Local legend claims that Hoboken’s famed crooner Frank Sinatra decided to pursue a career in singing after seeing Bing Crosby perform at the Loew’s Theatre in 1934.
As with many kids at the time, Sinatra had come to the Journal Square theatre (via public transportation) because that part of Jersey City was the place to go for entertainment. People flocked there from every corner of Hudson County.
Although efforts have been underway for more than two decades to restore the old theater, progress has been slow and funding sparse.
This week Mayor Steven Fulop announced that the Jersey City Redevelopment Agency and the City would seek proposals for restoration, renovation and professional management of the Loew’s Theater, in an effort to make the historic institution a Mecca for arts again.
“The Loews Theatre will be the centerpiece of the revitalization of Journal Square,” Fulop said. “A world class performance venue will not only bring life and culture back to Journal Square, but will be a magnet for addition development and tourism.”
First opened in 1929, the Loew’s seats 3,021 and features an ornate lobby. In 1986, the theatre was closed and sold to a developer who planned to demolish the building. However, local preservationists led by the Friends of the Loews ultimately saved the theatre, which is listed on the National Historic Register. The City of Jersey City purchased the Loew’s Theatre in 1993 and the Friends of the Loew’s were granted the task of restoring the theater. Currently, the Friends of the Loew’s show a few dozen movies annually and hold special events.
“The Loews Theatre will be the centerpiece of the revitalization of Journal Square.” – Mayor Steve Fulop.
Councilman Richard Boggiano applauded the move, but said he doesn’t want to take away from those who have fought to keep the Loew’s open during the last two decades
“I have been the biggest support of the Loew’s becoming the Jewel of Journal Square,” he said. “All during both campaigns I ran, I always talked about the Loew’s. I definitely don’t want outsiders coming in and taking the running away from those who have kept the Loew’s open during the years. Lack of money and political support have stopped the Loew’s from becoming a center piece of Jersey City’s revival. It’s time to stop the politics and move forward.”
Freeholder Bill O’Dea, although a strong supporter of Loew’s, has been critical of the slow progress towards restoration, and reserving of Open Space Trust Funds for work that is slow to take place.
A long history
Like most theaters constructed during the movie industry’s golden age, the Loew’s was constructed to show mostly films made by MGM studios. Its construction followed the construction of similar theaters in New York. One was built a year earlier in Newark as well. When sound movies came into fashion, the chain of Loew’s theaters became show places not only for movies, but live entertainment, lavish entertainment places that competed against other chains such as the Fabian Theaters in Paterson and Hoboken.
Located across the street from a train station, the Loew’s Theatre in Jersey City became a destination for many throughout Hudson County and beyond throughout the 1930s and 1940s. Anti-monopoly laws in the late 1940s forced studios to sell off their theaters, and combined with the rise of television, development of suburbia, and later video rentals, this forced most theaters to economize, offering a number of smaller venues that showed a number of films at the same time to differing audiences. Places like Loew’s – seen as dinosaurs – either converted or went extinct.
Loew’s closed its doors in 1986 and was slated for demolition when a number of people came forward to save it.
In 1993, Jersey City purchased the building. The New Jersey Register of Historic Places gave it landmark status. The Friends of the Loew’s signed a lease, cleared out the debris and began the slow process of restoring it, offering some programming during the years that followed.
Some money for redevelopment, but progress was slow
The city gave the project $1 million to begin renovations. Another million came from the New Jersey Historic Trust. Some corporations also donated to the effort. Over the last decade, the project has seen funding from the Hudson Count Open Space Trust Fund, but work did not move ahead quickly.
O’Dea said often money was set aside and not used promptly, something that caused him some concern since this meant projects elsewhere the county could not be funded.
“While I’m a big supporter of Loews Theater, I believe that we should not be funding something there unless they are ready to do the work,” O’Dea said.
Part of the problem is that much of the restoration work relied on volunteers, who either lacked the specific skills or the time to invest in the labor-intensive project.
With redevelopment underway in Journal Square, a number of people felt the pace of restoration needed to move ahead more quickly, seeing the Loews as having the potential to serve Jersey City and Hudson County as a performance center similar to the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark.
Tying abatements to some new redevelopment in Journal Square, the city asked for donations to the restoration of Loew’s. KRE, which is developing a massive project called J2 on Pavonia Avenue, has agreed to donate $2.5 million to help restore the theatre.
According to a press release issued by the city this week, the renovations will restore aesthetic and historic appeal of the facility while also allowing the maximum operating capacity and acceptable level of safety for all patrons. Currently, the balcony is unusable, fire exits are not functioning, and a sprinkler system and smoke detection system need to be installed. The management aspect of the RFP anticipates a profit sharing agreement between the management firm and the city.
“A number of nationally-recognized entertainment venue management firms have expressed interest in the Loew’s and we are looking forward to bringing an experienced and reputable firm to Jersey City as we bring the Loew’s to the next level,” Fulop said.
The RFP specifies what the city expects. This will include at least 30 community performances or events from local artists, senior citizens, schools, lecturers, academic programs or cultural celebrations. The bid would also require at least 20 musical performances by nationally recognized artists, ten theatrical or other stage performance, ten comedy performances and 20 other performances or events.
The contract would also allow for 20 events to be sponsored and produced privately by Friends of the Loew’s Inc. and would allow other private bookings as long as they do not conflict with other scheduled events.
“I support taking the Loew’s to the next level as a performing arts center,” O’Dea said. “I am happy to see the city and Fulop committing the capital money to finish the work so that can happen. What remains to be resolved is defining the proper role for the Friends of the Loews going forward. I believe that they can and should play a significant role.”
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.