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The Majestic Theatre
National Register of Historic Places
275 Grove Street

Van Vorst Historic District

Majestic Theater
Photo: C. Karnoutsos, 2008

Majestic Theater
Photo: C. Karnoutsos, 2008

Majestic Theater
Photo: C. Karnoutsos, 2008

Majestic Theater Redevelopment Project Banner
Photo: C. Karnoutsos 2003

Majestic Theater Redevelopment Project
Photo: A. Selvaggio, 2002

Majestic Theater Redevelopment Project
Photo: A. Selvaggio, 2003


The restoration of the Majestic Theatre by Eric and Paul Silverman of Majestic Urban Renewal, LLC, was recognized with an award from the Jersey City Landmarks Conservancy in 2005.

It was designed by architect William H. McElfatrick, known as the "father of the American theater architecture," and was built by the Klein Amusement Company in 1907. The three-story structure, owned by Frank E. Henderson, was an example of an early twentieth-century theater in the Beaux Art neo-classical design and part of a complex of five separate buildings.

The exterior of the theater was dominated by an electric marquee of art metal and glass roofing. The box office with oak trim and wide window was inside the lobby. Terrazzo flooring and Italian marble wainscoting decorated the main twenty-five foot wide lobby. The interior featured French Renaissance decorative arts: a grand eight-foot wide staircase, neoclassical painted murals on canvas, domed ceiling with allegorical Greek goddesses, pillars of faux marble, crystal chandeliers, two balconies, twelve opera boxes, and a Wurlitzer piano-organ. The auditorium had a seating capacity of 2,300 and a 77 foot proscenium stage. On the proscenium arch, father and son artists, Leo Sielke and Leo Sielke, Jr., of New York City painted The Triumphal Entry. An observation balcony was modeled on that of the Grand Opera House in Paris.

The Majestic was used for light theater until 1917. The first production was a musical comedy entitled The Mazuma Man. The first feature film shown at the theater was D.W. Griffith's controversial film The Birth of a Nation in 1915, and the first talking film The Jazz Singer in 1927.

On July 14, 1916, the Majestic Theatre hosted the film, The Colored American Winning His Suit to an interracial audience of over 800. The movie related the story of a young African-American attorney. It was produced by the Frederick Douglass Film Company started by Dr. George E. Cannon of Jersey City with the Rev. Dr. W.S. Smith of the Monumental Baptist Church on Lafayette Street, among Cannon's other associates from the Lafayette section of Jersey City. The film company, named for the prominent African-American freedman, hoped to counteract the negativity towards blacks in the film The Birth of a Nation as well as the stereotypical image of black entertainers in comedic roles. It made only three more films including The Heroic Negro Soldier of the World War in 1919.

After Henderson sold the Majestic in 1925, it became part of the vaudeville and burlesque circuit. Among the performers were Mae West (arrested on stage at the theater while performing her play Sex), Al Jolson, W.C. Fields, George Burns, Groucho Marx, Fanny Brice, and George M. Cohan. With the theater located across the street from City Hall, Mayor Frank Hague, who did not approve of the "immoral shows," affected his own censorship of entertainment at the theater. He shut down the production of Laffin Thru and had police arrest Mae West on stage during a performance of her play Sex.

In 1938, the theater was sold to United Artists Eastern Theaters, Inc. and was used as a movie house until the 1950s. It then became a factory and a warehouse for popcorn between 1965 and 1973. In 1975, the theater was given to the Assembly of Christian Churches to become the home of the Second Betheseda Christian Church, but it was foreclosed four years later. The firm of Stinchcromb and Merkelson purchased the property at auction in 1980; it intended to renovate the theater and build a luxury ten story condominium tower similar to the Carnegie Hall development. However, as the renovation project was debated, the roof of the theater collapsed and building was demolished in 1995, save the main lobby building, by permission of the New Jersey Historic Preservation Commission.

The renovation of the Majestic Theatre and the four remaining structures of the original complex at 273, 275, 277, and 279 Grove Street was completed in 2004. The lobby of the former theater on Montgomery Street gives access to the six-story, 45-unit Majestic Theatre Condominiums; retail stores occupy the ground floor. A large "ghost ad" reminiscent of earlier times was painted on the Montgomery Street side of the structure. The Grove Street facade of the former theater building features restored arched windows, plaster ornamentation, gabled marquee, decorative double-door entrance, mosaic tile floors and original iron gates.

Restoration proceeded under the guidelines of the Van Vorst Park Historic District in an effort to revitalize the site as an attractive rental space in the economic redevelopment of the area.

References:

Cruz, David."Her Majesty Preserved?" Jersey Journal 6 June 1999.

Gomez, John. "Long before Spike Lee, Hudson Duo Gave Blacks a Strong Voice in Films." Jersey Journal 23 February 2005.
Majestic Theatre Condominiums http://www.majesticjerseycity.com

"New Majestic Will Open on September 16." Jersey Journal 9 September 1907.
Schenone, Laura. "Theater's Renewal Tied to Condo." New York Times. 23 April 1989.

By: Carmela Karnoutsos
Project Administrator: Patrick Shalhoub