

With the current schedule of work Friends of the Loew’s reached their expectations. The orchestra floor of the auditorium has been ready for limited use as of late 2001 and has been having success in their film series and live events.

And what is the Loew’s when it re-opened? It is a not-for-profit arts center that goes beyond the classical performing arts to embrace and showcase “the art of American entertainment” -- the music, plays and movies that continue to shape and chronicle the American experience. It is a venue for concerts, touring musicals and children’s programs. It presents performances by artists representing the 50-plus ethnic groups living in Jersey City because American entertainment brings our diverse peoples together by embracing and melding their unique performing traditions. And the Loew’s also emphasizes the appreciation and enjoyment of classic and independent film because “the movies” are the most ubiquitous artistic medium of all time. “Going to the movies” is the way many people, especially young people, first encounter the glory of the various performing arts and discover the power of the art of American entertainment in their own lives.

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