A lavish New Jersey theater saved by a dedicated group of locals. A concert performed by musical soul-mates who live on different sides of the world. A pair of filmmakers telling these two idiosyncratic stories in one documentary. Meaghan Garvey unravels the uplifting tale behind Friends of Wonder.
Rising dramatically from a cluster of discount stores, dive bars and pawn shops, The Landmark Loew’s Jersey Theater is an outlier among its surroundings in Jersey City’s bustling Journal Square.
New Jersey’s second-largest city is a quick train trip from New York City, with a view of the Manhattan skyline from across the Hudson River. It has seen significant redevelopment lately, but still it’s not known for its beauty; mostly, it’s a city focused on industry.
The Loew’s exterior evokes a bygone era of architectural grandeur, with intricate embellishments creeping up the stone walls and a vintage marquee, slightly run-down yet oozing with the glamour of old Hollywood. But it’s the inside of the theater that takes your breath away. Deep red curtains drape over massive marble columns; gold curls over every surface and a giant, sparkling chandelier hangs from the lobby’s impossibly high ceiling.
ListenCourtney Barnett on her love of musicals
ListenCourtney Barnett on her love of musicals
The Jersey City landmark certainly lived up to its billing as one of Loew's Wonder Theaters. It’s a space where the past and the present blur together – a portal to a dreamy world of fantasy, all for the cost of a movie ticket (and maybe a box of popcorn).
For years, filmmakers Irene Chin and Kurt P. Vincent have been coming from Brooklyn to Jersey City to see the theater’s screenings of classic movies, from Hitchcock to Kubrick. It was after their trip to see 2001: A Space Odysseywhen the idea of creating a short film about the Loew’s struck, from a bit of bad luck that turned into perfect timing.
“Irene left her cell phone at her seat, so we had to go back and find it, and it was super dark,” Kurt recalls. “One of the volunteers helped us with his flashlight and we started talking to him. He turned out to be this really nice, interesting guy named Jim. He was like, wanna see the theater?” Jim took the pair on an impromptu tour of the massive space, regaling them with anecdotes from its history.
On their way home, Kurt and Irene knew this place had a story to tell. And thus, Friends of Wonder was born; a short film, directed and edited by the duo, spotlighting the history of the Jersey City Loew’s and the volunteers who run it, presented through the lens of a Kurt Vile and Courtney Barnett concert hosted by the theater last November.
One of five lavishly designed Wonder Theaters introduced throughout the New York metropolitan area as the flagship locations of the Loew’s chain, the Jersey City venue had its grand opening in September of 1929, a month before the stock market crashed. A testament to “American optimism,” as one volunteer puts it in the film, its decadent interior was once even more luxurious, its lobby decked out with gold statues imported from France and a marble fountain filled with goldfish.
Despite the Loew’s over-the-top grandeur, the theater was, in fact, a great social equalizer. This was an era in which arts and culture had suddenly become accessible to the masses – from radio stations beaming straight into people’s living rooms, to movie houses serving as an affordable form of entertainment for all social classes.
“Here is a shrine to democracy where there are no privileged patrons,” said George Rapp, the architect whose firm designed the theater, of its unifying power. And though the Loew’s was not the only theater in the area, its unparalleled vision of affordable luxury offered some much-needed escapism during the bleak years of the Great Depression and World War II. But by the 1960s, the Wonder Theaters (as well as the neighborhoods around them) had crept into a state of decline. With the popularity of television and the introduction of the multiplex, it was tough to fill the venue’s 3,000 seats. The theaters sank into disrepair. Enter the Friends of the Loew’s: a volunteer-based organization, founded by Patti Giordan and Colin Egan, that saved the Jersey building from demolition in 1986 and ultimately persuaded the city, after a seven-year battle, to buy the theater in 1993. Still, the Friends’ work was just beginning.
“When we came the first few times, it was a dead building,” Patti explains in the film. “They had just closed the door after the last show and left the popcorn in the machine; there was dirt, cobwebs and mice skeletons all over the place. The city didn’t want to spend any money on it...But we knew that the building needed immediate help. If we were going to save the Loew’s, we had to just figure out how to do it.”
So the Friends got to work. Using the funds from a state preservation grant, along with their own money and supplies, they formed an ad hoc construction unit (all on a volunteer basis). The process took years, but by the end of 2001, they were able to re-open the Loew’s for a weekend-long tribute to the anniversary of Pearl Harbor and the 9/11 attacks.
