Q & A

Last Revision:  Thursday, July 3, 2014

Interested in learning more about the Friends of the Loew’s and Loew’s Theatre?

Friends of the Loew’s has been in the news a lot over the last months.  Last summer, there was a story in the Star-Ledger and on NJ.com about our accomplishments.  We had a great fundraiser last fall, and just presented the second annual Stagefest, our three day festival of live performances.  Going to the Loew’s was even named one of the best things to do in Jersey City by a major real estate website.

But there’s also been some notable coverage of the Fulop Administration’s plan to try to push us aside in managing the Loew’s.

With all of this, we’ve been getting questions from people interested in knowing more about the Loew’s, FOL, what problems we face and why we can’t present even more programming.  So we put together the following Q&A that we think gives people a better insight into what we’ve accomplished, what we’ve had to overcome, and how we will continue to make the Loew’s even better.  We hope you’ll take a few minutes to read the following.  And afterwards, if you’d like even more information about the Loew’s, don’t hesitate to contact us.

“Does Friends of Loew’s want to have more events?”

Enthusiastically, yes! We are committed to making the Loew’s Jersey Theatre a major regional arts and entertainment center. This plan is outlined in our lease and we have worked tirelessly towards this goal since we fought to save the building from imminent destruction.

“So why aren’t you doing more events, like NJPAC and other regional arts centers do?”

The Loew’s isn’t in the same condition as other arts centers,  so FOL can’t provide programming on that scale. Ironically, Mayor Fulop himself made this very clear when he acknowledged that it will take millions of dollars more in renovations before ANYONE can do more than FOL is doing.

The biggest problem is that Loew’s is not currently up to building code, which puts practical limits on the size and even number of events we can host. In FOL’s lease of the Loew’s, the City was supposed to find the funding to make the repairs and upgrades to bring the Loew’s up to the City’s building code. But unfortunately, the City has failed to do this.

Another major problem was that the Loew’s lacked modern stage technology. The Theatre’s original 1929 stage lighting, for example, wasn’t very useful for modern productions. This made it very difficult for many shows to be put on here. Even promoters of large concerts often prefer venues that offer a basic lighting plot that only has to be augmented for a particular show’s needs. Fortunately, FOL has been able to fund a major technical upgrade that’s about halfway through. This will make a big difference in being able to present more live events, especially if the City does its part about the code issues.

“Why aren’t there more concerts like Neutral Milk Hotel at Loew’s?”

It all comes down to economics. The balcony, with more than 1,000 seats, is off limits because of the building code issues. Having more seats means more revenue potential to help cover costs and make a decent profit. So promoters often feel they have to go to other venues that have more seats.

The promoter we worked for Neutral Milk Hotel felt that show would be able to cover its costs and make enough by just selling the seating on the main floor. That’s not to say the promoter wouldn’t have liked to be able to sell seats in the balcony if they were available, but he was OK with what we have. And that was the case with all of the concerts we’ve brought in, such as the first Jeff Mangum concert, Beck, Bright Eyes, etc. But without the extra revenue that would come from having seats in the balcony available, the economics don’t work for a lot of shows.

There’s another aspect to this that is a chicken-or-egg kind of problem. Promoters tell us that they’re reluctant to bring a lot of acts into a venue that doesn’t do concerts more regularly – but they can’t bring in many more shows because of the limited number of seats.

Before a significant number of more shows like Neutral Milk Hotel can happen at the Loew’s, the City has to do what it is supposed to do to take care of the code issues that prevent us from using all of the Theatre’s seating capacity.

“Why isn’t a company like LiveNation organizing events at Loew’s?”

Actually, FOL worked with LiveNation years ago to try to bring events into the Loew’s. But the problems caused by the building code issues got in the way. LiveNation realized that without the being able to use the seats in the balcony, it couldn’t bring in enough revenue to make shows work here. Right now, Bowery Presents has expressed interest in working with FOL but they are struggling with the problem of not quite enough seats to support the shows that they would like to bring in.

“What about doing more smaller concerts, community shows and other events?”

The building code issue is a big problem for every event that the Theatre is utilized for. FOL has to hire a Jersey City Fire Marshal whenever the Theatre is open to the public in order to use the main floor of Loew’s . We paid Jersey City over $15,000 to do this last year alone. The cost can be prohibited, especially for smaller shows. It’s just not possible to have a Fire Marshal here every day, which has inhibitied the FOL ability to offer recurring or daily programs, such as an after school theatre camp, that are mainstays at other theatres.

