Historic theaters in Manhattan
Tim Dolan of Broadway Up Close talks about historic theaters in Manhattan on Tuesday, July 27, 2021.
Michael Karas, NorthJersey.com
An educator with an eye for talent, John Harms gave Bergen County a cultural institution.
In 1976, Harms revived the former Englewood Plaza movie theater, capitalizing on ready-made acoustics he said bested New York City’s Carnegie Hall to entertain North Jersey. The performing arts center in Englewood was known for nearly three decades as the John Harms Center before being reborn as bergenPAC in 2004.
The center allowed Harms to indulge his ability to curate. Harms handled ticket sales, arranged music, booked artists and conducted performances. To fundraise for Englewood Plaza’s purchase, he ran a solo telephone campaign.
An organist first, Harms became an impresario in 1940 by starting the John Harms Chorus in Manhattan. His chorus drew top soloists to headline, including Norwegian soprano Kirsten Flagstad, American tenor Jan Peerce, and Italian bass Cesare Siepi.
After Harms moved to Englewood’s Spring Lane in 1947, performers who had appeared at Carnegie Hall committed themselves to playing in Bergen County, too. He brought top ensembles: the Czech Philharmonic, the Vienna Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. Jascha Heifetz, a Russian-American violin virtuoso, played in Englewood, as did thunderous Russian pianist Lazar Berman. Harms took out a loan on his house to bring the Philadelphia Orchestra to Bergen County in 1958. Fortunately, the concert was a sellout.
Before Englewood Plaza reopened, concerts were held at other local facilities, such as the Orrie de Nooyer Auditorium in Hackensack, and Dwight Morrow High School in Englewood.
In later years, Harms welcomed jazz, punk and new wave groups to Englewood Plaza. Still, his hallmark was attracting top classical musicians early in their legendary careers. Harms booked Van Cliburn at Dwight Morrow in October 1958 for his first full-length recital, just months after the pianist won the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. Famed Australian soprano Joan Sutherland headlined for Harms in 1968. Two years later, she debuted at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera. Harms coaxed Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, a baritone known for setting poems to music, to the Dwight Morrow gym just a year after the German’s American debut.
Born in 1907 in Savannah, Georgia, Harms learned music theory early on from his grandfather, composer John Wiegand. At 14, he was an organist at Savannah’s St. Paul’s Lutheran Church. The Sunday ritual stuck with him when he arrived in Englewood. As the new kid in town, Harms signed on as organist and choirmaster at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. In 1953, he took the same role at Temple Emanu‐El, and he held it for decades.
Harms studied at the University of Toronto before graduating from New York’s Juilliard School of Music in just one year. He also studied abroad in Leipzig, Oxford and London. A teacher at age 20, Harms was the choir director and organist at St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire. He later became the music director at Trinity School in New York City. Harms held that position for 22 years before retiring in 1971.
The transformation of Englewood Plaza in the mid-1970s wasn’t Harms’ initial plan. In 1958, he revealed his ambition to build a 3,000-seat auditorium off Route 4 in Englewood. “It’s just about a sure thing,” Harms told The Record in 1960.
Though the dream died within a decade, with less than $15,000 raised, Harms rebounded when the vacant 1,600-seat Englewood Plaza went on the market for $80,000. Built in 1926, it was designed for vaudeville acts and movies. It was remodeled for a wide screen in 1963 but closed a decade later under the ownership of United Artists. Dwight Morrow High School almost acquired it as a theater annex. Harms then joined forces with a not-for-profit started by Englewood actor John Naughton and set his sights on reopening the venue.
“My feeling is, if you’re going to do a thing, get on with it. And the sooner you start, the better,” Harms told The Record in March 1976.
After Harms’ 1981 death, his center lived on. In the 1990s, major renovations transformed it into a modern entertainment venue. It nonetheless closed in April 2003 under mounting debt. Soon after, a group helmed by former Englewood Mayor Frank Huttle III led the plaza’s transformation into the Bergen Performing Arts Center, aka bergenPAC.