The following is an article commissioned by the Mayo Performing Arts Center on occasion of the 75th anniversary of The Community Theatre.
Morristown's Cultural Icon Turns 75
For many, The Community Theatre hasn't just been just another entertainment venue; it's been the cultural center of Morristown and home for warm memories...
By Ellen Wilkowe
The boys would linger by the candy counter at the movie house where Adeline Agnes McLaughlin Warlin, formerly of Morris Plains, worked alongside her friend, Lucille.
"They were not there to buy candy," she said. "They were there to see Lucille and me."
Meanwhile, Len Taylor of Chester Township laments on the classic dinner and a movie date, one that would leave him near broke.
"A terrific date was supper first a Don's Drive-In on South Orange Avenue, and then the theatre," he said. "Good grief, with the dollar's worth of gas for the car and the cost of (maybe) six dollars for supper and a show for two, it siphoned off the money for any other dates for a week or two," he said.
And Howard Haimann of Morristown can recall with clarity a list of "first run" movies he saw from his youth, right down to his very first at age three. "It was Snow White," he said.
These are just some of the memories patrons and former employees of The Community Theatre shared from back when the former movie palace was the hottest ticket in town-Morristown that is.
Seventy five years later, The Mayo Performing Arts Center is worthy of a movie in and of itself, one of survival and a rolling list of credits behind its resurrection and revival. On Dec. 23, the Theatre celebrates its 75th anniversary. Morristown Mayor Tim Dougherty will commemorate the day prior to the 1 p.m. performance of New Jersey Ballet's Nutcracker with a proclamation declaring it "Mayo Performing Arts Center Day in Morristown."
Dubbed "America's most beautiful theatre" by movie house mogul and builder Walter Reade, The Community Theatre was unveiled to the public on Dec. 23, 1937 at 8 p.m. Its debut film? "Nothing Sacred," starring Carole Lambard and Fredric March.
"New Jersey's finest theatre," another Reade-coined phrase of endearment, The Community Theatre would join the Roth's Park Theatre next to the Presbyterian Church, and Roth's Jersey Theatre Washington Street. The two theaters, which opened in the 1920s, were known for top-shelf movies, as well as double features, according to the book "The Miracle on South Street," by John Cunningham. The third theater, The Palace on Speedwell Avenue, was open intermittently.
"The Community was an upscale theater compared to the run-of-the-mill theaters scattered around the Oranges and Newark," said Taylor. "The other theaters had ice cream sandwiches and root beer babies. The Community had chocolate-covered ice cream dots and nonpareils, with really plush seats that took unkindly to spills."
During the construction phase, The Community Theatre served as a sanctuary for unemployed craftsmen reeling from the side effects of the Great Depression. When complete, the pillared and brick masterpiece boasted dark blue carpet, and a romance-inducing soft pastel color and lighting, not to mention sink-into seats.
The Community would take theatre-going in the suburbs to new heights, attracting patrons from surrounding towns including the Oranges, Short Hills, Maplewood, Madison and Mendham, to name a few.
Architecture aside, the Community further differentiated itself by offering first-run movies and a strictly-enforced dress code. The romantic overtones would earn the theater a reputation as a destination date place.
"When my peers began to drive, you took only your best date to the Community," said Taylor. "It was costly compared to the other theaters and you had to dress up."
Haimann also recalls the dress code, not only required by the theater, but his parents as well. "It was always a big deal to go to the Community," he said. "When my parents knew I was going, they made me dress up-no Saturday clothes."
Movies cost 25 cents for matinees, 35 to 55 cents for the orchestra and 75 cents for the loge which hung over the orchestra seats.
"Employees, however, got to see the movies for free," said Warlin.
Befriending the ushers would also land patrons a movie on the house, said Milt Goldband of Morristown.
Ushers were also known for their occasional pranks, such as the recent confession from former employee Robert Mooney of Morris Township. "When customers came to the balcony looking for seats and found none, we ushers would tell them that if they gave us additional charges for loge seats we would run down and buy tickets for them."
The ushers would only pretend to go downstairs and pocket the extra 15 cents for themselves.
In addition to first-run movies and the occasional live performance, the theater also hosted rites of passage such as graduations and first jobs. "We got our caps and gowns at the church across the street," said Goldband. "The cop would stop traffic and we would march across the street."
As Warlin's first "real," job, the theater is also affiliated with a colorful cast of characters, namely her colleagues, who left a lasting impression: There was Henry the doorman, who dressed in a tuxedo and collected the tickets, and Miss Palmiere who never sweated the small stuff to deliver the patrons a premier theatre-going experience.
"Mr. Lanterman, the manager of the theatre, had a sense of humor that showed sometimes through his seriousness," she said. "One night, some boys from Morristown High School stopped by the candy counter, not to buy candy, but to see Lucille and me. Mr. Lanterman was trying to clear them away from the counter where there were paying customers waiting, and he said, 'Boys if you want to see the girls, the line forms on the right.' "There was a glint of a smile on his face."
Theater characters aside, the silver screen was enlivened by big names of the time such as Jimmy Stewart, Claudette Colbert, Fredric March, Irene Dunne, Clark Gable and Loretta Young, to name a few.
During the 1940s, the Community thrived as movie houses served as havens from the realities of World War II.
But the advent of the multiplex in the 70s ushered in an era of uncertainty for the Community and theaters nationwide. The theater would change ownership and experiment with performing arts including international ballet, blues, rock and jazz bands-offerings seemingly leading up to shows on the bill today.
Even "The Boss," Bruce Springsteen, graced the stage.
"The year was Sept. 26, 1984," said Joe Strelec. "The concert was billed as Southside Johnny and The Asbury Jukes with "special guest."
A no-show at the first concert, the "guest" and his trademark leather jacket strutted on stage at the second show, paying homage to Morristown. "Who is Morris and how did he get a town named after him?"
Despite experimentation with different genres, the Community would remain in dire straits. But its on-the-brink status was driven back from the edge in 1994 by the collective spirit of volunteers determined to right the ship.
The theater was destined to survive if not soar again as a destination, this time as a performing arts and educational center, with a patronage loyal to the past, present and future. Today, it presents over 200 events and provides entertainment experiences for over 200,000 annually, with an economic impact of over $14 million in the surrounding area.
"Going to the movies in 1952 at The Community Theatre was a memorable experience," said Warlin. "I am now 77 years old and my experience as an employee, and a customer is as fresh in my mind today as it was so many years ago."
A volunteer at MPAC, Goldband remains faithful to the theater and credits it for saving the town.
Haimann, too, holds on to his memories such as lining up and down Pine Street waiting to get into the theatre and first-run movies like "The Ten Commandments," and "Ben Hur and The Robe."
His family owned Haimann's Jewelers who advertised on a round electric clock that hung over the front left exit.
"That clock is a memory of fun times out at the theatre," said Debbie Village of Rockaway. "When I go to there now it's like the clock is missing."
But the Community, however, withstood the test of time.