“You quickly understand that this isn’t a corporate-run place – you can see it in the details”
It was the Friends' passion and dedication that inspired Kurt and Irene’s to shine a spotlight on the theater, just as much as it was the magnificent space. “You quickly understand that this isn’t a corporate-run place – you can see it in the details, and the level of work that still needs to be done,” Kurt says. “At the core, it’s not profit-driven; it’s dedicated to the core mission of serving the greater community of Jersey City as an arts center, with equal access to all kinds of programming.”
In fact, the Jersey Loew’s is the only remaining Wonder Theater still serving as a space for both movies and community events. Brooklyn's Kings Theater underwent a $95 million renovation and reopened in 2015, strictly as a performance venue, while the Queens, Bronx, and Manhattan theaters are all currently owned and operated by religious groups. But the Jersey venue still hosts a wide variety of cultural events, all organized by the Friends of the Loew’s – from dance performances to cultural conferences to local theater groups' plays (including a children’s production of The Addams Family).
And the regular film screenings remain charmingly old-school, including original print versions of silent films shown through a vintage carbon-arc projector. Musical accompaniment is provided by Jim – the theater’s organist and, as demonstrated in the film, a true character – playing on the majestic Wonder Morton Organ, custom-designed for the theaters.
Still, the city remains skeptical as to the Loew’s ability to turn a profit. Over the past few years, the volunteers have fought against the mayor and local government, who considered turning it over to a big national concert agency.
Sure, that kind of company could invest the money needed to make the Loew’s fully operational, but Kurt and Irene worry – as do the Loew’s volunteers – that the spirit of the place would be lost to history. “It would instantly become a top-dollar performance arts venue,” Kurt says. “You would have to be booking a certain size show and, all of a sudden, you'd no longer be able to be doing these interesting little community theater events, and dance programs and silent movie nights.”
These kinds of big-budget corporate incentives have increasingly homogenized the concert-going experience, with promotional companies far less willing to bet on acts that aren’t guaranteed to sell out. It’s a frustrating landscape to navigate for those who love going to a show in search of something truly unexpected, and it makes outliers like the Loew’s, which cares more about diverse community programming than turning a profit, all the more vital.
Besides that, changing the theater’s management would displace the Friends of the Loew’s, who have now dedicated decades of their lives to the theater, and in the process, formed a tight-knit community. “It’s like a second home to these people,” Kurt adds. “And it’s pretty cool that a group of volunteers are in charge of this grand Wonder Theater that, at one time, was quite literally the nicest theater in the country to see a movie.”
Because of coding restrictions and past trial-and-error struggles, the Loew’s doesn’t host concerts as much as they do other events. But when Kurt and Irene learned that Kurt Vile and Courtney Barnett would be playing a show at the theater last November, something clicked. “Our intuition told us that there’s something about them and their music that would bring out the character of the theater,” Irene says.
“We’ve been listening to their music for so long, and knew there was something there. It’s just a vibe – kind of run-down, but beautiful.” Decked scruffily in t-shirts and flannel, the pair of singer/songwriter/ instrumentalists stand out amidst the Loew’s lavish period glamour, but they make perfect sense in the space in spirit. The former lead guitarist of The War on Drugs, Vile’s known for his no-frills style of immersive, country-inflected psych rock; Barnett’s folky garage rock is colored by her dry wit. But since they’ve started collaborating, the two have become both creative kindred spirits and best pals, in spite of living half the world away from one another (Vile’s from Philly, Barnett from Melbourne).
Their first collaborative album, last year’s Lotta Sea Lice, wasn’t originally intended to be more than a couple of tracks until, almost without noticing, they’d amassed a collection of twangy, intimate, existential songs that showcased a true chemistry.
More than anything, Vile and Barnett’s songs feel like conversations between friends, and throughout, Friends of Wonder is punctuated by generous, song-length performances from the duo.
ListenA brief history of Loew’s Jersey Theater
ListenA brief history of Loew’s Jersey Theater
The effect of this contemporary music (albeit with an old soul) filling the ornate, time-worn space of the theater is nothing short of magical – a sense of the past co-mingling with the present, in a space that feels detached from the dreariness of reality. Barnett, slouching next to Vile on the green room couch in the film’s final scene, describes their collaboration, and the live music experience, with quiet wonder. “It’s about music, it’s about art, and that’s why people want to go to things – that’s why I go to see music, because it re-fills you with, like... hope.”
That same sense of hope resides inside the Loew’s, and in the volunteers who keep the theater alive – a grand but intimate testament to the idea that art, beauty, and community still matter.
Photography by Laura June Kirsch