Another problem has been the lack of modern stage technology. Until recently, every show had to rent, bring in, set up, take down and carry out pretty much EVERYTHING it needed. That got prohibitively expensive for a lot of productions – smaller shows, especially, couldn’t even think about it. The good news is that for the last two years, FOL has been installing modern stage lighting, sound and crew communications. We’re about halfway through, but what’s been done already made it possible to present more live programs in 2014.

“Wasn’t the Loew’s fully functional before FOL?”

No. Back in 1974 the main auditorium was divided up into smaller spaces to make the Loew’s a multiplex cinema, effectively making it unusable for live shows. The dressing rooms fell into serious disrepair. The stage got covered in trash. The 1929-era stage lighting stopped working. Deferred maintenance left leaking pipes and shorted circuits un-fixed.

But things got even worse when the Loew’s closed in 1986 and was readied for demolition: The heat, water, and electricity were disconnected. Various rooms, including the projection booth, were gutted. The movie screen was slashed. Many lighting fixtures were taken out.

During the 7 years FOL had to fight to save it, the Theatre was abandoned and it decayed accordingly. Pipes froze and burst. Mold grew on the worn-out upholstered seats. Paint peeled from the dampness and cold. The roof leaked. Every surface became covered in dust. Before the City of Jersey City bought the Loew’s in 1993, an architectural report made it clear that nothing worked within the Theatre. The report estimated that it would take about $5 million just to get the Loew’s minimally operational, and at least $12 million to make the Theatre fully functional and up to code.

“So how did the Loew’s reopen?”

When the City bought the Loew’s in 1993, it didn’t want to spend any money to fix it up. So the City’s idea was to just “mothball” the Theatre. But FOL didn’t want that to happen. We wrote a grant application for the Jersey City Economic Development Corporation that won a $1 million state historic preservation grant. And we successful lobbied the City to provide the necessary match.

The preservation grant and match totaled $2 million – BUT the trouble was that this money could only be used for work to stabilize the Loew’s — i.e., just to stop the Theatre from decaying even more. But there was NO MONEY for the additional repairs needed to make the Loew’s functional again.

The City was adamant that it would not even consider investing more money in the Loew’s until it was open again. Instead, the City talked about forming blue ribbon panels and steering committees to raise donations for the Loew’s. But this never happened. So it looked like there was no hope of reopening the Loew’s.

Even though FOL had no authority or responsibility at the time for the City-owned Loew’s, we stepped up with a plan to use volunteers with equipment and supplies bought with our own money to make repairs and upgrades beyond the stabilization work that was paid for with the preservation grant and City match. Our goal was to at least make the Loew’s minimally functional.

It took years of hard work on nights and weekends. But by the end of 2001, we’d made it possible to open the Loew’s for a weekend tribute to the anniversary of Pearl Harbor and the recent 9-11 attacks.

“When the Loew’s reopened, why wasn’t it completely ready to function like NJPAC?”

Because the City wasn’t willing to provide anywhere near the funding necessary to make all the repairs needed to reopen the Loew’s, FOL’s stepped in to use volunteer power to do what we could to make the Theatre at least minimally functional again. But there were important repairs FOL simply couldn’t make with volunteers – building code-related work such as reactivating sprinklers and standpipes, installing more emergency lighting, renovating fire escapes, etc. Until these code-related repairs were done, the Loew’s could not host a full schedule and function like other arts centers. But the City didn’t understand this, and pressed FOL to keep doing events at the Loew’s after the 2001 tribute. So FOL launched our classic film series and began to work with the Board of Ed and other local groups to start bringing in a few live programs.

But the limited level of operation that was possible could not generate enough income to sustain itself in a normal way. To work around this, FOL began to use volunteers to operate the Theater in addition to continuing to improve it. We hoped that keeping the Loew’s open in this way would convince the City to work more closely with us and find funding for the most critical remaining repairs. Instead, for a while at least, the City’s reaction was to dismiss what we were doing as not enough and ignore us when we explained what needed to happen.

“Is there a plan to make it possible to do more at the Loew’s?”

Yes. In 2004, we finally got the City to understand that Loew’s wasn’t able yet to function like other arts centers.

So Jersey City finally gave FOL a lease of the Theatre that was also a plan for moving forward quickly. As a key part of that plan, the City agreed to find Urban Enterprise Zone money or other funding to make the critical building code repairs that would allow larger audiences and more frequent programming. And at FOL’s urging, the City also agreed to find funding that would allow us to consult with arts management experts as we increased operations and expanded our organization quickly. We thought this would assist FOL in making the best decisions and give the City added confidence. FOL agreed to apply to the Hudson County Open Space Trust Fund for money for a new air conditioning system to allow year-round operations.

