Beautiful Thing

How to Save Silent Movies: Inside New Jersey’s Cinema Paradiso

Screening and celebrating silent movies is a tough business. But in Jersey City the fight goes on, with fabulous organ accompaniment.

Theater organs are rare and beautiful time machines, recalling an age when movies didn’t “talk” and admission cost only 35 cents.

They have been called “the most complex musical instruments ever devised” and their numbers have dwindled to the brink of extinction. According to the American Theater Organ Society, there are fewer than 300 such instruments remaining in the United States, with fewer than 100 original installations in existence.

One such organ resides in the Landmark Loew’s Jersey cinema palace in Jersey City, New Jersey. It has been restored to its former glory by an all-volunteer force of cinema and organ aficionados and once a month, it accompanies some of cinema’s lost, but not forgotten, classics. You can see and hear it in all its glory this weekend when the organ will play over a screening of The Big Parade (1925). In its own way, its story of survival is every bit as dramatic as the films it accompanies.

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The slasher film series Friday the 13th is well known for its homicidal tendencies. It has killed over 200 people on screen, plenty of cinematic conventions regarding good taste, and at least one movie theater.

In August 1986, Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives was the last movie shown at the Loew’s Jersey Theater in the Journal Square neighborhood of Jersey City, New Jersey. After 57 years of continuous operation, the theater closed, was sold to a private company, and scheduled for demolition.

Built in 1929, the Loew’s Jersey was one of five Wonder Theaters built by the Loews Corporation. It was the only one built west of the Hudson River (the others are in Manhattan, Queens, The Bronx, and Brooklyn).

Manhattan’s The Strand Theater is usually considered the first Movie Palace. It opened in 1914 on the corner of 47th Street and Broadway. It was torn down in 1987 and replaced with the Morgan Stanley Building. Today, what was once the location of the theater’s entrance is now a Sunglass Hut.

The Loew’s Jersey opened September 29, 1929, with a live performance by Ben Black and his Rhythm Kings, the Loew’s Symphony Orchestra, and a screening of the film Madame X. One month later to the day, the stock market crash of Black Tuesday signaled the start of the Great Depression.

The Loews Wonder theaters were a type of Movie Palace, grand theaters that combined the style of high-class, Old World opera houses with the workaday entertainments of early 20th-century storefront nickelodeons. At the time movies were unsure of what they would become. When the Loew’s Jersey opened, the first feature film was only 23 years old.

And the Loew’s Jersey was not the first movie palace built in Jersey City, nor was it the largest. The State Theater opened seven years earlier in 1922, and the Stanley Theater, with a 4,300-seat capacity, in 1928. Jehovah’s Witnesses saved The Stanley. It had closed in 1978, but was bought by the Church in 1983 and restored with volunteer help. Today the Stanley is in pristine shape after another series of renovations were completed in 2013. The State Theater was torn down in 1997.

The Loew’s Jersey’s fate hangs somewhere in the balance. After being purchased by Hartz Mountain Industries, it was scheduled for demolition in April of 1987. While the theater sat boarded up, future Friends of the Loews executive director Colin Egan happened to be stopped at a red light adjacent to the theater with a friend who knew of an upcoming City Council meeting. In an interview with The Daily Beast, Egan said, “The movement to save the theater started from that meeting.”

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Along with Pattie Giordan, who co-founded the Friends of the Loews with him, Egan gathered over 10,000 signatures from the community and recruited dozens of volunteers to show up for City Council meetings. Their efforts resulted in Jersey City buying the theater back for $325,000 in 1993. Restorations started in 1995.

For the next six years, Jordan, Egan, and an all-volunteer staff worked on restoring the theater. In 1997, Whit Stillman re-created Studio 54 in its ornate lobby for his film The Last Days of Disco. The Loew’s reopened to the public in 2001, mostly on a handshake agreement. That December, the Friends of the Loews commemorated the 60th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack with a cinematic tribute to World War II.

“We were just about ready to function in a limited capacity.” Egan says. “And film is a relatively cheap thing to showcase.”

The city encouraged them to keep going.

