City Was at the Center of Movie Industry, Grand Entertainment

Culture and Education
Published September 26, 1996

City Was at the Center of Movie Industry,
Grand Entertainment

| Published September 26, 1996

Empire Theater on Washington Street, circa 1910. The Newark Public Library

Not only was Newark one of the nation's great centers of theaters and movie houses, it actually contributed to the development of the motion picture industry. Before that, it was an important center for legitimate theater, vaudeville, and even burlesque. A line in the play 'Gypsy' describes Newark as a theatre town only a 'deep breath away from New York.'

One early theatrical reference is to a production at Arch Gifford's Tavern at Broad and Market streets. And it is known that Capt. Jabez Parkhurst opened the South School, or Literary Institution in Lincoln Park with a presentation of 'Gripis' in the latter part of the 18th century. During most of the 19th century, four large halls, Washington, Mechanic, Military, and Library, were used for all types of 'sedate musical and literary presentations.' Not until 1847, however, was, the first real theater built in Newark at the corner of Market and Halsey streets.

In 1870, Newark's John Wesley Hyatt invented celluloid, and in 1888 local clergyman and inventor Rev. Hannibal Goodwin turned Hyatt's celluloid invention into practical movie film. Albert O. Petit of East Orange manufactured the first movie machine for Thomas Edison, and John F. Ott, a mechanic who worked for Edison, has been described as Edison's or the world's first film actor. Newark's first real movie house was opened in 1897 at Market Street near Washington Street. The admission was a dime. Before the movie house became king of Newark's entertainment interest, there were several legitimate theaters in town. One of them, the Grand Opera House, was located at Washington and Marshall streets (originally erected as a skating rink). When Miner's Newark theater opened in 1886, it was the latest word in theatrical production, complete with an orchestra floor, a large balcony and gallery and luxury boxes, and up-to-date stage equipment. In 1911, Morris L. Selesinger build the Orpheum Theater at 385 Washington St. and New York's Shubert family built an elegant legitimate theater at Broad and Fulton streets across from First Baptist Peddie Memorial Church. Here, some of the nation's finest actors performed to packed houses of proud Newarkers. In 1922, the old Newark Sunday Call newspaper boasted that Newark's legitimate theaters and movie houses numbered 62. These included two legitimate theaters, five devoted to vaudeville, eight major theaters in the downtown district, and 47 other movies scattered throughout the city. The Call stated that 'It is reasonable to estimate that 100,000 persons daily patronized the theatres of Newark.'

For many people who lived through the Great Depression and the busy years of World War II, the movies became a best Friday and/or Saturday night friend. Some of Newark's theaters live on in their memories. These included the Branford, the city's largest and most elegant house which seated 3,100. Built in 1941 by Emil Zucker and Herman Steiner, it was named for one of the Connecticut towns that original Newarkers came from in 1666. Other great structures include: Loew's State, 2,700 seats; Proctor's Palace, 2,500 seats; Kenney's, 2,100 seats; Terminal, 1,800 seats; Orpheum, 1,693 seats; Miner's Empire, 1,605 seats; Newark, 1,589 seats; Lyric, 1,466 seats; Broad, 1,460 seats; Proctor's Roof, 1,450 seats; Brand, 1,250 seats; Paramount, 1,200 seats; Court, 800 seats; Goodwin, 761 seats. In addition to these downtown houses, Newark's neighborhoods were dotted with unusually fine movie houses which drew local neighborhood crowds.

Yet all did not remain perfect in movieland. Signs of decline were generally marked in the late 1940s and 1950s with the advent of television, changing city neighborhoods, the flight to the suburbs, and an increasing ease of movement. Newark's last two movie houses, the Paramount and the Adams went dark in 1986 when their insurance rates increased 500 percent. Newarkers seeking mainstream popular movies had to go elsewhere. Until recently, the era of the movies seemed dead, but is it? The 1990s saw the opening of two new theater complexes in Newark; one at the old airport drive-in and the other at Springfield Avenue and Bergen Street. Again, Newark has become one of the area's biggest, brightest, and best-run movie centers. Once more, there is a special corner of the city where a dozen curtains rise on those Hollywood fantasies. The city that contributed to the development and nourishment of the American film industry again is going to the movies first class!