There is nothing quite so poignant and eerie as an abandoned theatre. From the torn, dusty remnants of old red velvet curtains, to rows of empty and dilapidated seats, it is easy to imagine the bustling crowds, thronging together for an evening’s entertainment. For those who love to explore the faded gilt of old, grand picture palaces, there is nowhere quite like Newark, New Jersey.
Downtown Newark is centred at the crossroads of Market and Broad Streets. Up until about 1960, Newark was one of America’s most industrious and populated cities. This intersection, known locally as the Four Corners, was once measured to be the busiest in the country; a traffic study in 1926 counted 36,596 vehicles pass by in just one day.
This thriving downtown area teemed with bars, restaurants, upscale department stores and theatres. During Newark’s heyday, there were an astonishing nineteen theatres jostling for business in the space of a few city blocks.
But as Newark suffered terrible urban neglect, political corruption and steady decay in the latter half of the 20th century, culminating in the deadly race riots of 1967, its glitzy theatres were either torn down, or saw out their last days as grind house cinemas, or simply left abandoned.
Of Downtown Newark’s nineteen theatres, eight were demolished, ten are still there, but have been repurposed into stores, or just simply left empty. The only one still up and running is the Little Theatre. Dating from 1928, it is one of the last cinemas in New Jersey still operating as an adult one.
Whilst some of Newark has benefitted from revitalization in the last decade, its old theatres have been sadly forgotten. We went to go explore these once grandiose palaces, and caught up with an intrepid photographer who’s passion lies in capturing the haunting remnants left behind.
Our first port of call is at the old Paramount Theatre. Located in a prime spot on Market Street, its once beautiful blue and gold marquee is still a captivating sight with its Newark and Paramount signs.
It had opened in 1886 as an old vaudeville theatre, before converting to moving pictures in 1917.
One of the grandest old theatres you could hope to find in the North East, it finally closed in 1986, as Newark descended into urban decay. A low rent retail shop operated out of the lobby until around 2011, but today, the shop fronts lie empty. But inside is one of the most remarkable and haunting sights imaginable.
Matt Lambros, from Brooklyn, has been photographing abandoned theatres for some time. A book of beautiful photographs accompanies his fascinating website, After The Final Curtain. “I think curiosity of the unknown is the main thing that draws me to these buildings”, he explains. “Why did this theatre close? What’s left inside?”
Our next stop is at the former home of the Adams Theatre at Branford Place, running parallel to Market Street. Today, you wouldn’t know it, but the Adams was once one of Newark’s most popular nightspots.
It had opened in 1912, putting on touring Broadway productions from Manhattan, before turning to films. Run by Paramount Pictures, the Adams also offered full swing big bands before the main picture. The Adams was reduced to showing adult films by the 1980s, before eventually closing up for good.
Today, its facade is used as a men’s discount clothing store, but one would never guess what hides behind it…
Today, the old auditorium of the Adams is a breathtaking ruin. Its former baroque ceiling is in tatters, the tiers of exclusive private boxes lie in ruins.
“Each theatre I photographed,” says Lambros, “was built to entertain, but at some point the owners closed the doors and walked away. Photographing these spaces and discovering their history helps to answer those questions.”
Heading over to Market Street, there is a row of buildings between Halsey and Washington Streets that are in an advanced state of decay. There’s more low rent retail on the ground floor, old neon signs for Kodak’s and Frigidaires, a boarded up townhouse, and what looks to have been something once quite beautiful– a tall, arched white brick building, with intricate details. This was once the majestic RKO Proctor Theatre.
Opened in 1915 as another theatre that showed vaudeville, before switching solely to moving pictures, it was a rare example of the old ‘double decker’ theatres. It had two auditoriums, capable of seating an incredible 4,200 cinema goers, decorated with vast murals. It had a roof garden theatre, and was so prestigious that Bela Lugosi appeared in person in 1951. But for all its grandeur, the RKO closed in 1968, and like much of Newark, was allowed to slowly fall into ruin ever since.
“I’ve spent ten years composing photographic obituaries for once-thriving buildings that are now crumbled and forgotten”, explains Lambros. “My hope for my work is that it will shine light on beautiful, dated architecture.”
Plans to protect, and restore Newark’s old theatres have so far come to nothing. The downtown area has seen some regeneration, such as the Prudential Centre, and the New Jersey Performing Arts Centre. But the once grand old picture palaces lie forgotten under years of shameful neglect.