The Drama of the Newark Concert Halls… and the Theaters That Were Left Behind

Newark Cultural Center
The proposal called for a performing arts complex with a 1200-seat theater and 4000-seat concert hall, located where Saint Michael’s Hospital now stands. Terraced plazas would face Plane Street, opposite the gardens of the Newark Museum, with a tree-lined esplanade or “mall” connecting the site to Washington Park (now Harriet Tubman Square). In this proposal at least, the planners were considerate enough to bury the bulk of the center’s parking, underneath the complex rather than building a separate parking lot. Right here in the middle of Newark, you would be at the epicenter of the fine arts… Theater, Music, Plastic Arts(painting and sculpture), Literature, and Architecture. Image from the Newark Public Library.

Guest post by R. Ballantine

During my usual dig through Newark’s historical archives, I came across a peculiar piece of our city’s history. In 1947, the Central Planning Board issued its newest Master Plan. In it, you will find the usual suspects… statistics, population projections, traffic pattern studies, proposals for new schools and housing projects… the usual stuff. Then you arrive at pages 131 and 132, and suddenly things get interesting. There you will find the diagrammatic plans and an aerial rendering for what was to be Newark’s own version of Lincoln Center.

As you probably know, this cultural center never made it past this report. What was to be the last piece cementing Newark as the state’s capital of high culture became another shelved dream in a city whose fortunes were driving off into the sprawling wasteland of lawn munchers and Formica. We would eventually get our performing arts complex in the form of NJPAC, but before this piece of cultural infrastructure was built, someplace else had to step in. Filling the role of Newark’s center for Drama and Music.

Newark Symphony Hall Restoration
Newark Symphony Hall, awaiting for the construction of its new marquee, has the architectural elegance and classical proportions that helped it stand out against its competition. Its immediate location beside the right-of-way however reflects its original intent as a purely commercial endeavor. If it had been built by the City, it would probably have been set back from the street to create a forecourt for better appreciation of the building rather than having to cross the street and fighting traffic to observe its aesthetic composition. Rendering courtesy Clarke Canton Hintz.

Originally built as a Masonic temple, The Mosque Theater became the home to New Jersey Symphony Orchestra in 1964, later renaming it to Newark Symphony Hall. It’s classical exterior and sumptuous interiors certainly give the aura one would expect from a high-brow concert hall, however the same could have been said of the other theaters that existed at the time.

The Mosque Theater was struggling to keep itself open along with The Adams, The Paramount, The RKO Proctor, and countless other smaller neighborhood theaters. One could say that Symphony Hall got lucky, because it lacked the architectural excess and over-embellishment that the other theaters had. Those theaters were places designed to appeal to ‘low-brow’ amusements like Vaudeville, Hollywood Musicals and Spaghetti Westerns… not Verdi and The Ring Cycle. And so, Symphony Hall succeeded in becoming another center of civic culture such as our Library and Museum.

Even when NJPAC was completed in 1997, it remained a part of our city’s creative sphere, sponsoring music and theater, poetry and lecture series, festivals, and community programs. To many Newarkers, Symphony Hall is an institution that evolved to meet the ever-changing cultural and civic landscape of our city.

Nj Pac Newark Design
In the original brief given to the architect by the State, the new Performing Art Center was to be contextual, unpretentious, and in-line with Newark’s existing urban fabric… the architectural antithesis to the Ceremonial Modernism of Lincoln Center. Unfortunately, one could say the architect proved to be too successful in his execution. Its architecture is so meek, inward, and inoffensive that it is instantly forgettable. Which is why the building needs those giant letters spelling out N J P A C… to remind Suburban commuters on Route 21 that “oh yeah… Newark has ballet now”. Just a few years later cities like Los Angeles and Denver were building epic works of ‘starchitecture’ (Walt Disney Concert Hall and Denver Art Museum) to intentionally announced to the world at large ‘Come visit my city and take my picture! Take my Picture!’. Left: photo by Author, Right: photo of The Walt Disney Concert Hall by Gehry Partners LLP.

What is disconcerting, is that we only focused on preserving spaces for erudite cultural endeavors, and we discarded our popular culture in the process. The Paramount Theater is now just a marquee, its roof having collapsed during a storm in 2021.

The Adams and The RKO Proctor may stand, but they also run the risk of meeting the same fate. The Little Theater, originally dedicated to German expressionist film, ended its life as a seedy and decrepit adult movie house.

We celebrate NJPAC and Symphony hall as the best Newark can offer in the dramatic and musical arts, but the average Newarker is not donning suits and fine dresses to go watch the NJSO perform Beethoven’s 5th.

When a Newarker wants to go see a movie, they are either relegated to traveling to the suburbs or to neighboring towns such as Jersey City. When Newarkers want to see a play by independent theater companies, they resort to crossing the Hudson River.

Paramount Theater Newark
An undated photograph of the stage and auditorium of the Paramount Theater as it looked during its peak. Image from the Newark Public Library.
Paramount Theater Newark Ruins
The same stage and auditorium circa February 2021, all that extravagant splendor is now lost. The Paramount became a victim of its current owners, who would rather let this piece of our history gracelessly rot so that some suburban developer can dump another uninspired apartment tower, using its ‘protected’ façade as a piece of architectural kitsch. This is the logic of a serial killer, who after murdering his victims would proceed to peel off their skin so he could wear them as a body suit. Photo by esseXploreR.
Rko Proctors Auditorium
An undated photograph of the RKO Proctors’ Auditorium in its heyday vs. how it looks circa 2021. The elaborate interior ornamentation is gone, but perhaps it could still be rehabilitated to meet modern fire and building standards and return to being the darling theater of Market Street. (left) Image from the Newark Public Library. (right) Photo from

There is nothing stopping us from re-activating and rehabilitating the theaters that are still standing in downtown Newark. They can contribute once again to energizing our city as a capital of entertainment for people of all ages and demographics.

Streaming services may be killing the movie megaplexes of the suburbs, but people now more than ever are clamoring to support great stories and songs performed by local and rising talent. Nothing can compare to the feeling one has when they sit in their seat, inside a lavish and extravagant auditorium, waiting for the lights to grow dim, so that for a few hours you can become lost in the frivolity of the stage, or the magic of the silver screen.

Adams Theater Many Saints Of Newark
On the left, the auditorium and stage of the Adams Theater circa 2009. On the right is a photo from the filming of “The Many Saints of Newark”, where the filmmakers replicated the marquee of the Adams for a scene showing the looting and rioting that befell our city that fateful summer in 1967. Newark’s fate is that of Shakespeare’s Othello, a great hero cheated and manipulated by a petty and jealous Iago to commit violence and murder. What a tragedy it must be that Iago gets to watch Othello be disgraced again and again from the comfort of his cul-de-sac with no remorse. (left) Photo from (right) Photo by Barry Wetcher/© 2021 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.


Have something to add to this story? Email [email protected].

Click here to sign up for Jersey Digs' free emails and news alerts. Stay up-to-date by following Jersey Digs on Twitter and Instagram, and liking us on Facebook.

No posts to display