by Jim Beckerman
The Center, which Jane Monheit and Tony DeSare will inaugurate with a pair of weekend concerts, is seen as a linchpin of a revitalized downtown.
“If you build it, they will come.” That’s true—so far—for the newly completed $3 million Hackensack Performing Arts Center, opening its doors on Saturday.
The gala inaugural event at 8 p.m., a jazz-pop two-fer featuring the vocalist Jane Monheit and the singer-pianist Tony DeSare, sold out quickly. A second show had to be added the following day, 3 p.m. Sunday.
The theater at the Hackensack Performing Arts Center, located at 102 State St. Monday October 30, 2017. (Photo: Kevin R. Wexler/NorthJersey.com)
But the key thing, says Edward Decker, is that they’ve not only built it — they’ve also built it right.
“You hear that?” says Decker, an officer of the Main Street Business Alliance.
He claps his hands. “That’s dead,” he says.
Dead, in acoustical terms, is a good thing. No reverb. No echo.
“The acoustics, as you can hear, are really wonderful,” says Decker, whose group is co-sponsoring the venue’s flagship series, PAC the House. It’s five events, through June; the Monheit-DeSare jazz program is the first.
(left to right) Hackensack Deputy Mayor, Kathleen Canestrino, Hackensack Mayor, John Labrosse, Vice Chairman of the Main St. Business Alliance, Edward Decker and Chairman of the Main St. Business Alliance, Jerome J. Lombardo pose at the Hackensack Performing Arts Center. The center, located at 102 State St. will officially open on November 11. Monday October 30, 2017 (Photo: Wexler, Kevin, Kevin R. Wexler/NorthJersey.com)
Decker knows from acoustics. He’s the owner of Musically Yours, a Hackensack shop that specializes in DJ and musician’s equipment.
“You don’t want a lot of echoes in the room,” Decker says. “Here, it’s like a pin dropping. You can hear the softest tone of the guitar in the back row.”
It helps that the new auditorium, designed by DMR Architects, is carpeted from top to bottom, with sound baffles in strategic places to help deaden the noise.
That’s part of what gives the auditorium — officially, the Hackensack Meridian Health Theater—its striking look. That, and the decor. The venue’s 224 seats are done up in red, with the outer seats of each row in gray fabric. The lighting, too, is distinctive. Dangling from the ceiling are four Tiffany-ish vintage chandeliers that look like upside-down glass umbrellas.
Details from the top floor lobby are shown at the Hackensack Performing Arts Center, located at 102 State St. Monday October 30, 2017. (Photo: Wexler, Kevin, Kevin R. Wexler/NorthJersey.com)
“They add distinction,” says Greg Liosi, artistic director of HACPAC (as the venue has inevitably been dubbed) and the Hackensack Cultural Arts Department.
“There’s a simplicity to the chandeliers,” Liosi says. “It’s a beautiful aesthetic, but the design has simple lines. It’s very powerful at the same time.”
The chandeliers are a holdover from the 168-year-old building’s earlier career as a Masonic lodge. The imposing red-brick Gothic revival structure was built, in 1849, as the First Methodist Church. By the late 19th century, the Masons had taken it over.
It was purchased by the city in 2011, and became the designated successor to the Hackensack Cultural Arts Center at 39 Broadway, the city’s arts headquarters since 2001. (Hackensack Meridian Health got the naming rights for the auditorium in exchange for contributing a fancy marquee, which has yet to go up).
The Hackensack Performing Arts Center, located at 102 State St. Monday October 30, 2017 (Photo: Kevin R. Wexler/NorthJersey.com)
“It’s like moving from one home to another,” Liosi says. “You’re sad to say goodbye to the old place, but at the same time you’re so excited to start a new life. In this case, we’re very excited to have the arts start a new life, to be reborn in this space.”
The Broadway site—another old, repurposed church—sat only 117 people in a makeshift black-box auditorium. And it was eight blocks from the center of town. This new venue is a big improvement, Liosi says.
“We were very successful in the other space, don’t get me wrong,” he says. “But this is double the size, and so much closer to downtown. It’s a perfect marriage.”
The drama and dance events, art shows and niche programming that the old arts center was known for will continue to thrive in the new location, Liosi promises. A large downstairs gallery space (currently, 21 pieces by a local artist, Ruth Bauer Neustadter, are on display) can become a multipurpose room. There’s even a large adjacent kitchen—another Masonic holdover—for any wine-and-cheese parties or gala dinners that might come up. It may also be handy for stocking the refreshment bar in the lobby (alcohol will be available for some events).
