Home Culture Loew’s Jersey Theatre: A Civic Movie Palace in Jersey City

Loew’s Jersey Theatre: A Civic Movie Palace in Jersey City

by Megan Joseph
0 FacebookTwitterPinterestEmail

Loew’s Jersey Theatre opened on September 28th, 1929 as one of five Loew’s Wonder Theaters in the area. Celebrating its 90th anniversary this year, its full audience sat 3,187 movie-goers and brought people of all classes, ages, and backgrounds together in Jersey City.

Colin Egan, executive director of non-profit Friends of the Loew’s, knows the ins and outs of the theatre’s restoration. If you’re looking for a unique tour of the historical site, this is your guy. Discover a 1920s movie palace within the Loew’s Jersey Theatre, a community landmark both then and now. Keep reading to learn about the Loew’s Jersey Theatre, a civic movie palace in Jersey City. 

loes theatre jersey city

{Photo credit: FOL, all rights reserved}

How Loew’s Came to Be

Pioneer in the stage and film industries Marcus Loew and the Rapp + Rapp architectural firm modeled the Loew’s Jersey after luxurious European buildings but made it available for anyone who had 15 cents in their pocket. George Rapp called it, “opulence unbound, but opulence with a purpose.”

Colin explains the purpose was to ensure the Loew’s Jersey made everyone feel special: the rich and the poor. It cost $2 million in 1929, but they used inexpensive materials to cut costs like plaster, terracotta, and aluminum leaf to make it look like expensive marble, stone and gold leaf.

loews jersey theatre

{Photo credit: FOL, all rights reserved}

Loew’s Theatres presented live variety shows, or Vaudeville, which changed weekly in its chain of theatres across the country. In the 1920s, the Loew’s Company created and owned the film studio MGM. Colin explains at the time, the film industry was vertically integrated: the same companies that produced the movies in their studies also showed them in the theatres they owned.

Celebrities who performed live on the Loew’s Jersey’s stage included Bing Crosby, Cab Calloway, George Burns and Gracie Allen, and Duke Ellington.

Frank Sinatra may never have appeared on its stage as a star, but according to his daughter Nancy’s biography, it was at the Loew’s Jersey in 1933 that Frank saw Bing Crosby perform and decided to pursue singing as a career. Ted Meyn, the theatre’s organist, would broadcast the pre-show singalongs on the local radio station, and legend has it he would find Frank in the audience to sing on the air as a favor to his friend.

Read More: The History of Leo’s Grandevous + The Frank Sinatra Connection

A regular schedule of live shows ended at the Loew’s in the mid-1930s. But it still showed some of the greatest American films on its big 50-foot wide-screen, like Gone with the Wind, which ran for many months.

During a 10 minute visit to Loew’s Jersey to promote one of her films, Judy Garland even sang from the theatre’s lobby balcony to 1,500 patrons who weren’t able to get one of the 3,187 seats in the auditorium, because they were all sold out. Colin says this is one of his favorite stories.

“[Loew’s Jersey Theatre] brought a sense of togetherness and community to the city,” Colin said.“Along with a feeling of being special to everyone who stepped through its doors.  But when post-war America happened, people wanted to start new lives in the suburbs.”

“Save the Loew’s”

loews theatre colin

{Photo credit: FOL, all rights reserved}

The Loew’s Jersey Theatre was an icon to residents in Hudson County from the time it was built until its last show {Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives} in August 1986. Growing up in Union City, Colin frequented the Loew’s Jersey Theatre with his parents in its later days. He’s witnessed the growth of suburbia in North Jersey and the migration out of cities. 

Before Colin became involved with the theatre, a real estate development company purchased the Loew’s Jersey with the encouragement of city government to build an office tower on the site to revitalize Journal Square. In February 1987, Colin and budding architect Walter Syrek drove past the building and talked about what a shame it was that the theatre would soon be gone.

“It was in that moment we decided to try to save it,” Colin said. “A few other people who felt the same way joined with Walter and me, and our grassroots group set out to convince everyone the Loew’s was worth saving.” 

They went to Planning Board hearings and neighborhood meetings, and at first, the case for the Loew’s was not easy. But gradually, they began to change both people’s minds and the city’s policy.

The group staged small events in the lobby such as a masquerade ball around Halloween in the early 1990s. Colin explains this was a way to get local residents back to realize what the theatre was before it could be gone.

