Cautiously, like Auntie Em after the tornado in The Wizard of Oz, we’re beginning to emerge from months of sheltering — not from the twister that blew Dorothy away, but from an invisible enemy, one likely still everywhere (be careful everybody, especially you protestors). I sometimes imagine the grim reaper, or franchises of same, wandering up and down the streets of my neighborhood. That’s about right: better than a hundred thousand fewer Americans are alive because of Covid-19. Who knows whether we’ll have to duck back inside by the fall, but for now (intermission?) there are forays to be made into the wider world. Once out, where will people want to go? I’ve been musing a lot about drive-in theaters, which are in a resurgence now, but actual sit-down movie theaters, those dark caves of fantasy, will open sooner or later, if at fifty-percent capacity. (In Texas they’re close to opening five theaters right now).
Having survived running a 2,672-seat movie palace in 1976, I know a thing or two about movie theaters at less than fifty percent occupancy. In our case, it was less than one-fifth occupancy. Due to a fire-code issue that involved an on-going war with the landlord, we never did get our official certificate of occupancy; but in a way we hardly needed a C of O. I do remember one Wednesday matinee, when the only person to buy a ticket, a quiet balding man, asked for his money back, “...I’m sorry, it’s just too lonely in there!” Would he say that now? Or, in these Covid times, would he be used to isolation? — and perhaps even grateful for all the empty space around him?
Movie theater attendance has been dwindling for years, generating numerous gloomy forecasts of the end of movie-going altogether; though not everyone agrees. I’m with Marcus Loew about going to movie theaters for the experience of the theater itself. After quarantine, the most mundane multiplex seems a little bit like the Roxy! Marcus knew his palaces well, like the five New York “Loews Wonder Theatres,” defined by their Robert Morton wonder organs. That they are all still standing is something to remark on, due largely to tenacious folks in their neighborhoods, the vision of some specific individuals, like “Reverend Ike,” and, in several cases, church congregations. Of the five, only the Jersey in Jersey City defined itself largely as a movie house until the pandemic; so I’d like to focus on their recent efforts at being of service during the pandemic.
Okay, so they can’t show Bogie and Bacall, or pull out all the stops on their wonder organ, played Saturday nights until recently by a partially-retired projectionist. They can’t even host graduations — yet. But here’s what they’ve discovered: why not let those high schools use the outside of the theater and the marquee itself?:
Pomp and circumstance . . . outside the Loew’s Jersey City. Even though COVID-19 has caused commencement ceremonies to be cancelled all over our region, members of the Class of 2020 from Jersey City's Infinity Institute got to show off the caps and gowns they worked so hard for in their high school careers. The congratulations shout-out to Infinity grads will stay up on the Loew's marquee thru tomorrow morning.
Then Innovation High School will be up. For the complete schedule of when each Jersey City High School will have its moment to shine — literally — outside the Loew's, check our Facebook Events page. You can make a wonderful memory, and take a great graduation picture from across JFK Blvd...
The Jersey is one of the two original Loew's Wonder Theatres, I’ve never managed to get around to visiting, and especially now that I see what they’re doing for their community, I can hardly wait to go there. The Jersey is the only one of the five wonders that defines itself as a movie theatre first and foremost (others, like the United Palace of Cultural Arts, show movies part time, if at all).
At the St. George Theatre (still standing in this harbor-side neighborhood, St. George, Staten Island, where I still live), we hosted Curtis High School’s 1976 Graduation. It was one of the few times we actually filled all 2, 672 seats (the other time was when we got our mitts on film canisters containing the director’s cut of The Exorcist, then only two years old). I’d like to think we’d have been as enterprising and civically inclined during a pandemic as the current folks at the Jersey, who seem to have a whole bunch of high schools lined up. Good for them! Good for Jersey City! And may their marquee list a movie soon...
The other four NYC Wonder Theatres, show less entrepreneurial energy. The Kings on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn has cancelled or rescheduled everything, but then they’re entirely a live house, and NYC won’t schedule sitting down in the dark together till Phase 4, which seems a ways off. The Paradise in the Bronx is a church, operated by a prosperity congregation, so out of the theater game. Ditto for The Valencia in Queens. The United Palace in upper Manhattan appends TBD to most of its calendar events. It continues, however, to serve its spiritual mission, the legacy of Reverend Ike, with, among other offerings, “the world’s first online Sanctuary of Spiritual Artistry.” Get a prayer ready if you’re moved to do so, “Each month, on the full moon, all prayers will be released into the Universe in a sacred ceremony performed by the ministers of the United Palace of Spiritual Arts.” In these troubled times, we need all the prayers we can get...