The lower level gallery of the Hackensack Performing Arts Center, is shown, Monday October 30, 2017. (Photo: Wexler, Kevin, Kevin R. Wexler/NorthJersey.com)
But with the larger venue comes a larger mission: to fill the 224 seats, on a regular basis, with name artists that will appeal to all elements of Hackensack’s diverse population. Among them are many African-American, Hispanic, and Caribbean residents.
“The decision was made to represent the diversity of the city and the county,” says deputy mayor Kathleen Canestrino. “The committee decided to have Hispanic, African-American, Broadway, comedy and mainstream pop [events].”
A lot is riding on this, says Mayor John P. Labrosse Jr.
The new arts center is being fêted as a crown jewel of the new, revitalized Hackensack downtown. As Hackensack rebuilds and upscales, the city fathers have been looking at other cities that have reinvented themselves. Always, it seemed to come back to the arts.
“As you know, we’re going through a major redevelopment phase in Hackensack,” Labrosse says. “We have at least 2,500 new units on Main Street. We went to see what other towns were doing. One developer had a great phase: ‘I’ll bring ’em here, but you’ve got to keep ’em here.'”
Arts and green spaces, he decided, were both key. That’s why Hackensack invested in Atlantic Street Park, a smallish commons area, built for roughly $750,000 on the site of a former parking lot, that opened in July 2015 (there were concerts there all last summer). The Hackensack Performing Arts Center, on an adjacent parcel of land, is a companion project: mayor Labrosse can imagine the whole street, park and arts center combined, being closed off for day-long arts festivals.
The Hackensack Performing Arts Center, located at 102 State St. will officially open on November 11. Monday October 30, 2017 (Photo: Wexler, Kevin, Kevin R. Wexler/NorthJersey.com)
“We kind of got a feel for what was going on in these other towns,” Labrosse says. “Whether it was murals, arts shows, a music or concert venue, a small theater, clubs with music, it was the arts that really helped to keep a town successful.”
But in order to help make Hackensack successful, HACPAC will have to be successful itself.
The trick will be to find the sweet spot: artists big enough to draw an audience, but not so big — and expensive — that the venue can’t possibly make its money back. This is a built-in challenge for all arts venues, whose programming is to a great extent dictated by their size.
For instance, tickets for the PAC the House shows, the venue’s flagship series, range from $40 to $60, with the house split evenly between the two price points. At those admission prices, the venue could not—even if it sold out—break even on an act costing more than $11,200. Less, if you factor in operating costs.
All of which is just to say that Hackensack Performing Arts Center, like any other, has a limited pH range from which to select its marquee attractions: a Goldilocks zone of artists who are not to big, not too small, but just right. Some examples from later in the PAC the House series: a jazz night featuring Alyson Williams with the Nat Adderley Jr. trio (Jan. 27), a pop rock program with John Waite (Feb. 3). a comedy night with Roy Wood Jr. and Michelle Wolf (March 3), and a pop/Broadway event with “Hamilton” star Mandy Gonzalez (June 2).
Vice Chairman of the Main St. Business Alliance, Edward Decker, speaks with Hackensack Mayor, John Labrosse, Chairman of the Main St. Business Alliance, Jerome J. Lombardo and Hackensack Deputy Mayor, Kathleen Canestrino at the Hackensack Performing Arts Center. The center, located at 102 State St. will officially open on November 11. Monday October 30, 2017 (Photo: Wexler, Kevin, Kevin R. Wexler/NorthJersey.com)
But there is also a possible wild card here, Liosi points out. A trend of the moment, it happens, is big stars playing small venues.
The prime example is Springsteen’s current Broadway show. There are others: including Ringo Starr’s appearance last year at the 1,367-seat bergenPAC in Englewood. These top names are sometimes willing to trade a big-stadium paycheck for the pleasure of playing a small venue. Audiences, meanwhile, have been known to pay more to see their idols up close. All of this could work to HACPAC’s advantage.
Especially given those pin-drop acoustics.
“We could use the intimacy of the facility as a selling point,” Liosi says. “Some artists are dying to scale down their show. And there are some audiences that just want to see an artist and a guitar.”
This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com.