Bergen Performing Arts Center
30 N. Van Brunt Street,
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Bergen Performing Arts Center (Official)
Architects: Frederick Fox
Functions: Performing Arts
Styles: Art Deco
Previous Names: Plaza Theatre, John Harms Center for the Arts, Englewood Plaza for the Performing Art, Harms Hall
Englewood’s Plaza Theatre opened on Monday, November 22, 1926 with the Frank Capra silent movie “The Strong Man” starring Harry Langdon. According to the day’s advertisements, this Walter Reade-owned theatre featured 2,000 seats, a $50,000 Welte-Mignon organ, and a symphonic orchestra ensemble directed by Walter C. Simon, the first composer to score an American film (1915’s silent “Midnight at Maxim’s” used subtitles to provide the musical cues for the accompanying score). The Art Deco style theatre hosted vaudeville performances and, through 1973, continued to show films.
In 1947, promoter John Harms moved to Englewood and, in 1949 and 1950, began to book performers, including violinist Jascha Heifetz and soprano Kirsten Flagstad, at the venue. When the 24,000 sq.-ft. facility was up for sale in 1976, Mr. Harms purchased it for $80,000 and brought in architect Frederick Fox to convert the abandoned theatre into the Englewood Plaza for the Performing Arts. The seating was reduced to 1,280 and the facility provided six dressing rooms, a large backstage area, and ample fly space. The facility became a model for converting a suburban theatre into a modern cultural arts center and centerpiece for a downtown revitalization.
In the late-1970’s, Harms booked such legends as Dizzie Gillespie (an Englewood resident), Sarah Vaughan (a Newark native), and William Count Basie (from Red Bank). After Mr. Harms' death in 1981, the theatre continued to present live performances. By the mid-1990’s, prior to the installation of air conditioning, the theatre was putting on approximately 175 productions annually.
In 1998, the non-profit John Harms Center for the Arts underwent a $6.9 million renovation, which increased seating to 1385 and added new lighting, a new sound system, air conditioning, and a new roof. Later, in the autumn of 2000, the Center unveiled a $100,000 electronic marquee and $170,000 in facade renovations. Unfortunately, much of the cost of the renovations was to be paid for via a New Jersey State Council on the Arts $2.1 million matching grant and $500,000 matching grants from three of the Harms' biggest donors. However, the theatre rarely met its fund-raising goals and failed to receive much of the expected income.
In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, ticket sales fell $100,000 from the previous year and corporate donations were less by $150,000. In conjunction with a 50% cut in the state’s art budget and the massive debt left from the renovations, this loss of revenue led to the theatre’s unexpected closure in April 2003.
In October of 2003, the (again) renamed Harms Hall, now being run by the not-for-profit Bergen Performing Arts Center, reopened with a limited schedule, starting with a series of previously scheduled performances by the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. The new group persuaded Bergen County Freeholders to provide $1.9 million worth of low-interest bonds and persuaded donors to give an additional $500,000. The Harms Hall resumed a full schedule in the fall of 2004.
The theatre has featured performances by luminaries such as Itzhak Perlman, Ray Charles, George Carlin, Tito Puente, Steven Wright, Harry Belafonte, Regis Philbin, B.B. King, James Galway, Ani Difranco, Damon Wayans, Philip Glass and the Kronos Quarter, Ray Romano, Tony Bennett, Judy Collins, Bill Maher, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Joan Rivers, Wynton Marsalis, Bill Cosby, Lalo Schifrin, James Brown, and Penn and Teller.
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