Perhaps part of the reason there are so many bad films today is because we have so degraded the experience of going to the movies. It’s important for everyone hustled into small, cramped theaters, looking at tiny screens, or gagging on trailers to remember that going to the movies was once serious business.
People dressed to go the movies. Often, live performances would accompany a film, either with film stars making personal appearances or bandleaders playing before and after the show. And because movies were so plentiful and affordable, people went all the time. While these days barely 75 major films are released a year, in the 1930s and 1940s, some 500 films would be released. Yes, that number was 500!
And movie-going was the great American secular religion. It made gods out of names that still resonate mightily: John Wayne (1907-1979), Fred Astaire (1899-1987), Humphrey Bogart (1899-1957), Judy Garland (1922-1969), Bette Davis (1908-1989) and Greta Garbo (1905-1990), for example. And, like most religions, it demanded the right ambiance for the sacrament to take place. And that … led to the creation of Picture Palaces.
There are very few of them today, but movie theaters were often built along the lines of cathedrals. They were filled with grand (or simply ornate) architecture, they were constructed on colossal scale and they were designed to be a sacred space. Entering a Picture Palace of old was to enter another realm – where dreams came true, good triumphed over evil, and movies were worthwhile.
Most of these Picture Palaces did not survive the change in the movie business that started in the 1950s and lasted through the 1970s. In the 50s, movies faced stiff competition from television, and as fewer movies were produced, more and more Picture Palaces found that the economics of supporting such a vast piece of real estate was no longer feasible. Most went under the wrecking ball, to survive only in cherished memories, while some smaller movie houses were sub-divided into multiplexes.
Fortunately for New York-area readers, one Picture Palace still remains, and is the focus of a volunteer-supported base of film and live-performance buffs. The Loew’s Jersey City first opened in September 1929, one of five “Loew’s Wonder Theatres” that opened during 1929-1930. At that time, Journal Square in Jersey City was a popular entertainment and shopping destination. Loew’s Jersey City cost $2 million 1929 dollars to build – and ticket prices were first 35 cents.
The initial plan for Loew’s was to run live theatre performance as well as films. The stage of the theatre was equipped with a full counterweighted fly system with the 50'-0" wide screen rigged to be flown in and out. In front of the stage, a three segment orchestra pit was installed. One segment, on left side of the pit as viewed from the audience, contained the pipe organ console. The organ lift could rise independently and rotate. The remaining width of the orchestra pit could also rise, lifting the orchestra up to the stage level. The third segment was an integrated piano lift in the center of the orchestra lift that could either rise independently or with the orchestra lift.
Loew’s hit its nadir in the 1980s; the last first-run film to play there was Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives. Plans were soon announced to demolish the building, but it subsequently sold to the city of Jersey City, after which volunteers began the restoration project. The house had been broken into a multiplex, and volunteers restored mechanical systems while the Garden State Theatre Organ Society acquired a sister pipe organ to the match the original.
This wonderland echoes with memories. I know people who were there for live performances of Frank Sinatra, Martin and Lewis, Abbot and Costello and Kirk Douglas. I first went to Loew’s in the early 1990s for a screening of This Island Earth (1955). Volunteers had just begun to reclaim this lost treasure, and the film was actually shown in the lobby. Since then, the theatre auditorium proper has been largely restored, creating a premium theatre experience. In the past few years, your correspondent has seen films as diverse as A Christmas Carol (1951), March of the Wooden Soldiers (1934), Pearl of Death (1944), Jason and the Argonauts (1963) – with Ray Harryhausen in attendance, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), Psycho (1960) and many others.
This Christmas, the Friends of Loew’s (as the volunteers are called) have several special treats in store. On Saturday, December 14, Santa Claus will appear in the lobby from Noon till 3:00 PM. The visit with Santa is free, and digital photos are available for only $4. Visitors who bring a new hat, scarf, pair of gloves or warm socks for the Winter Warmth Drive for the Homeless can have their picture for free.
That evening starting at 6:30, Loew’s hosts a concert and sing-along of popular holiday music, performed by Taresa Blunda, Howard Richman, the Choir of St. Dominic’s Academy and the Brass Ensemble of the JC Arts High School with Bernie Anderson at the Wonder Organ. And that treat is followed by a screening of the original Miracle on 34th Street, starring Edmund Gwenn, Maureen O’Hara and Natalie Wood. Tickets for both the concert and film are only $14 for adults and $7 for children and seniors.
The Friends of Loew’s have been working for nearly two decades to both restore this theater to its former glory, and to establish it as a premiere revival house and performance space. But they can’t do it alone. Readers are encouraged to go to events held at Loew’s, or to provide support in terms of work or donations. You can get more information at www.loewsjersey.org, or by calling (201) 798-6055.
For those of you who will be joining me on Saturday, Loew’s Jersey City is located at 54 Journal Square, Jersey City, right across from JFK Blvd and the PATH Station.