“In 2004, we convinced the city to make a formal agreement.” Egan says. Part of that agreement was bringing the theater up to code and securing funding for restoration. “But then the city wasn’t sure which version of the lease they approved. They asked us to vacate the premises. There were endless meetings between the Friends of the Loews and lawyers for the city. Because of that, private funding for the restoration was cut off. Work was not approved. Finally, in 2009 the city admitted to the lease’s validity.” The promised funding never materialized.

A year later, newly elected Governor Chris Christie recovered unspent money from municipal funds, taking over $11 million that had been earmarked for Loew’s Jersey restorations including air conditioning (the theater does not operate during the summer because of excessive heat), sprinklers, and fire exits.

A change in city administration presented additional problems for the Loew’s Jersey. With the election of Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop in 2013, planned restorations needed new approval, further delaying promised funding for the aging theater. The mayor sought outside vendors to take over management of the Loew’s, and the Friends of the Loews sued for slander of title. On June 4, the lawsuit was dismissed, with Judge Hector R. Velazquez ruling that the five-year lease extension between the city and the Friends of the Loew’s was invalid.

In late July, the judge overturned the decision, citing a 2009 document that was “overlooked” during the initial proceedings.

The appeal paved the way for the Friends of the Loews to resume operations this fall, when the theater hosted its annual Golden Door Film Festival, but the city remains adamant about bringing in a commercial promoter to operate the historic venue. A spokesperson for the city told The Jersey Journal, “In the long term, it doesn’t change one thing about the direction we are going.”

While tension continues to mount on both sides, little progress is made. Both the Friends of the Loew’s and the mayor’s office agree on a total of $21 million for a full renovation. Across the river in Brooklyn, the Loew’s Kings recently began a renovation project. The theater is similar in size to the Loew’s Jersey but closed almost a decade earlier. The Kings renovation is estimated to cost $93 million.

Across the street from the Loew’s Jersey is a fenced-off empty lot. Plans to develop residential apartments on the lot looked hopeful in 2007, especially since the budget included over $2 million earmarked for restoration of the Loew’s, but then the global financial crisis of 2008 delayed the project indefinitely.

Writing about the proposed towers for The Jersey Journal, Terrence T. McDonald recently said, “Five years and two mayoral elections later, the lot is still vacant, a glaring symbol of the city’s inability to restore Journal Square’s former glory.”

Egan says a trial between the Friends of the Loew’s and Jersey City is tentatively scheduled for March 2015, but the two sides are in the preliminary stages of attempting an out-of-court compromise.

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With an exterior that resembles a church more than a movie theater, the Loew’s Jersey is a literal landmark and registered as such with the state.

Standing atop the Loew’s Jersey Theater is a clock, designed by renowned clockmaker Seth Thomas, with an oxidized statue of St. George fighting a dragon. The clock once rang the quarter-hour with a red light to simulate a dragon’s fire, and a mechanized tilt to perpetually send the knight into battle. In some versions of that story, the spear is the first weapon George tries. It fails to pierce the dragon’s skin and the battle continues three days. The mechanically animated knight hasn’t worked for some time.

Entering the theater brings visitors to an ornate lobby with vaulted ceilings, golden walls, and an enormous chandelier. Twin staircases at the far end lead to a second level of mirrors, a broken water feature, and restrooms that have their own waiting rooms. The entire space is windowless, once illuminated by a legion of electrical lights, but the ongoing restoration has yet to illuminate the theater’s deep corners. Still, the Loew’s is filled with ornate decorations, and glimpses of its former glory are visible once the eyes adjust to the darkness.

Because they have existed for so long, both buildings and cinema seem like natural objects, but they are factories with parts hidden behind every decorative facade, a theme expanded upon in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo.

Built on the cusp of a coming revolution in cinematic exhibition, the Loew’s Jersey is equipped with an array of features rarely seen in any contemporaneous structure or movie house.

In front of its 50-foot screen lies a height adjustable orchestra pit that can rise up to the level of the stage, or drop below where performers may enter through a series of small doors in a short, cramped corridor (A security feature available from the time of original installation prevents the orchestra pit lift from operating if any of the doors are open to prevent accidental dismemberment.)

