By WILL McKINLEY
The best place to see a movie in New York City isn’t in New York City. It’s in Jersey City.
“The Loew’s Jersey Theater offers a moviegoing experience that cannot be duplicated anywhere else in the New York area,” said historian and Brooklyn College film professor Foster Hirsch, a longtime Village resident. “And it’s so close, especially for us Downtowners. If you hit the trains right you can get there in under 15 minutes.”
On a recent Saturday night, Hirsch left his apartment on West 12th Street and hopped a PATH train bound for the Journal Square station in Jersey City. Minutes later he walked through the polished brass doors of the Loew’s Jersey Theater a magnificent 1920s movie palace that was shuttered more than two decades ago and rescued, refurbished and reopened in 2001, thanks to the efforts of an army of dedicated volunteers.
The occasion for Hirsch’s visit was a screening of “Laura,” director Otto Preminger’s iconic 1944 film noir. Before the show, Hirsch, author of the new biography “Otto Preminger: The Man Who Would Be King,” provided scholarly perspective on the director and his work. Afterwards, he opened the floor to audience questions and vigorous debate on theme and subtext. It was like film school with popcorn all for a very un-Manhattan admission price of $6.
“The audiences are terrific and very appreciative,” said Hirsch, who has been hosting classic film retrospectives at the Loew’s for two years. “People who go to the Theater get to see vintage films in an environment that approximates what the original audiences would have experienced. Where else can you get that?”
Original audiences began filling the 3,187 seats of the Loew’s Jersey on September 28, 1929. Constructed in a Baroque/Rococo style at a cost of $2 million, the Jersey was one of five flagship “Wonder” theaters in the New York area built by Marcus Loew, the man who brought Metro, Goldwyn and Mayer together to form MGM and to provide a steady stream of content for his theaters. Like most of the movie palaces of the era, the Jersey was also a fully equipped legitimate theater, the first stop for touring productions originating at New York City’s Loew’s Capitol Theater.
Live performances at the Jersey were discontinued in the mid-1930s, a casualty of the rise of talking pictures and the depletion of Depression Era bank accounts. As the years passed, the theater survived a forced divorce from MGM, brought on by the Hollywood Antitrust Case of 1948, and withstood the one-two-three punch of television, cable and home video. It ultimately closed its doors in 1986, following a screening of “Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives.”
But just when it seemed that the curtain had fallen for the final time, the Loew’s Jersey much like the hockey-masked hero of the theater’s final first-run film would rise again.
“I read an article in the local paper about how a developer wanted to tear it down,” said Colin Egan, longtime Director of the Friends of the Loew’s. “I grew up in Hudson County, so I decided to be a good citizen and do something. I really didn’t think we would win. It was a long fight, but we did.”
After a lengthy legal battle, the theater was acquired by the city of Jersey City in 1993, and Egan launched a DIY rehabilitation effort with plenty of help.
“We had money from the city and state to stabilize the building,” he said. “But we wanted the theater to become functional again. And the only way to do that was to roll up our sleeves and create this volunteer construction project.”
Egan estimates that more than 67,000 volunteer hours have been logged since the restoration began, accomplishing as much as $5 million worth of renewal work. Non-paid laborers have reversed the triplexing of the theater that occurred in its final decade; hand-cleaned and reupholstered all of the original seating; meticulously restored the cathedral-like lobby and auditorium and overhauled the lighting and projection equipment (with the help of an Academy Award-winning film technician). For the last six years, the Loew’s Jersey has presented a regular schedule of classics, foreign language films and specialty screenings all projected on a 50-foot screen in a setting that would make any movie buff weep with joy.
But apparently you don’t have to be a film lover to love the Loew’s.
“I was never a big moviegoer,” said Michelle Derden, a 32-year-old public relations executive who has been volunteering since last spring. “For me it’s less about the movies they show and more about what it represents. It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen.”
This weekend, the Loew’s Jersey unwraps its annual holiday film festival with a gift for film fans. The theater will unofficially debut their newly restored pipe organ (a rescued relic from the sister Loew’s Paradise Theater in the Bronx) with a holiday sing-along prior to Friday night’s screening of “Miracle on 34th Street.” For the more than 200 members of the Garden State Theater Organ Society, this Christmas present has been years in the making.
“It took us eight years, taking this organ completely apart and rewiring it all with volunteers,” said Bob Martin, restoration project manager for the GSTOS. “About a month ago we finally got it playing. It’s a humongous sound that envelops you and uplifts you. This is the experience we want to bring movies back to.”
Martin and Egan share a common mission. “The New York City area had more movie palaces than anywhere in the world,” Egan said. “And now we’ve lost almost all of them. There isn’t anything like this left.”
But will jaded New Yorkers venture across the river to go to the movies in New Jersey? According to Egan, many already do.
“On average, about a third of our audience comes from New York City,” he said. “Because it’s ridiculously easy to get here.”
And just in case you were wondering, “Yes your Metrocard will work on the PATH,” Michelle Derden added with a laugh.
Look for her on your next visit to the Loew’s Jersey. She’ll be the volunteer usher with the engagement ring.
“I’m getting married there in May,” she said. “But even if I weren’t, I would still be volunteering.”