With the official start of spring on March 20, it’s only a matter of weeks before the 2012 season of “blockbuster” movies start making their way to the local Cineplex. (“Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” anyone?)
But before the release of “Men in Black III” and “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World,” residents might want to make room in their schedules and budgets to support the Landmark Loew’s Theatre at Journal Square and its upcoming line-up of contemporary classic films.
Those who have still yet to avail themselves of the theater’s programming are missing out on a real treat.
The palatial, 3,000-seat theater opened in 1929 and hosted shows by the most famous celebrities of the day, including Bing Crosby and Duke Ellington. In 1986, it closed its doors, after which Hudson County developer Hartz Mountain Industries tried to buy it to turn it into an office tower. But it was saved by a volunteer group that later became the Friends of the Loew’s.
The Friends fought a legal battle with Hartz for several years and eventually took over the theater’s management and began making improvements and holding events.
Fast forward to 2009. The theater emerged from a four-year legal battle between the city and the same volunteer group, only to face a new economic era that has stymied any massive improvements.
The Friends still manage to hold monthly screenings of classic films and periodic concerts, and the theater – across from the Journal Square train station – is moving towards its goal of being a premier entertainment venue in the city.
“We had a setback involving our lease, and even though it was ultimately resolved the way we wanted, by the time it was resolved we lost a window of opportunity for funding,” Colin Egan, president of Friends of the Loew’s (FOL), told the Reporter last year. FOL has officially run the theater since 1994.
FOL is now trying to regain this momentum and raise the resources needed to make repairs.
Saved from developers
In 1994, after the FOL and Hartz came to an agreement, the city purchased the building.
For the next decade, FOL had a series of one-year leases with the city to rent and manage the venue’s day-to-day operations as the nonprofit group launched an effort to restore the theater.
In 2004, Egan said, FOL signed its first multi-year lease. The five-year agreement authorized FOL to continue their restoration and preservation efforts with the help of $650,000 in city money. The expectation was that this funding would come from the city’s Urban Enterprise Zone (UEZ) money. Through the UEZ program, local sales tax dollars in designated urban enterprise areas are reinvested in those communities, rather than going to the state. This funding, however, will eventually run out because Gov. Christopher Christie has withdrawn most UEZ givebacks to the municipalities as a way of easing the state’s budget deficit.
The 2004 lease, which went through several drafts before it was signed, was tied up in court for nearly five years after the city’s corporation counsel challenged its validity in court. One theory as to why the city challenged the agreement is that there was some confusion over which draft was the final version.
The city eventually concluded in 2009 that the version of the lease that the FOL thought was valid was indeed the authentic version, but, Egan noted, “By then the bottom had fallen out of the economy.”
Had this not happened, Egan said, FOL would have been able to “make several basic improvements” to the theater, including additional lighting, fire escapes, and sprinklers – improvements needed for the Loew’s to function at full capacity.
“We need to take care of those issues before we can return the theater back to its full [audience] capacity of over 3,000 people,” said Egan. “Right now, we’re at about half that, which puts serious limitations on the kinds of acts we can book. The acts we want to bring in here…really need a bigger seating capacity.”
The theater has two floors. Only the lower level can be used until improvements are made to fire escapes and lighting on the upper level.
In recent years the Loew’s has become known as perhaps the best spot in Jersey City to see classic cinema and revival films.
FOL currently has a new lease with the city, signed in 2010, which expires in another three years.
What the group doesn’t have is money.
The Loew’s currently gets small donations from foundations and private citizens, and they charge for screenings. (Members of the public can also rent the theater for events like weddings and anniversary parties. And professional associations have used the space for meetings and other functions.)
In recent years the theater has become known as perhaps the best spot in Jersey City to see classic cinema and revival films from the silent picture era all the way through the 1990s. This programming runs throughout the year.
Next weekend, the Loew’s will screen Joel and Ethan Coen’s “The Big Lebowski” on Fri., March 30 at 8 p.m., followed by the sardonic and dark “Fargo,” another Coen brothers’ production, on Sat., March 31 at 6 p.m. Later that evening the Loew’s will also screen, at 8:10 p.m., Quentin Tarantino’s break-out movie “Pulp Fiction.”
While all of these movies are available on Netflix and various “on demand” cable and satellite channels, they all deserve to be seen, at least once, on a large screen, and with an audience of like-minded movie lovers.
Next month, in remembrance of the 100th anniversary of the SS Titanic, the Loew’s will screen the 1958 film, “A Night to Remember” on Sat., April 28. No time for this screening was available at press time.
For information on upcoming programs, visit www.loewsjersey.org.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at email@example.com.