The plan also included goals and benchmarks for the Loew’s once it was made more functional.

With a plan in place, a strong demonstration of support from the City and the increased programming it would have enabled, FOL would have been in a good position to seek donations, grants and even sponsorship from private sources.

“What’s the story with the Loew’s balcony?”

It seems some people don’t realize that Friends of the Loew’s began  the massive project of refinishing and reinstalling the seats in the balcony several years ago.  So far, a dedicated team of volunteers has removed decades of rust and grime from the metal seat frames still bolted to the floor and the hundreds of associated metal parts of the seats in the Loge area. They’ve repainted the frames and parts with a water-based industrial epoxy primer and top coating.  The volunteers also removed, stripped, refinished and reinstalled the wooden armrests, and have reinstalled most of the reupholstered backs and bottoms in the Loge.  Right now, volunteers are working on refinishing the hand rails that ring the Loge.  As always, the paint and other supplies are being paid for from FOL’s own funds, small donations and grants (non-government sourced). 

Unfortunately, the Loew’s massive balcony – over 1,000 seats – remains off-limits for public use until the City fulfills its 10 year old commitment to find the funding necessary to bring the Theatre into compliance with its own safety and fire codes – including repairing the fire escapes from the balcony.  This is why it’s been difficult for FOL to work with commercial promoters to bring more concerts into the Loew’s – for most shows, the promotes need more seats than we have available on the first floor.

The inability to use the balcony is also why FOL paused our volunteer effort of refinishing and reinstalling seats after we had completed most of the seats on the first floor back in 2001.  The seat work was one of the most tedious, time-consuming projects FOL had taken on.  It made sense to hold off on continuing it until there was some timeline for when the balcony could be used.  This was especially true since beginning in 2001 the Loew’s was reopened for limited events, so volunteers were needed to help support theatre operation in addition to ongoing renovations and maintenance. 

When the City ended its first challenge to our lease, it briefly seemed that the City would keep its commitment to carry out the important repairs necessary to use the balcony, so FOL prepared to resume our volunteer seat work.  But of course, by 2011 the City had lost its UEZ money and so was again ignoring its commitment to the Loew’s.  But FOL decided to press on with seat work in the balcony anyway – partly in the hope that the effort might prod the City into doing what it is supposed to do.  But because there was, realistically, no timetable for being able to reopen the balcony and, thereby expand operations, FOL also decided to pursue a new strategy of undertaking important technical upgrades to stage lighting and sound in order to make the limited operations on the first floor more practical.  Both the seat re-installation and technical upgrades will continue this Summer with volunteer labor.  

“So what happened to the plan for making the Loew’s more functional?”

Unfortunately, Jersey City hasn’t done its part. We drafted an application for UEZ funding, but the City didn’t follow through.

Then just one year after passing it, the City tried to get out of our lease by claiming it had lost the record of what it had signed! Four years of legal wrangling followed, during which the City did not pursue any of the funding it was supposed to, and we had to spend a good bit of money on legal bills. So FOL and the Loew’s were stalled. Then in 2009, the City finally admitted the lease was valid. It even committed to providing additional money for construction and planning. In return, FOL agreed to let the City take charge of the construction. But the City dragged its feet again in allocating most of the necessary funding from its UEZ account, implying it didn’t have enough money available. Then the State essentially confiscated all unallocated UEZ funds; Jersey City lost $12 million – much more than enough for the Loew’s.

After that, the City said it would try to find alternative sources of money for the Loew’s, but never did.

So FOL has been left holding the bag by our partner, the City: we get criticized for not running the Loew’s like other arts centers when it’s not in the physical condition to function like other arts center, and we have not gotten the promised resources that the City agreed are necessary to make the theatre more functional.

“Why can’t you just raise more money to complete the work?”

We do receive donations that help support FOL’s ongoing volunteer restoration work. But in terms of being able to get major private funding, the City of Jersey City has created an atmosphere of doubt and uncertainty about the Theatre’s future by not upholding the terms of the lease.