Attached to the orchestra pit is the theater’s most unusual feature, a fully restored Robert Morton “Wonder” Organ. To replace the costly orchestras that were then falling out of fashion with silent filmgoers of the 1920s, the theater organ was developed with an impressive array of sound effects and abilities. Precursors to modern-day electronic keyboards, the organ operator can produce a variety of sounds on a console that looks like Liberace went on tour with Emerson, Lake, and Palmer.

Unlike a piano, in which the depression of a particular key results in the corresponding hammer of a one-note string, an organ key triggers an electrical action wired to a series of noise-making instruments.

Most of those sounds come from a series of metal pipes, some with reeds (the vibration of which produces a sound similar in function to a clarinet or oboe) and others with variegated openings (producing notes likes a brass instrument or whistle).

Still more keys engage an array of other sounds, from snare drums and cymbals to awooga horns and sirens. Because the sounds are controlled and created electronically, a theater operator may sit at an organ console far removed from the tubes and pipes that make it sing.

At the Loew’s Jersey, the organ’s pipes are housed in climate-controlled rooms above and adjacent to the stage. Through a series of foot pedals similar to those found on a piano, the organ operator controls a wall of wooden panels that dampen the sound when closed and allow the instrument to reach its full volume when open.

Through a pair of 18-inch metal ducts, a compressor on the first basement level supplies a steady stream of air pressure to both pipe-filled rooms. When the organ operator presses a key, that pipe opens, and the compressed air rushes in to fill the space, creating the instrument’s many sounds. Some operate like bellows, creating an accordion-like sound as they aspirate. Still others, especially the percussion instruments, are struck by hammers that move when the air pressure changes.

The organ’s pipes range in size. The 18-inch air ducts that feed the pipe rooms are each over 50 feet in length, large enough to fit a bowling ball. Some of the individual pipes that create the organ’s sound are barely the size of a pencil, producing thin, high-pitched notes, while others are over 14 feet high, and held in place by huge wooden cabinets, with voiced sounds like straightened tubas.

Producing all these sounds requires a careful manipulation of the Wonder Organ’s ranks (which are the arrangements of pipes) and stops (which are tabs on the organ meant to modify those sounds by enabling or disabling the voices of any pipe). To easily switch between sounds, the organ is outfitted with dozens of preset buttons like the kind found in old radios. Fixed positioning of organ stops can be mapped to the preset buttons, so the operator can perfect the sound combinations before the show and focus on operating the keyboard during the live performance.

The Robert Morton Company went out of business in 1931. By the time the Friends of the Loew’s began restoring the theater, the original Wonder Morton organ was gone.

Before its 1986 closure, the Loew’s attempted to increase revenue by triplexing the theater. The owners added a wall dividing the seats under the balcony, creating two small theaters, while the balcony seats became the new main auditorium, by projecting onto the theater’s original screen. The orchestra seats, now inaccessible to audiences, were removed along with the Wonder Organ.

With the help of the Garden State Theater Organ Society, an organ from the Loew’s Paradise Theater in The Bronx was moved to Jersey City and refurbished in an old film screening room. To the surprise of everyone involved, the Paradise organ had a number of parts with Jersey City labels.

The Wonder theaters were all built around the same time, and parts for the organs were shipped out as they became available. Because the Paradise theater opened first (by less than a month), some of the organ mechanics originally designed for Jersey City had been sent to the movie palace in the Bronx. To Bernie Anderson, one of the Loew’s Jersey’s regular organists, finding those labels felt like the organ was finally coming back to the house it had always meant to inhabit.

Listening to the Wonder Organ, it’s easy to forget the house containing it, but the instrument is incorporated into the building. Between the power, air, and pipes necessary for its immense sound, the Wonder organ occupies multiple floors of the building across several rooms.

The organ itself is part of the show, as it can rise or drop independent of the orchestra pit. When the Loew’s Jersey shows silent films with organ accompaniment, an operator sits at the console to “play in” the audience. As the film starts, the organ sinks back down below the stage where the musician can be heard and not seen. In an interview with The Daily Beast, Anderson said, “One of my favorite compliments is when people come up to me after the show and tell me they forgot I was even there. They get lost in the movie.”