Eventually, the group received 10,000 signatures from residents asking that the Loew’s be saved. It was still very much a condemned building until 1993 when the development company, beaten down by the efforts of Colin and others, offered to sell the Loew’s to the city for less than a third of what they bought it for. 

In a moment of high drama, with just a one-vote margin cast at 2:00AM before a room packed with Loew’s supporters, the City Council voted to buy the Loew’s Jersey. 

Colin’s group, by then called Friends of the Loew’s {FOL}, helped get a grant from the New Jersey Historic Trust to stabilize the theatre. The city didn’t do much to help with fundraising, and they realized the cost of the stabilization work would be more than the grant.

“So then we decided to roll up their sleeves and turn FOL into a volunteer construction company,” said Colin.

The auditorium was split into three separate cinemas, the seats were covered in mold and grime, the stage was completely cluttered by a dumpster-load of junk, and the projection booth had literally become a pigeon coup, but none of that stopped the community volunteers. 

loews jersey city

{Photo credit: FOL, all rights reserved}

“Of course, everyone wanted to know when the Loew’s was going to open again,” Colin said. “So as soon as our volunteer restoration work had accomplished just enough to allow even the most limited events, FOL found itself also becoming a nonprofit theatre management company in 2001.”

Through the years, many people have worked with Colin to play a part in the renewed Loew’s story: Patricia Giordan, the president of FOL’s board; John Faherty, stage operations director; and George Riddle, business administrator and treasurer. All were founding members of FOL, including former City Councilman Bill O’Dea, now on the board.

Ready For The Close-Up

loews theatre

{Photo credit: FOL, all rights reserved}

Restoration is ongoing at the Loew’s Jersey, especially in terms of the balcony, which will eventually add 1,000+ seats when finished. In one of their restoration videos, volunteers refinish the balcony’s railings with gold paint and wood stain to look like new.

The theatre also still presents many of its classic movie screenings on 35mm film in the authentic reel-to-reel fashion {he Wizard of Oz, The Godfather, and Pulp Fiction to name a few} In this process, film reels need to be switched every 20 minutes and rewound at the end. Colin says it’s important to appreciate the physicality involved in showing a movie on film. They’ve recently had NYU and Columbia students visit to witness the technique.

Colin explains that making and showing movies in 35mm, from its invention to today, has been one of the most remarkably stable platforms: the oldest projector can run the newest movie {without sound} and vice versa. 

Because of its dedication to the history of film presentation, the Loew’s even has a Vitaphone projector, a vintage example of the first widely used technology for having synchronized sound with a moving image. It has a record player attached to it that is turned by the same gears that advance the film.

Loew’s Jersey is temporarily closed for shows in the summer months, but you can still visit the theatre Tuesday through Saturday any time of year. View the calendar for a list of events.

See More: Hoboken #TBT: The Willow Terrace

A Community Symbol


{Photo credit: @loewsjersey}

Flash forward to today, the theatre still brings the community together in a way Colin never expected. He’s astonished at the variety of people who got involved from long-time residents to people who just moved to the area and people not even from Jersey City. The restoration brought people together to change city policy and work on a neighborhood project.

“[The theatre] has given residents a way to participate in hands-on involvement in the actual restoration of a physical landmark in the state and community,” Colin said.

Loew’s Jersey also hosts gallery shows and events with local organizations like Art House Productions, the Journal Square Neighborhood Association, Jersey City public schools, and New Jersey City University.

Among the bigger name celebrities who have appeared recently at the Loew’s Jersey are Stephen King, Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile, and Game of Thrones author George R. R. Martin. 

Colin is currently working with the Jersey City government to increase funding and bring more live concerts to the area. Once the balcony restoration is finished, it will be similar to the size of the Beacon Theatre in Manhattan. Colin says this will enhance Loew’s Jersey visibility to larger musicians, comedians, and performances.

How to Get Involved

In non-virus times, the theatre is always looking for weekly helping hands-on Saturdays from 12:00PM-5:00PM. Tasks can range from maintenance work like plastering to running the Loew’s Jersey Facebook and Instagram accounts. Stagehands and ushers are also needed for show season, pending the status of the pandemic. To get involved, email [email protected]. In the meantime, follow the organization on Facebook and @loewsjersey on Instagram.

Have you visited the Loew’s Jersey Theatre? Let us know in the comments! 

email buttons

Check out Hoboken Girl’s new Job Board here!

Become a local expert in no time.
Enter your email address to stay in-the-know. No spam, promise.
Thank you for subscribing!

also appears in

0 comment