Professional fundraisers will tell you that a prerequisite for being able to seek major private donations and grants is being able to demonstrate the support of your local government and progress toward achieving a defined plan. The City has made it impossible for us to show either. When approaching prospective funders, we are put in the untenable position of having to explain why our local government has undermined our expansion efforts by not living up to the expectations clearly stated in our lease agreement. It is just not possible to come up with a credible excuse for why the City – our landlord AND partner – has refused to provide the funding it promised to bring its own building up to its own building codes. Under these circumstances, who would donate toward a building and cause the City has ignored?

“Because FOL uses volunteers so extensively, doesn’t that mean you are not professional?”

No. “Volunteer” is very different from “amateur”. FOL has built a staff of professional theatre techs, producers, managers, accountants, front of house managers and even building engineers who volunteer because they are dedicated to FOL’s mission and understand that until the Loew’s can operate more fully, critical jobs must be professionally performed but without compensation.

“Why does FOL hold weddings at the Loew’s instead of more shows?”

The revenue from weddings and banquets is an important part of how FOL sustains the Loew’s while the building code issues prevent wider use. But the fact is that NJPAC and other arts center ALSO raise revenue by making themselves available as venues for weddings and other private functions.

“I heard the people running the Loew’s make $90,000 a year. Is that true?”

FOL has only two employees. One was hired just a little over a year ago. Each make $45,000 salaried – but a comment by the Mayor’s Office unfortunately caused confusion by making it sound as if each make $90,000, the amount of the total payroll. Neither receive health or other benefits. As mangers, each employee works significant overtime, mostly on weekends without extra pay. Pattie Giordan volunteered for the Loew’s for 20 years before becoming FOL’s first employee in 2007. She has not received a raise since. Colin Egan became the second employee in 2013. He had helped to lead the effort to save the Loew’s beginning in 1987 and is a founder of Friends of the Loew’s. In1994, JCEDC put him in charge of the grant-funded stabilization work. After FOL leased the Loew’s, Colin left JCEDC but continued to work on behalf of the Loew’s as a volunteer.

The information about FOL’s employees is public record. FOL’s 990 IRS Forms can be reviewed on GuideStar.

“Is FOL’s annual budget of around $250,000 too small for FOL to be taken seriously?”

Mayor Fulop was quoted as saying this annual budget is too small to be taken seriously. The size of FOL’s annual budget reflects the current limitations on the Loew’s ability to function – we can’t do more to earn more. But when those limitations are removed, our budget will be able to grow accordingly.

But the budget alone doesn’t give you a real picture of FOL because it doesn’t show the value of our extraordinary use of volunteers. In practical terms, FOL is much more cost-effective than other arts centers because we do so much with volunteers. And we are the beneficiary of in-kind giving.

Here’s an example of what we mean: An engineer and audio-visual expert, an IATSE member with 30 years’ experience as an audio engineer; an accountant with a major NYC non-profit; a retired NBC producer; a building infrastructure manager with 40 years’ experience in design, operations and maintenance; an audio engineer with 40 years of experience, and a computer technician with 20 years’ experience — all volunteer their services in the operation of the Loew’s. A conservative estimate of the value of their services is over $350,000.

“Is there a plan to make it possible to do more at the Loew’s?”

Yes.  In 2004, we finally got the City to understand that Loew’s wasn’t able yet to function like other arts centers.  The City acknowledged in writing:

“. . . expanded operations of the Loew’s Jersey will immediately require that the Theater be brought into compliance with relevant building and fire codes . . .” (– from the City’s lease of the Loew’s to FOL)

“Does the City give FOL money to run the Loew’s?”

No.  The City directly pays the Theatre’s utility bill to PSE&G, and that’s a help.  But FOL gets no direct subsidy from the City.  We pay our own way from the income we earn and small donations.

“Mayor Fulop’s office has said that developers don’t think FOL is doing enough to use the Loew’s to attract people to Jersey City.  Is that right?”

MOVOTO.com, a real estate website, recently said that catching an old movie or theatre show at the historic Loew’s Theatre is one of “30 Awesome Things You Need To Do In Jersey City”.

Hotelplanner.com ranked going to the Loew’s at No. 5 on its list of things to do in Jersey City.

Last October, the Loew’s was called “one of the 25 Reasons To Move To New Jersey” by Refinery29.com.

And back in 2010, the Village Voice called the Loew’s Jersey the “Best Movie Theatre in New York” — even though we’re located in Jersey City!

Of course, when the City does what it’s supposed to do and fixes the building code problems that prevent us from fully utilizing the Loew’s, FOL will do even more to make the Theatre a stand-out attraction in our region.

“Why doesn’t Friends of the Loew’s just respond to the Request for Proposal that the Mayor called for?”

