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Time Travel Theatrics

23 Sep

On July 31st, 2013, I visited the 1920s –

It was a decade of flapper fun, economic prosperity, jazz, and celebration. There was a reason it was called “The Roaring Twenties“: WWI had just ended and the country was looking forward to enjoying life. The decade was also famously known for the first ever feature-length film with sound, “The Jazz Singer.” Movie-watching had become a popular source of entertainment and an excellent method of escape for the war-tired nation. However, how we experience movies today is nothing like how the public experienced movies back then. Movie-watching was an extravagant theatrical outing – set a ways away from class divisions, social hierarchies, and the mundane frivolities of daily life.  Theaters were not casual cinemas like we have today but, instead, were lavishly decorated and required formal dress.  They were quite appropriately branded “movie palaces” (“Picture Palaces” in the UK).

Don’t ever underestimate the power of your feet and your mind. H.G. Wells may have built a time machine, but I got by on feet and imagination alone. The pair can take you anywhere (After all, they took Frodo all the way to Mordor & Alice all the way to Wonderland). With that thought in mind, my co-worker, Stephanie de Ruiter, and I went sniffing for history. We landed up at 54 Journal Square in Jersey City, NJ – the entrance of one of Jersey’s few and finest movie palaces – The Landmark Loew’s Jersey Theatre.

At first glance, the theater seems old and ravaged by history and time but, at the same time, it is completely new – contrasted against the unrestrained digital age we now inhabit. Strangely snuggled between Journal Square Pub and C.H. Martin department store, the theater looks bizarrely out-of-place, almost invisible to passersby. The street was buzzing with noisy cars and silent strangers rushing past, none of them giving the theater a second glance.

loews jersey theatre (11 of 11)

View of the theater from across the street, Taken by: Nida Asheer

Although temporarily closed for renovations, event coordinator, Pattie Giordan, and director, Colin Egan, were nice enough to give us a full tour (& some fantastic first-hand accounts about the theater’s tumultuous past).

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Theater lobby, taken by: Nida Asheer

One can’t explain the sense of awe when walking into the main lobby (it looks more like a ballroom). As Stephanie and I walked past the theater’s golden engraved doors, we were transported back eighty years. The room is a vast and extravagant space of high ceilings, grand pillars, velvet draped curtains, and 2 gorgeously engraved wooden staircases, laden with red carpet, leading up to the second floor balcony of the theater. And to top it off, hanging down from the center of the ceiling was a large, glittering chandelier.

After WWII and much economic hardship, many movie palaces were being shutdown. Miraculously, The Loews Jersey managed to cling onto life till the mid-1980s, but its doors were closed in August of 1986 and demolition was scheduled in April of 1987.  However, the real story lies with the “band of preservationists” that weren’t willing to let the theater go so easily – Patti & Colin being two of them. “A six-year crusade” had begun by a group of passionate residents who affectionately called themselves “Friends of the Loew’s.” In the six years that followed, through fervent protesting, petitions, public speeches, and small productions/screenings at the theater itself, the group was able to remind the community of the theater’s value. The theater was bought by Jersey City and renovations have been ongoing ever since.

Director, Colin Egan, says his finest memory after their success was not his own elation but that of the community’s. He recalls the theater’s early stages of renovation where there was no running water or electricity and the lobby was cluttered with portable toilets & small shelves.  He remembers residents walking into the theater, and, upon seeing activity inside, excitedly shouting, “you put it all back!” Colin explained, “We cleaned it, we lit it better, and we made people notice it.” For the Jersey City area, and for Colin and Patti especially who themselves stated “it’s a passion, not a job”, it is apparent that the theater is not just a theater; It is a labor of love and a symbol of the community’s history. They were lucky enough to be part of an impassioned group of people who reminded the city that history is meant to be valued, not forgotten or destroyed.

Stephanie and I were also lucky enough to see the rest of the theater as well (which fits about 3,000 people). The theater is equipped with its own pipe organ, which has actual instruments built into it in order to make sound effects. The organ is an identical “sister organ” of the original which was removed in the 1970s (see photo below). Aside from the incredible aesthetics, the theater also boasts quite the celebrity lineup of performances including Duke Ellington, Judy Garland, and Bob Hope to name a few. And, if that wasn’t enough, the theater also has its very own clock tower featuring Saint George & the Dragon (more info), that actually lights up in red and moves on the quarter-hour!

Clock Tower, taken by: Nida Asheer

Clock Tower, taken by: Nida Asheer

 

loews jersey theatre (4 of 11)

Theater Pipe Organ, taken by: Nida Asheer

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Inside the theater, taken by: Nida Asheer

Hallway of mirrors, taken by: Nida Asheer

Hallway of mirrors, taken by: Nida Asheer

Although not as grand and pristine looking as the theater once was when first opened, the evident age that shows on the surfaces of the building give it character and gravitas – its own history and age etched into the walls of the movie palace.  The theater started out as a place for the community to enjoy entertainment, talent & company. More importantly now, the theater serves as a reminder that what was once forgotten and nearly destroyed isn’t always lost. And with just a few brave voices that care, it can be remembered again.

Taken by: Stephanie DeRuiter

Taken by: Stephanie de Ruiter

Enjoy more detailed photos of the theater below…

Special thanks to: Colin Egan (Director) & Pattie Giordan (Event Coordinator).

Stephanie de Ruiter: An ambitious & rising freelance journalist & photographer – Follow Stephanie on Twitter at @stephascopee!!

Check out more about the theater here: The Loews Jersey Theater – If you live in the area, it’s well worth a visit and they often have music and screenings on weekends!

More Photos:

2nd floor Balcony Archway

2nd floor Balcony Archway, taken by Stephanie de Ruiter

Stage lights, taken by: Stephanie DeRuiter

2nd floor view, taken by: Nida Asheer

StageLights

Stage lights, taken by: Stephanie de Ruiter

Theater ceiling, taken by: Nida Asheer

Theater ceiling, taken by: Nida Asheer

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