by Maureen Wlodarczyk
My mother Arlene was a “Jersey Girl” decades before anyone thought of calling us Garden State girls by the moniker that now evokes images of big hair and dark suntans. Arlene wasn’t that kind of “Jersey Girl.” She was a Jersey City girl, born and raised. Born just weeks after the stock market crash of 1929, a child of the Depression and an adolescent of World War II, my mother remembers a very happy, if modest, childhood in the city she loved, surrounded by caring family, friends and neighbors in the Greenville section. I enjoy hearing her talk about those “old days” and I am usually the one to prompt her to tell me those stories.
Arlene is a girl of 81 (well, almost 82). We were having lunch at her place recently and as she neatly constructed a petite sandwich for herself, I asked her to tell me what she did for fun when she was a teenager in the mid/late 1940s. She looked up and thought for a moment. “Well, we went to dances at the ‘Y’ and other places, went to the movies and always stopped in to hang out at ‘our’ soda fountain.” She explained that there were soda fountains all over Jersey City and that young people had their favorites where they knew they would meet up with friends.
“Where did you go to the movies?” I asked, knowing that Jersey City has a rich history of early movie theaters. After reminding me that her memory isn’t as good as it once was, she told me about going to the Cameo on Ocean Avenue, near Cator Avenue. I don’t remember the Cameo, although we lived in Greenville until I was five years old. I do remember coming back to Jersey City to stay with my maternal grandparents during summer vacations and taking the bus to Journal Square with my grandmother to see a movie at the wonderful Stanley theatre.
Curiosity piqued, I dug around a bit to find out more about those iconic houses of live shows and cinema that entertained people for many years before falling victim to perceived obsolescence by the 1960s and 70s. Most of the best remembered theatres, including the Stanley, Loew’s, State, Palace, Capitol and Cameo, opened during the Roaring Twenties and began their runs showcasing live acts in the days of Vaudeville and early movies. The largest and most lavish were architectural and interior design works of art, and no doubt prompted many wide eyes and dropping jaws among theatre-goers, even before the curtain came up.
Two decades before these grand movie houses opened their doors however, there was already a lively theatre community in Jersey City, Bayonne, and Hoboken that included the Majestic Theatre, Bon Ton Theatre and Academy of Music, all in Jersey City, the Gayety Theatre and Empire in Hoboken and the Bayonne Opera House. The Majestic, located at Grove and Montgomery Streets, opened in September 1907 to raves.
Months before that, the Jersey Journal reported “Curious Crowds at Majestic Theatre,” gathering daily to watch the progress of construction at the new playhouse building that would seat over 2,000 people and include dressing rooms to accommodate 200. The “curious” included not only locals but “architects in charge of new playhouses in other cities.” The Journal went on to describe construction specifics that would result in a brick and masonry building “far in excess of the requirements of new building laws.” The Journal also covered opening night at the Majestic under the headline “A Brilliant Audience at the Majestic,” reporting that “the consensus of opinion was that the latest addition to Jersey City’s dramatic temples was a credit to all concerned.”
A hundred years ago, locals could have gone to the Majestic to see Fiske O’Hara, “America’s favorite Irish singing comedian,” in the romantic comedy-drama “The Wearing of the Green”, to the Bon Ton for “Bohemian Burlesque” or to the Bayonne Opera House where “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was finishing its run. The Empire Theatre was offering vaudeville, “nifty girls,” and “sensational acrobats.”
Then, as now, a play, movie, or musical entertainment could (temporarily) transport its audience out of their own lives, daily cares and struggles through the talent and creativity of writers, musicians, and performers. Given the choice, I wonder if they would have traded their seats at the Majestic for the chance to watch Dancing with the Stars on an iPad.
Maureen Wlodarczyk is a fourth-generation-born Jersey City girl and the author of two books about life in Jersey City in the 1800s and early 1900s: Past-Forward: A Three-Decade and Three-Thousand-Mile Journey Home and Young & Wicked: The Death of a Wayward Girl. She is an avid genealogical and historical researcher and squeezed in a career as an operations manager in banking and financial services.