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Historic movie palace in Jersey City will receive an $72 million upgrade

Jim Beckerman
NorthJersey.com

A people's palace will soon be fit again to receive its loyal subjects. Us.

Loew's Jersey, the spectacular but deteriorating 92 year-old "movie palace" at Jersey City's Journal Square, will be getting an estimated $72 million upgrade, the office of the mayor announced today.

A partnership of Devil's Arena Entertainment (DAE), operators of the Prudential Center, and the city will transform the venue into a code-compliant, modern entertainment center that will still maintain the dazzling gilt and marble architectural features that wowed the first ticket-buyers in 1929.

There will be major concert acts — no names announced, yet — but also community based cultural activities. And yes, there will be movies.

"The partnership with the Devils is important," said mayor Steven M. Fulop. "Prudential is one of the most widely booked and used venues in the country. They have access to a wide array of talent. They have a skill set on this."

Loew's Jersey Theater

Work is expected to start in 2022, with a targeted opening year of 2025.

The Loew's upgrade is only part of a planned facelift to Journal Square, a commuter and commerce hub that was once the city's answer to New York's Times Square. In 2017, the city made plans to purchase The Pathside building, a venerable 1912 office building in Journal Square that will be reborn as a museum and cultural center. 

"With this, the city is kind of speaking to the commitment to culture and entertainment," mayor Fulop said. "Despite the fact that we're in a pandemic, live entertainment is going to come back. Art and entertainment is a reason people want to live in a city like Jersey City, like Newark."

The rebirth of the Loew's has long been a dream for Colin Egan — who has made preserving the historic theater his mission since 1987.

"Part of preserving the Loew's is not just physically keeping it there, but making sure it continues to be a place that everyone can enjoy," said Egan, director and co-founder of Friends of the Loew's.

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The volunteer organization he helped found 34 years ago has tried to keep the old place alive by doing what modest repairs they can — and by holding movie screenings, since 2001, to keep it in the public reminded of the treasure in their midst. 

A tarnished treasure, to be sure. Almost 100 years later, the paint is now flaking, the tapestries are discolored, the grand draperies over the stage are dry-rotted. The faux marble columns on their bronze bases are a little duller.

But even in deterioration, the Loew's Jersey is an eyeful — something the likes of which no modern theatergoer sees anymore.

The lobby of the Loew's Jersey

Starting in the late teens and early 1920s, exhibitors got the idea of luring the public to the movies on the basis of the sheer opulence of the places that showed them. "We don't sell tickets to movies, we sell tickets to theaters," said showman Marcus Loew. 

"Movie palaces," as they came to be called, featured scrolls, sconces, chandeliers, plush carpeting a mile deep, regiments of ushers in uniform drilled like military school cadets, theatrical "prologues" with full orchestras, dancers and scenery, popular singers for opening acts and immense theater pipe organs to play popular tunes at intermission. Back then, when people said they were going to a "moving picture show," they meant it. 

The pomp and the glory

The architecture itself was the biggest attraction of all. In 2009, the theater became a New Jersey Registered Historic Site.

"You had a succession of grand spaces," Egan said. "You were continuously moving from one grand space to a bigger grand space until you hit the auditorium. At that point, you were so cued for greatness that it almost didn't matter what the movie was."

Some movie palaces, like the Loew's, were patterned after the pomp of the great European opera houses. Others were more fantastic: Moorish or Asian fantasy lands complete with a "sky" full of twinkling stars. Radio City Music Hall, and Hollywood's Chinese Theatre — the most famous survivors of that era — are merely two of the hundreds of eye-popping showplaces that once could be found even in modest-sized cities.

Patrons in the lobby of the Loew's Jersey

These theaters aspired to the grandeur of Versailles, or the Taj Mahal. But with this democratic difference: they were for everyone.

"That has always struck me as a uniquely American landmark,"  Egan said. "We took the form of European royalty, and made it deliberately bigger than Europe, but made it deliberately for everybody who has a dime in his pocket."

The marquee of the Loew's Jersey

Back then, specific theaters were tied to specific studios. Loew's was tied to MGM. So among the films that were shown there, first run, included "Gone With the Wind," "The Wizard of Oz," "The Good Earth," "Anchors Aweigh," and "On the Town." And not only did A-list films get shown, but A-list entertainment opened for them. 

One story has it that Frank Sinatra, then an unknown skinny kid from Hoboken, took the trolley to Journal Square to see his idol Bing Crosby sing. 

"He went to the theater with Nancy, who became his first wife, in 1933," Egan said. "According to Nancy Sinatra Jr.'s autobiography, it was while watching Crosby on the Loew's Jersey stage that Sinatra had the epiphany that he could be a singing star."

Another time, July Garland came to perform live at the theater. The crowd was so immense that they couldn't get in the door. 

"They missed her," Egan said. "But somehow, she was told there was a lobby of people who didn't get to hear her, and she went out into the lobby and sang a song for them. This is not just a rumor. It was reported in the local paper."

So there is a lot of history attached to all that fading opulence at 54 Journal Square Plaza. Egan is hoping to give them both a shine.

He'd like to get the clock working again, for one thing. The ornate St. George and the Dragon clock in the facade of the building  — which has the knight slaying the dragon every 15 minutes — hasn't been quite itself lately. 

The St. George and the Dragon clock, Loew's Jersey

"A number of years ago, the wooden hands warped, and when they passed each other at certain times of day, they touched," he said. "And when they touched, they stripped their gears."

And another thing: something must be done about the bathrooms.

For some reason — and this was not uncommon, back in the day — the 3,187-seat theater with a full balcony has exactly one ladies' room, with exactly seven stalls. 

"It's one of the big mistakes in the building of the building," Egan said. "But it's typical of that era. There weren't very many female architects in those days."

And of course, the stage, sound system, acoustics, air conditioning and heating must be brought up to snuff, to meet the demands of a modern stage acts and modern audiences. 

The one thing that he definitely wants to keep, as the building begins its new career four or five years hence, is access to all levels of society, at all price points. That means booking affordable entertainment, as well as big-ticket concert acts. 

"In addition to the major commercial pop acts, we'll continue to do what we do, non-profit community and affordable programming," he said. "What no one wants is for this to be a pop palace that you can only enjoy if you pay $50 or $100 a ticket."

Jim Beckerman is an entertainment and culture reporter for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to his insightful reports about how you spend your leisure time, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: beckerman@northjersey.com 

Twitter: @jimbeckerman1