In such a large house, it’s easy to get lost. Even the 50-foot projection screen used to show films can disappear when it is raised into the five stories of space behind and above the stage. Immediately in the wings sits the original electrical board, which resembles the lab instruments in James Whale’s Frankenstein.

In modern theaters, these controls are located in the back of the theater so the board operator can clearly see the show, but technological limitations meant the electrical boards at the time of the Loew’s Jersey’s construction were behind the curtain.

This awkward position meant the lighting had to be precisely timed and, like the Wonder organ, came equipped with a variety of preset capabilities. The specific lighting cues would have been practiced and perfected ahead of time, so that on the night of the show, the operator would only have to throw a switch to achieve the desired effect.

On the first level below the stage lays the screening room (lately converted into an organ workshop), several dressing rooms, and the orchestra pit entrance. The second level contains another series of dressing rooms. A third houses a full rehearsal studio, and a fourth level is just for storage.

All told, the Loew’s Jersey is some seven to nine stories, cut into the solid rock of Hudson Hill. The lowest level is adjacent to the tracks for the New Jersey PATH trains that run from Newark to New York City, the modern remnants of a wooden plank road that predates the founding of the United States.

The theater is capable of live performance, and local legend has it that a young Frank Sinatra, having walked from Hoboken, was inspired to become a performer after watching Bing Crosby perform there in 1936. But the theater was designed for cinema, and facing the auditorium from the stage, every line in the theater draws upward to the projection room, five stories above a sea of 3,100 seats.

Once a month, the Friends of the Loew’s host a classic movie weekend, with one show on Friday night, and a double feature on Saturday. At least one of those presentations is usually a silent film with organ accompaniment. This weekend, the Loew’s Jersey will screen King Vidor’s The Big Parade, projecting a 2013 Blu-ray release of the film from the front of the balcony.

The Loew’s Jersey is equipped to project film, but prints of the 1925 classic are hard to come by. Filmstrips were never designed with long-term storage in mind. According to the Film Foundation, over 90 percent of the movies made before 1929 have been lost forever.

When first released, the full version of The Big Parade film print movie clocked in at 13 reels or 11,519 to 12,550 feet and ran for 141 minutes. With a total of $289 million (adjusted for inflation), it is the highest-grossing silent film of all time. In 1992, the movie was selected for the National Film Registry and as such has a print preserved in the Library of Congress.

Properly preserved, some film prints can last up to 100 years, but without regular maintenance, the ability to digitally preserve those prints requires extensive restoration, are incomplete at best, and must be kept, unwatched, in climate-controlled environments.

Taking them “out of the box” damages the print and reduces its lifespan, resulting in a situation where new prints of the movie must constantly be copied from the copies, which only slows the loss of quality. The negative for The Big Parade is one of only a few from that era to survive in its entirety.

Prints of films are also at risk of mishandling by their exhibitors. A recent report revealed that 35mm prints degraded over time as projectionists removed individual frames of nude scenes to keep in private collections. However, the largest cause of film loss is intentional destruction, sometimes to recycle the chemicals contained in the film, in particular silver nitrate.

The popularity of The Jazz Singer in 1927—the first notably commercially successful “talkie”—hastened the demise of silent films, and studios sold off or destroyed their archives. Today, the films that remain are sought after more for their cultural legacy and historical value than any potential financial reward. And so, those that love silent films—like Egan and Giordan at the Loew’s Jersey—fight for them as inventively and creatively as they can.

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In Jersey City’s Journal Square, near the theater itself, is a September 11 Memorial Fountain that has been inoperable since 2010 due to a broken pump. Jersey City has claimed it would cost $20,000 of money it doesn’t have to fix it. Surrounding the memorial are paving stones engraved with the names of Hudson County residents who died in the attacks and prominent, culturally significant living residents. Colin Egan and Patti Giordan’s names are there. The stones bearing their names are cracked. Even when it rains the fountain is always dry.