By Will Carter & Brianna Lyle.
Colin Egan moved towards the balcony overlooking the grand entrance, his eyes passing over velvet red draperies, past intricate mosaics and designs, through the chandelier made from fine-cut Czech crystal, and over the marble floor that was once trod by people of all ages and all walks of life, out for a night on the town. In 1929, just a month before Black Thursday signaled the beginning of the Great Depression, the enormous film company Loew’s Incorporated introduced its newest theater in the heart of Jersey City.
Loew’s Jersey Theater opened its doors as one of the company’s five flagship theaters — the “Wonder Theaters” — that the New York-born Marcus Loew had built to demonstrate his incomparable wealth and mastery of the business. The Loew’s Jersey, built to mimic the grand opera houses of Europe, came as Loew’s reached its historic peak — just a few years after the company founded the prestigious film studio Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer — and were built at unimaginable expense at the end of a decade characterized by decadence and excess, before succumbing to seven decades of slow decline, as the movie business, and the city that hosted it, suffered dramatic reversals of fortune.
Now, a hardy band of volunteers is returning the great theater to its former glory.
Egan, a longtime resident of Jersey City and a former middle school social studies teacher, traces his involvement with the old theater to a stop at a red light in Jersey City’s Journal Square one night in 1987. The demolition signs at the Loew’s caught his eye, and became convinced he had to do something. Egan knew the building “wasn’t going to go down without a fight,” he recalled on a recent tour of the theater.
He didn’t know at the time that he had taken on a life’s work. He would dedicate the next 26 years to the renewal of the Loew’s Jersey Theater, an enormous restoration campaign that many would not have the tenacity to do. The project would become an ongoing struggle: after a fight against developers, an effort that would demand countless hours of manual labor, requiring millions of dollars in funding. Still today, after two decades and the work of countless volunteers, the theater remains unfinished. At this stage of the restoration, the thousand-seat balcony has yet to be opened to the public, along with certain areas of the lobby’s second floor that need to be scrubbed and repainted.
But as the years pass, more and more life is breathed into the old theater. It hosts weekly events like weddings, private functions, auctions, concerts and, of course, films.
On certain weekends, the theater sells cheap tickets to screenings of classic films to raise money. In 2010 The Village Voice named the Landmark Loew’s Jersey Theatre the best movie theatre in New York City — a 10 minute trip on the PATH train from the West Village — and Egan says the theater is becoming a destination for people across the region. With a variety of old and not-so-old films gracing the marquee, like “Psycho,” “Double Indemnity” and “Pulp Fiction,” and plenty of lavish architecture to keep the eyes busy, one can understand the draw.
Pushed along by the success of these events, the historic theater still stands, and Egan remains the director.
“You won’t see this in too many places,” said Egan, reaching over the balcony of the crow’s nest at the top of the lobby. “This is one of the places where, when I’m being so egotistical about all the work we have to do here, I look at this and think, ‘This wasn’t gonna be here anymore.’ The fact that it is, is because some of us fought to save it.”
Egan wasn’t just motivated to fight for the Loew’s because of his love of architecture and cinema, but a great admiration for what he calls the philosophy behind the theater’s construction.
The movie palace, he says, was built to bring grandeur to “people who didn’t have much in their lives, immigrants and the children of immigrants.”
“The grand mansions out in Newport, Rhode Island, built by the Robber Barons in the 1880’s and ‘90s, are wonderful buildings. But they were built for the very wealthy, and almost no one else. Here, they turned that idea on its head — they sat down to build a palace, but they made it a public space for everybody,” he said. “And that stands in contrast to both the first gilded age, and to our age.”
C.W. Rapp, half of the architectural firm of Rapp and Rapp who designed the Wonder Theaters, saw the project in similarly egalitarian terms.
“It’s opulence unbound, but opulence for a purpose.” Look at the shopgirl who’s just spend her day waiting on bankers, and now sits in a seat right next to them, he said. “This is a place where the rich rub elbows with the poor and are better off for it.”
Because of that equality of access — tickets cost between 15 cents and 25 cents — the theater was a prime source of entertainment for the poor and rich alike, and its signature variety shows attracted sold-out crowds. Many of the age’s great performers played at Loew’s, among themDuke Ellington, Jack Benny, Cab Calloway and Bob Hope. Legend even has it that a young Frank Sinatra decided to start singing after seeing Bing Crosby croon on the Loew’s grand stage.
But of course it was for film, not for live performances, that the Loew’s Jersey was built. The theater’s first showing was 1929’s “Madame X,” advertised as an ‘All-Talking,’ picture, for which Lionel Barrymore, the director, was nominated for an academy award. The first years of the movie palace were also Hollywood’s prime – Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer, a Loew’s property, produced a steady string of critically acclaimed and commercially successful films, guided by the hand of M.G.M.’s legendary boy producer, Irving Thalberg. The theater’s last showing, in 1986, amply demonstrated the theater’s fall from grace. After the latest installment of the “Friday the 13th,” franchise, the Loew’s Jersey shuttered its doors for what might might have been the last time. But traces of the past remained: when volunteers were cleaning out the theater in the 1990’s, they discovered an original marked-up copy of the script of “Gone with the Wind,” used for synchronizing the screening with a live orchestra.
When Loew’s Jersey opened on September 28, 1929, it was equipped with the latest in entertainment technology. The $2 million spent during construction, equivalent to some $300 million dollars today, facilitated a wide array of design decisions that allowed the architectural firm of Rapp and Rapp to scale up the theater’s opulence not yet before seen in movie houses.
