One weekend a month, The Landmark Loew’s Theatre in Jersey City shows movies. My dentist is in Journal Square and last year after an appointment, the Loew’s was opened, hosting some kind of housing seminar, and I finally was able to look around
Movie Palaces—Loewe’s was one of them—are unique pieces of architecture, peculiar to and an emblematic of the time in which they were designed and built, the 1920s. I know they sometimes presented revival films at the newly refurbished Loew’s, but I never really was interested enough in what they were showing to make an effort to attend until February, when they presented “Niagara” with Marilyn Monroe & Joseph Cotton on a double bill with “The Killing”, Kubrick’s early noir classic with screenplay by Jim Thompson. I’m a noir buff and I had never seen “Niagara.” (It was a great noir).
A strange thing happened though, I liked the Loew’s experience at least as much as the films. Now, I’m going once a month, regardless of what’s playing.
Last weekend took in “Journey to the Center of Earth”. Unlike my noir interest, I honestly had no desire to see this film again—like everybody else as kid I saw it on TV. The month before, I went to see “The Innocents”, a British film—screenplay by Truman Capote—based on a Henry James short story, “The Turn of Screw.” I’m not a Henry James fan (or a Jules Verne fan) at all. I’m not a fan of British Film in general. It’s considered a classic British ghost film by folks who rate such things. I guess I was curious, but the reality was that I went because, as the fellow who introduced “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” said, for the “art of seeing a film. The experience of seeing a film.”
I enjoyed “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” more than “The Innocents,” although neither film I would recommend, unless you see it in Journal Square. The atmosphere at Loew’s— huge screen, rundown faux-luxury of the interior design, the comfortable seats and the polite and attentive audience—brought out and enhanced the art almost hidden in this movie (Pat Boone is a star for goodness sakes).
I’ve become a believer. Presentation is not as important as story, character, the grammar of film, the artistry of the acting, direction, screenplay, source material, cinematography, score, etc., but it is worthy of appreciation.
For years, I went to the revival theaters that used to be in New York City, like the Biograph, the Thalia or St. Marks Theater 80 (I think that is what it was called). I still go to Anthology Film Archives and the Film Forum. But all these theaters—the ones long gone and the ones still showing revival films—simply do not hold even a dim klieg light to the Loew’s experience. I only went to or go to those Manhattan screens to see the specific film. I go to Loew’s for Loew’s.
I’m utterly democratic when comes to cinema. I love serious films, genre films, foreign films. I love old films. I love new films. I love films that I don’t even like and even regret seeing. I just like the movies.
In spite of the convenience of watching them at home on tape and now disc, I prefer the movie theater—even the real crappy multiplexes (a-hem, Newport Mall). One of the more transformative things in my life was seeing nearly every John Cassavettes film at The Anthology Film Archives during a special presentation several years ago. I’ve seen a lot of them again on the TV screen. It is simply not the same. Not even close.
Loew’s is a “Movie Palace.” In 1929, Movie Studios built these grand, ornate theaters in inner cities throughout the nation. The great Beacon Theatre in Manhattan is one such palace. Movies had become immensely popular during the jazz age. The early films—the silent one reel films—as well as earlier cinema incarnations such as the zoopraxiscope and the kinetoscope—were usually presented in arcades or carnivals. Except in larger cities, there were few theaters built specifically for cinema. Movie Palaces were an exciting entertainment concept that seemed sure to score big—huge screens, opulent interiors, even a stage and orchestra pit. The new sound films were longer in length, they were often shown as double bills, along with shorts, cartoons and newsreels. Going to a palace was designed as an event in and of itself; the movie may have been the centerpiece, but the evening also included: audience raffles, sing-alongs, and Vaudeville acts—comedians, singers, dancers, jugglers.
