A nonprofit group — and not a city-picked private company — will continue to run the historic Landmark Loew’s Theater in Journal Square, a judge ruled on May 29. While City Hall is concerned that the decision will render it difficult to host major shows at the theater, the nonprofit says they want to offer both large and small-scale entertainment events.
The nonprofit Friends of the Landmark Loew’s Theater is the group that will retain control of the historic facility, Superior Court Judge Hector R. Velazquez ruled on May 29. The ruling reverses a 2014 legal decision that had appeared to clear the way for the city to award renovation and management operations to a private company instead.
Velazquez said the city’s original contract allowing the FOL to operate the theater until 2020 remains valid.
The city was notably unhappy with the ruling.
“This is a loss for residents because instead of the possibility of daily events with global talent coming to Jersey City, this guarantees the theatre will sit as is with only sporadic silent movies, even less frequent concerts, no air conditioning and no ability of the group to complete the restoration,” said Jennifer Morrill, spokesperson for Jersey City.
She added, “It is upsetting because the most important thing to the FOL was protecting their own personal salaries and fiefdom, despite the fact they can’t complete the repairs after 25 years. Without their ability to restore the theatre and without the ability to put the $40 million dollars into the facility to repair the theatre fully, I don’t see how this is a win for them other than they protected themselves personally at the expense of all the residents in the city.”
“What Mayor Fulop said more than a year ago he wants for the Loew’s is not very different from what the FOL has been saying.” – Colin Egan
Colin Egan, the director of the FOL, said his group is gratified by the latest ruling.
He said the FOL changed lawyers between its first attempt to void the city’s effort to take over the operations of the theater and its more recent legal move.
“Our new lawyer pointed out things that made the judge look at the case differently,” Egan said.
He added, “As far as we are concerned, the issue and any bad feelings it caused are behind us. Now is the time to sit down with Mayor Fulop and the city to plan how to truly take the ongoing restoration and operation of the Landmark Loew’s to the next level.”
The enormous theater opened in 1929 at a time when movie companies would produce films and show them only in their own theaters. The Loew’s company was the parent of MGM at the time. The new theater, which opened a month before the stock market crash, held 3,100 seats and attracted live performers including Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, and Duke Ellington.
The theater was saved from destruction several times over the years. The FOL claimed the city purchased the then-closed theater in 1993 intending to “mothball it.” The FOL argues that it was not their group that caused it to become stagnant. They say that in 1994, the city gave the Jersey City Economic Development Corporation, not the FOL, the responsibility of doing $2 million worth of stabilization work and repairs to keep the building from falling down. Half of this came from a state preservation grant, half from the city.
The FOL argued that the city had failed to hand over the money to the JCEDC. Instead, the FOL said, the group used its own funds to start very limited programming in 2001.
Last year, the Jersey City Redevelopment Agency (JCRA) awarded a contract to restore the theater and take over its operation to AEG Live/Mana Fine Arts/NJCU. But FOL protested.
The city’s request for proposals called for the expansion of the current community programming lineup to include a higher volume and greater diversity of programming, such as national and international touring music, theater, comedy, dance, and other stage performances.
The FOL argued that the city’s contract with AEG violated the terms of a lease that allowed the FOL to oversee the theater until 2020.
In arguing before the judge, the FOL claimed that it entered into a lease agreement in 2004 with the purpose of running the Loew’s as a non-profit arts center. The court ruled the deal was valid and that the FOL retained operating rights.
Working out the differences
Egan said this week that the FOL wants to work with the city to fulfill its mission.
“What Mayor Fulop said more than a year ago he wants for the Loew’s is not very different from what the FOL has been saying since we started the effort to save the theatre from the wrecking ball many years ago,” Egan said. “The Loew’s needs to be an arts center to serve and showcase our community. To do this, there certainly needs to be big concerts by big promoters; but this has to be within a framework that makes everything else the Loew’s has to do sustainable, including affordability in the arts, youth programming, local arts, film, community interest activities, and more.”
Egan pointed out that the FOL has learned to pursue these goals without the city’s help.
There are a number of “nuts and bolts” issues that must be addressed. These include finding ways to ensure that revenue from the commercial elements will help pay for local arts, youth and other programming.
“We have to be sure scheduling is done in a way the does not give all of the most desirable show dates to commercial shows. Film, local arts and other programming should have guaranteed access to Thursday, Friday, Saturday booking slots too,” he said.
City should release funds
Stage lighting, sound equipment and storage space must be available for all programming, not just the big commercial shows, Egan said, noting that often in other venues that equipment is rented. This is not a cost that local groups can afford.
He said the differences between the city and the FOL can be worked out.
“Right now, the city and the FOL can make a fast start at working together if the city allows the FOL to use the more than $500,000 in grant monies we won to make some important fire and other code upgrades,” Egan said. “While the court case was still ongoing, the city would not move forward with this vital work. The city also got $2 million from a Journal Square area developer for the Loew’s, and now the city can use this money right away to make additional important code repairs that will go a very long way toward enabling the theatre to host bigger and more frequent shows.”
Egan said the FOL and the city want the same things.
“It’s just a matter of arranging the pieces to get there,” he said. “We need to sit down with the city to figure out how to make it work. We need to have big shows, but not at the expense of local programming.”
Al Sullivan may be reached at email@example.com.