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Jersey City Loew's Jersey Theater
52-54 Journal Square

 

Loew's Jersey Theater
Photo: C. Karnoutsos 2004

Drawing (1999) of Loew's Jersey Theater
Artist, Richard LaRovere


Known as one of the five "Loew's wonder theaters," the Loew's Jersey Theater was designed by George and C.W. Rapp for theater chain owner Marcus Loew, one of the founders of MGM Studios. That description referred to the installation of a Robert Morton Wonder Organ in the theater, also placed in Loew's other cinemas in Brooklyn, Bronx, Queens, and Manhattan. Loew is frequently quoted as saying, "I don't sell tickets to movies . . . I sell tickets to theaters" (qtd. in Deering). He was also the founder of MGM Studios. The lavishly decorated Jersey City theater cost over $2 million and opened on September 28, 1929, a month prior to the stock market crash.

The Loew's theater is constructed in Baroque style, with terra cotta façade and "French curve" marquee, and overlooks Journal Square. On top of the building is a clock tower with a Seth Thomas clockwork mechanism. It has a mechanical life-size statue of St. George on horseback that slays the dragon at fifteen-minute intervals, marked by the tolling of bells. In the evening, a red bulb in the dragon's mouth adds to the drama of the event. The figures are copper and bronze set within a terra cotta cupola that frames the statues. As part of the theater's renovation, the clock was removed in 1999 and repaired by David Morgan at the Antique Clock Gallery in Lebanon, NJ; it was reinstalled in 2001. The clock tower has also been restored.

The theater's three-story oval lobby is heightened by a rotunda sustained by faux marble columns and gilded arches. A crystal chandelier, an antique French Buhl clock in the foyer, gold leaf mirrors and red carpeting were part of the décor that created an other world atmosphere after one entered the bronze doors. Two curving staircases leads to the second-floor landing and balcony adorned with art and statuary.

The Spanish Baroque style auditorium had over red-velvet 3,000 seats. From its domed ceiling hung a ten-tier chandelier. The proscenium stage is a generous 72 feet long and 33 feet wide. The acoustical construction of the plaster walls was the first of its kind to complement the "talkie" films. Here theatergoers saw stage shows as well as first-run movies. On opening day, there was a stage show with various acts, a performance by Ted Meyn on the Wonder organ, and the showing of the film Madam X, starring Ruth Chatterton. Vaudeville performers such as Bing Crosby, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Mickey Rooney, the Ritz Brothers, and Milton Berle, among others, appeared on stage in the 1930s and the 1940s; the Four Seasons, a Newark, NJ-based singing group, performed in concert in 1968.

The Loew's was divided into three viewing rooms in 1974 in an attempt to compete for attendance with the development of suburban multiplex cinemas. The subdivision of the theater was not successful and caused the loss of much of its early décor. The theater closed on August 21, 1986. Hartz Mountain Industries bought the property for redevelopment. As a result of community reaction to the potential demolition of the theater, the City of Jersey City bought the building in 1993 for $325,000 with the intention of restoring it as a nonprofit arts and entertainment center.

Supporters who favored saving the theater formed the Friends of the Loew's. Its volunteers, numbering approximately 200, with the Jersey City Economic Redevelopment Corporation set to work to bring the theater back to its former glory as part of the revitalization of Journal Square. The theater has received $2.5 million in grants from organizations like the New Jersey Historic Trust. Work on the interior, starting with tearing down the dividing walls, restoring the seating, painting and cleaning, is on going.

Today the Loew's Jersey Theater has been renovated sufficiently to present classic movies, film festivals, live performances, and cultural public events for the community.

References:

Deering, Sally. "Waking a Sleeping Giant," Gold Coast, July 19-July 26, 1991.
Friends of the Loew's Website http://www.loewsjersey.org
"Now Playing: A Grand Movie House Restored." New York Times 8 November 1998.
"St. George and Dragon to Fight Again." New York Times 27 May 2001.

By: Carmela Karnoutsos
Project Administrator: Patrick Shalhoub