The theaters held about 3,000 or more patrons, who would dress up for their night on the town most of which was spent in this unabashedly lavish setting—as flashy and gaudy as the decade in which they were conceived. Reportedly, the first Movie Palace was financed and built by one of the Ringling Brothers, the intention being to create a theater that would present film at its best and still be a stage for live performances. I guess even the studio heads knew that having a movie popular enough on its own to fill 3,000 seats every night was impossible.
Then the depression happened, film going, although still popular, was downsized. Smaller, movie-only theaters, with lower priced admissions, were built. Even shorts, double bills, newsreels, all the other stuff, gradually faded away, especially as television grew in popularity. By the 40s, Night clubs replaced Vaudeville stages and Theater Halls (the movie palaces were essentially a combination of a theater hall and a cinema). By the 50s, the novelty of the Drive-in and their large screens further drew away audience from urban theaters. Let’s not even discuss the multiplex pandemic.
The movie palaces were owned by movie studios, and anti-monopoly lawsuits resulted in rulings against the studios, forcing a divestment of the theater and the companies that produced what we now call content. The ruling further fueled the demise of the Movie Palaces, and by the last half of the 20th century, Movie Places no longer fit into the new system of film distribution.
The movie palaces were beautiful, unique and mimicked some of the great opera houses of Europe, including excellent acoustics and sight-lines. But they were an idea whose time passed almost upon the moment they were constructed. Most, like the Loew’s, fell into disrepair, although a few were re-purposed, like the Beacon, which by the 70s became an intimate venue for popular music.
In the 90s, a volunteer movement in Jersey City rehabilitated the Loew’s. Slowly but surely, it was refurbished and is now being used again for various events—I heard that Beck played there a few years ago—and once a month, cinephiles gather to see real celluloid prints of classic movies projected on a large screen.
I love the Film Forum and likely prefer the movies they show there. I’m old enough to believe Traffaut is still hip. The Film Forum shows more exceptional films, the Loew’s has a more exceptional film presentation. Both should be celebrated—although, the Film Forum often sells out, and at Loew’s there’s never a problem getting a ticket (only 8 bucks too).
Loew’s seems to attract its own kind of film buff too. Bernard Hermaan—the famous film composer of such classics scores as Psycho—did the score for Journey. His name received not just a smatter of applause when it flashed on the screen during the credits, but two other times, bursts of enthusiastic hand clapping sprung up because his name was mentioned by the individual on the stage introducing the film. Nobody ever applauds anything at the Film Forum.
On the PATH ride back to Grove, several New York City film-geeks boarded the train. That’s right. They’re crossing the Hudson to the Jersey side. The new restaurants, bars and clubs in J.C. all want to attract people into the city from outside the city. The Loew’s, which operates with the help of volunteers and on a shoe string budget, gets people from New York—as well as from the rest of New Jersey—to come to Jersey City. Loew’s does it all by providing an experience that is unique to Jersey City and doing it well. As far as I can tell, the only promotion is by word of mouth. Those one weekends per month at Loew’s should be a lesson for the office holders, city planners, real estate developers and business owners of Jersey City. The key word here: should.
Maybe, what appeals to me most about Loew’s—it is still in a sort of ramshackle state. They’ve done a remarkable job renovating it, it is clean and you can still notice the original splendor—like the impressive chandelier hanging in the lobby. The renovation, though, falls just a little short of a complete restoration. A slight but pleasantly musty aroma of mildew seems to drift through the air. There are places where the plaster is broken and several aspects of the venue are only partially intact—for example, the large fountain separating the immense bathrooms is chipped and missing sections of tile. It’s fine by me—authentic, and decayed—I love that mix.
I don’t mean to imply that a full renovation should not be completed—it would be fantastic to have a Beacon Theater in Jersey City and one can only imagine the positive ramifications for the city and the Journal Square neighborhood. But I love the semi-renovation, I love seeing the rebirth stalled at mid-birth. I love its tarnished luster. The theater seems frozen not in its glorious opening day grandeur, but in the moment that the splendor began to go to seed. Dingy charm—it can’t be planned and only occurs by happy accident.