The RFP process is not the best way to build an arts center to serve our community and region. The most successful art centers around the country are typically founded by non-profits that grew with the venue and took careful consideration as to how the venue expanded with its community’s needs. The RFP process is how governments solicit bids for supplies and routine services, not develop a unique resource such as an arts center. It’s true that some cities that weren’t fortunate to have a non-profit in the picture tried the RFP route, often with mixed results that led to turn-over in theatre management and inconsistent programming.

For the Loew’s, the RFP process would result in a for-profit company taking control, but that is not the way to maintain and grow community arts and other varied programming.  It’s also not the best way to safeguard the well-being and future of one of our most iconic landmark.  Remember, it was for-profit management that led to the Loew’s decline and closing in the first place.

FOL won’t participate in a process that’s not the best for the Loew’s.  And the RFP process is just not necessary for the Loew’s .  FOL is in the picture and has proven both our dedication and ability.  We’ve demonstrated that we can work with major promoters at the same time that we are civically minded and care about how the Loew’s serves it community and the impact it has on nurturing community relationships. We are committed to the plan to move forward with the Loew’s that is clearly outlined in our lease dating back to 2004.

“If Friends of the Loew’s continues to manage the Loew’s, does that mean you’ll never work with promoters or other organizations to bring in programming?”

Just the opposite.   All arts centers work with promoters, producers, booking agents, etc.  That’s how the business works for popular concerts and many other shows.  And we’ve already done this for the concerts that have been presented at the Loew’s.  In fact, years ago we had a tentative agreement with Live Nation to bring in more shows; unfortunately, it proved impossible to do this because of the limitations from the building code issues.  Right now, Bower Presents wants to work with us, but again the limitations from the code issue make this difficult.

But the need to work with other organizations isn’t limited to popular acts.  By their nature, non-profit arts centers always look to collaborate with local arts groups, ethnic communities, schools and universities to ensure program diversity, local ties and a growing audience base.  To the extent that the Loew’s is able to function now, FOL does this already, and our ongoing tech upgrades continue to make these kinds of collaborations more practical.

“If the City hasn’t provided all the support it’s supposed to, what resources has FOL brought to the table?”

Since 2004, FOL has secured over $750,000 in grants from Hudson County for the restoration of the Loew’s.

Despite the building code and other problems that seriously limit the Loew’s ability to function, since 2001 FOL has hosted 804 events at the Theatre.  169 were community events – from JC Public School student art shows to wellness events to fundraisers for local organizations.

FOL created and sustains a  business model shaped specifically for the Loew’s unique circumstance that keep the Theatre open despite the fact that the building code issues prevent it from operating sustainable as other arts centers do.

Since 1995, FOL has invested more than 122,326 volunteer hours to renovate and operate the Loew’s.  The US Bureau of Labor has different values for volunteer labor depending on skill and profession.  But even using the Bureau’s lowest multiplier, the dollar value of this volunteerism is $2,263,268.

Beginning in 2011, FOL began making major upgrades to the Loew’s stage lighting and sound infrastructure.  To date, we have acquired equipment with a new, book value of over $800,000.

“Mayor Fulop’s said FOL has refused to partner with the City.  Is that true?”

First, we ARE already partnered with the City per the terms of our Lease, and have always acted in a spirit of solidarity with our City’s administrations. For example, even though FOL is not required to facilitate City sponsored shows at the Loew’s until the City moves on dealing with the building code issues, we always support City events at the Theate.

FOL could have reacted to the City’s failure to do its part of the plan for the Loew’s by walking away.  Instead, we have demonstrated our commitment to our community and our partnership with the City by working tirelessly to rebuild the space and increase our programming annually with minimal support from the City.

It’s Mayor Fulop who has refused to partner with FOL by trying to walk away from our lease and the plan moving forward with the Loew’s in which the City and FOL are committed to ensuring the Theatre’s success as a non-profit arts center. The “options” the Mayor gave FOL were just alternate ways of forcing us to do what he wanted and abandon that plan. In one case, he would have let us comment on RFP responses, but have no defined role or input in the Theatre afterwards.  Alternatively, he gave us the option of responding to the RFP — but FOL knows that the RFP process is not best suited ensuring the Loew’s success as a non-profit arts center. Becoming a glorified concert venue is not the point.

“Why does FOL pay $1 a year in rent?”

In 2004, the lease was structured to be conducive of facilitating a not-for-profit business model.  $1 is a standard amount to be applied in situations such as these where there is not an expectation of profit.