If Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis sang opera and were graduates of a famous Parisian clown school, they might have had an act similar to the Donovan Ensemble’s “Super Spectacular: To Opera with Love.”
Union City resident Joseph Kolbow plays theatrical ringleader Merril Garrik, “a hasbeen who never was,” he said, to his partner Johnnie Niel’s manservant Emmet, and in the span of an hour, the two run down six operas interspersed with the musical stylings of Guns and Roses and Taylor Swift.
“Emmet ends up upstaging Merril, which causes conflict because Emmet is far more talented,” Kolbow said as he sat in the empty sanctuary of St. John’s Episcopal Church on Palisade Avenue in Union City. When asked if their stage relationship had any bearing on their real relationship, Kolbow said with a snicker, “No comment.”
But the fact is, in reality, Kolbow has become a ringleader of sorts in two local crusades: one, to bring together the rich artistic community that exists in the city and surrounding area; and two, to save St. John’s.
“The goal is to fill the church, and more specifically the sanctuary, with arts of all kinds.” – Joe Kolbow
But they still need help.
Beyond the mass
Kolbow hopes to build on the slim congregation of 15 with what he terms an arts initiative entitled “Arts at St. John’s,” with the intention to bring all sorts of entertainment together beyond the once-weekly hour long masses.
“The goal is to fill the church, and more specifically the sanctuary, with arts of all kinds,” Kolbow said. “Whether it be visual art, theatre, dance, or clowns, we want to generate community participation as well as a sustainable income stream for the congregation.”
Vicar Geoff Curtis of All Saints congregation in Hoboken heard of the dilemma and offered to help. His plan for St. John’s, Kolbow explained, mirrors the rescue operation he led in the 1980s when he consolidated three Hoboken churches on their last legs and consolidated them into All Saints on Washington Street.
Curtis oversees the Jubilee Center, which is a thriving children’s program, and he has taken over St. John’s popular after school children’s program, Puerta Abierta (Open Door), which now has much surer financial footing thanks to the takeover.
St. John’s consists of more than just a sanctuary. Its large upstairs gymnasium and downstairs theatre space currently host Puerta Abierta activities, but from a real estate perspective, these vacant spaces could be generating more income, Kolbow posited. They’ve been used in the past for performances and community yoga classes but have not lasted long.
“Church has always been important for arts in the community,” Curtis explained. “St. John’s is trying to provide the opportunity for artists to use its space for a variety of activity and become a place where spirituality and art meet.”
Staging a future
Over 30 people from the community joined together April 12 in the sanctuary and formed a sort of think tank to figure out how best to promote the arts and save the church.
“We were actually laughing a bit at the meeting at how there were more people there that night than there were in the whole congregation,” Kolbow said. “It was fantastic. People were laughing, talking, having a good time; it was more like what church should be.”
The meeting generated “tons of ideas,” according to Kolbow. People suggested everything from coffee houses to open mics, acting classes to gallery openings, and even a possible classical chamber music series which would suit the soaring acoustical space of the sanctuary well.
There was an overriding takeaway from the meeting, Kolbow said, and it was that any of the brainstormed events held at the church must be driven by volunteers who are willing to own the programs and to make them happen.
Kolbow asks that those with ideas bring in proposals that include the extent of access to space they will need, which space (the sanctuary, gymnasium, or basement theatre), how much time it will take, and a tentative startup budget that includes where the money will come from.
“My most optimistic take on this is that Union City is ready to build a thriving artistic community together outside of Manhattan similar to how it’s been done in Brooklyn and Queens,” Kolbow said. “Our dream is to make this happen, and the key is to find people with the passion and energy that can excite passion and energy in others and get the ball rolling.”
The next meeting will be held at the church, located at 1516 Palisade Ave., on May 15 at 7:30 p.m. For more information on Art at St. John’s, visit stjohns-unioncity.dioceseofnewark.org, or email email@example.com.
Gennarose Pope may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org