Recollections of Bergen Street's Park Theatre

by Nat Bodian

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The Park Theatre opened in the 1920s as the "Weequahic" showing silent films. As the Weequahic neighborhood filled up in the 1940s and 1950s and became a mostly upwardly-mobile Jewish neighborhood, with Bergen Street as its main shopping street, the Park Theatre's popularity grew with the neighborhood.

Grammar school children attended Saturday matinees. Upper-grade elementary school kids from Chancellor Avenue School and from Maple Avenue School attended Friday nights, as well as Saturdays. Adults went on week-end evenings and on week-days when there were giveaways such as dish nights and cosmetic nights, when free gifts were dispensed.

The 920-seat capacity theatre, located at 1025 Bergen Street had become a neighborhood gathering place for both young and old, providing in a limited area both entertainment and multiple choices for dining and refreshment.

Recollections of Jack Feins, Teenage Usher

I attended Chancellor Avenue School and graduated from Weequahic High in 1944. Around 1939 or 1940, when I was 13 or 14, I became an usher at the Park Theatre.

I worked after school and Saturday afternoons. The theatre was a hang-out for some of the kids.

I remember the thrill of getting a uniform jacket and a searchlight. My usher uniform was blue and orange and I felt very important telling the kids to be quiet and helping to maintain order. I would also use the flashlight to show people to their seats.

I learned the dialogue from all the movies by heart. I saw them so much.

I also had a girlfriend meet me at my break. We used to sit up front and hold hands.

Theatre Dish Nights

There were also "dish nights" and "cosmetic nights'. I think they were also given out at afternoon performances as well. However, without question, they were on different weeks.

One thursday would be dishes and another Thursday cosmetics. Also, as best as I can recall, the giveaways may have been done periodically, rather than every week. I am sure, though, that they were only given out on Thursdays.

Theatre Inside

I remember the lobby candy counter at the Park was on the right when you entered the theatre, and the theatre seating was along the left side.

Some Patron Recollections

From Hannah Buchalter Litowitz:

In the 1950s, I was a teenager, living with my Aunt, Rebecca Friedlander at 64 Lyons Avenue, a block below Bergen Street.

My aunt was a practicing dentist out of her home, and every Saturday night or Sunday afternoon, she would take me to the Park Theatre for a double feature. It was her way of winding down.

After we left the Park Theatre, we would have ice cream at Henry's Sweet Shop, or pick up deli nearby and walk home. We never gave a thought to walking home at night. The neighborhood was very safe.

From Ray Miller:

Back in the mid 1930s when I was 12 or 13 years old, we used to go to the Park on Saturday afternoons. I recall we used to gross out on what they then called "indian nuts" and work out the flesh inside and spit out the shells. You can imagine what the floor looked like after the movie. We were entertained greatly by the cliffhangers. There was a lot of fun groaning or screaming at the bad guys in the movies. I have fond memories of the Park Theatre.

From Sarah Friedman Fishkin:

I recall going to the Park as a teenager. I remember that the seats were more comfortable than the Roosevelt, and that the seats could be slid a bit forward.

After leaving the Park, we girls, as a group, would go to Henry's Sweet Shop for ice cream sodas, or, more likely to JoRae's for pizza, and to hang out with the boys we knew from our Weequahic High School Class (Class of '60).

We girls always walked home together. But if I didn't , I took the NO. 8 Lyons AVenue bus to the corner of Lyons and Schley, and walked to my home from there.

From Adele Armm:

I used to walk to the Park Theatre on Saturdays. It was a long walk from Schley Street, but I never noticed. I remember 'dish night'. It was always accompanied by the sound of a dish or two breaking.

What I do remember about the Park the most is that when I was a youngster, I used to enjoy the continued serials when I was left with the usual cliff-hanger, and had to make sure I returned the following weeks to see the hero usually saved from certain death by some miracle.

From Sheryl Schwartz Hinkkanen:

We used to go to the Park on Saturday mornings to watch the kiddie matinees. It was the highlight of the week. I don't remember what I saw by name -- the usual selection of sci-fi thrillers, westerns, superheros, and cartoons, shown to the junior crowd.

If we were given permission to go, we went, even if we'd already seen what was playing.

From Jacqueline Klein:

As an eight-grader around 1958, we went to the Park Theatre on Friday nights. My friends and I would go to see such movies as "The Ten Commandments' and "Imitation of Life" ... or the long trailer ... not to mention Rodan and Godzilla.

After leaving the Park, we would go to Henry's Sweet Shop for malteds.

Decline and Death of the Park Theatre

By the 1950s, as Weequahic's jewish population -- which had peaked at 30,000 in 1948 -- was rapidly declining. The approximately 100 shops in the immediate vicinity of the Park Theatre were moving to the suburbs and the theatre attendance had sharply declined.

With the 1967 Newark riots, there were barely 500 Jews left in the neighborhood around the Park Theatre, many of them elderly, disabled, and blind. The post-riot neighborhood was essentially all black.

The Park Theatre Building Today

Long vacant as a theatre, the Park Theatre building subsequently became a church. When the church relocated, the building again stood vacant for about a decade until 2004 when it was purchased by Cotton Funeral Service of Orange.

The Cotton Funeral Service retained the building shell but remodeled the building. The floor was leveled, and a second floor added. The building front and sides were covered with stucco.

The Cotton Funeral Service operates from the building at the present time.


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