A full orchestra pit, on a mechanized lift, flanked the stage’s proscenium, and a bank of mechanical and electrical equipment, a complex board of levers, toggle switches, knobs and wheels which wouldn’t be out of place in a power plant, controlled the stage’s lighting and rigging. An enormous pipe organ greeted patrons as they entered the auditorium and provided soundtracks to silent films when the theatre’s state-of-the-art Vitaphone projector, which used specially-made vinyl records to project sound, wasn’t being used. There was enough gold-tinted aluminum leaf adorning the walls to make anyone’s eyes a little sore, and even a chandelier made from pre-war Czechoslovakian crystal to hang in the center of the enormous, oval lobby.
But it wasn’t to last. Only two decades after its opening, the Loew’s Jersey was in rapid decline. The Depression had taken its toll on revenue, and in 1948 the Supreme Court ruled that the vertical integration Loew’s and its competitors, which married chains of movie theaters with Hollywood studios, violated federal antitrust law. Loew’s Theaters were finally divorced from Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer in 1959. The golden age of the Hollywood studio system was ending, and the business model that would allow Loew’s Jersey to operate profitably would soon be a distant memory.
The theater business soon become the province of number-crunchers and developers. By the 1960’s companies were building smaller, more modern theatres for residents of growing suburbs. Drive-ins gained huge popularity, and smaller multiplexes with ample parking were built in shopping centers and designed to be, above all, practical. The palace-type theatres were becoming harder to fill and more expensive to maintain, and were being torn down or left to decay all around the country.
By 1986 office building developments and apartments built outside of Journal Square had drastically cut down the foot traffic in the area, taking a harsh toll on local business. The Loew’s Jersey ended its 57-year career in the August of 1986 with a showing of “Friday the 13th.” Bought by New Jersey’s largest developer, Hartz Mountain Industries of Secaucus, the building was slated for demolition, leaving little hope for its survival.
A group called the Friends of Loew’s was formed to spearhead the effort. Hundreds of speakers appeared before the Jersey City City Council, groups organized community events, and petitions were signed, all in support of preserving the space. It turned out to be a six-year battle, nudged along by small victory after small victory until by one vote the city council decided to purchase the derelict theatre from the developer for a grand sum of $325,000.
Faced with an extensive project ahead, the volunteers could easily have chalked up the city council vote to a win and then left the cleanup effort to someone else. Instead they enlisted even more help and began a restoration that would have made the creator of the ‘80s fix-it-up montage proud.
Slowly unpacking its rich history, Egan and his other colleagues have created a renewed awareness and appreciation for the theater’s spectacular space. But if it weren’t for the efforts of the theatre’s dedicated volunteers the now bustling lobby would still be caked in years of dirt, dust and cigarette smoke.
During the week, between four and 40 volunteers work to replace seats, scrub walls and tinker aging machinery in an effort to turn back the clock on the historic theater.
The theatre’s treasurer, George Riddle, a volunteer since 1993, remembers the extensive role volunteers have played in the restoration,
“There were 30-foot high walls that were stripped out, and that was all done by volunteers,” said Riddle.
Loew’s Jersey is the only one of the five flagship Wonder Theaters to survive as a venue that shows films. Loew’s 175th Street Theatre in Manhattan is now owned by Christ Community United Church. Loew’s King’s Theatre in Flatbush, Brooklyn, is currently closed. Loew’s Paradise Theatre in The Bronx is a live entertainment venue, while Loew’s Valencia Theatre in Queens is also a church, the Tabernacle of Prayer.
For most people today, going to a movie theater is a prosaic, routine experience. But Loew’s Jersey came from a different time. In 1923, New York City was responsible for one-12th of the nation’s entire manufacturing output. The city’s booming industry, in an otherwise prosperous economic time, brought many citizens and non-citizens to the city in search of jobs. Abundant labor and highly skilled artisans, often newly-minted immigrants from Europe, who specialized in the trades necessary to construct these ornate and elaborate buildings, meant these extravagant movie palaces could be built relatively cheap.
Egan says the theater reminds him of his grandfather’s generation, and says his restoration of the theater is in part, in honor of the skilled craftsmen who built the theater from the ground up.
“My grandfather was a mason. He was trained in Scotland in the old way, so I knew that the men of his generation built buildings like this and didn’t get paid that much. If you destroyed what they built,” he said, “it was as if they never lived. And I didn’t like that.”
In a time when luxury is again reserved for the most affluent in our society, the Landmark Theatre remains an inclusive institution, where the public can affordably indulge themselves, while also serving a healthy dose of nostalgia for those who remember it in its prime or simply want to engage in a bit of travel.
Recently, Egan spoke with a woman who remembers visiting the theatre in her youth. “She hadn’t been here for years,” he said, “and she was just stunned and so happy that it was still here.” Egan was moved and proud. “I got to say ‘Come back! It’s still here for you.’” Thanks to the many dedicated volunteers, a new generation will one day be able to experience the theater as it was in its heyday. With phases of reconstruction costing upwards of a million dollars it is unsure when exactly the theatre will be fully functional, but Egan insists it’s on its way.
“You always see documentaries or read books about landmarks and inevitably people, after it’s gone, will say, ‘That’s too bad it’s gone. I wish someone had done something about it,’” said Egan. “Well, we actually did.”