Natalie Cole, George Benson, Barry Manilow, Elvis Costello, Paul Anka, Brian Setzer, and Joan Rivers are just a few of the many big names that have performed at the Bergen Performing Arts Center (bergenPAC) since it re-opened the doors in fall of 2004.
Formerly known as the John Harms Center, the PAC has been known as a leader in cultural arts in North Jersey, thanks to Frank Huttle III who played a major role in opening the theater as bergenPAC a year after John Harms closed in 2003.
Huttle is the mayor of Englewood and also the former chairman and president of the Bergen Performing Arts Center. The lifelong New Jersey resident praises the institution, saying that “bergenPAC had a vision to bring the very top performing artists to the theater. We’ve been very successful for 12 years.”
Opening, November 22, 1926 as the Englewood Plaza, the first public show was a viewing of Frank Capra’s silent movie, “The Strong Man.”
After the age of silent film, in the early 1930s, the Englewood Plaza became the Fox Plaza—the “go-to” spot for talking movies. Moving on to the ’60s and ’70s, the theater was owned by United Artists and showed first runs of hit movies like “The Sound of Music.”
In 1976, John Harms restored the old theater, renaming it the John Harms Center for the Arts. At the time, it was the largest performing arts center in the state.
John Harms was an organist and teacher; he even gave organ lessons to our publisher’s father, John Turpanjian. Harms’ career began in 1941 when he started to organize live concerts, booking both celebrated and lesser-known artists.
And much like his music career, Harms’ work on theater was done all by himself. From selecting performers to renting the space, writing press releases to gathering over 1,200 contracts, Harms made his dream of running a concert hall a reality. And when the theater closed in 2003, it left a cultural void in Bergen County.
But not all was lost. Prior to the closing of the John Harms Center, Huttle and Edmondo Schwartz, former board member of Make-a-Wish Foundation of Metro New York and Alpine resident, joined the board. The pair teamed with Book Cook, who serves as president of C.P. International and Dean Street Group; Sam Mann, a 40-year Englewood resident and retired inventor and industrial design magnate, holding 80 domestic and utility patents and founder of the Inverness Corporation; Chris Yegen, chairman of the Roundabout Theater Company and board member for Parsons Dance and the John Harms Center for the Performing Arts since its inception; and Donald Aronson, former mayor of Englewood for three terms. Creating a new business plan designed for modern entertainment, the group was successfully launched the theater’s revival, moving from a quick shuttering of the John Harms Center to the bergenPAC in only a year.
Over the last 10 years, the theater has grown from hosting 30 shows per year to more than 200, showcasing a wealth of entertainment genres, including dance, comedy, music, and children’s programs. “We try to be something for everyone,” President and CEO Dominic Roncace says.
But what about the dazzling lights and sprawling stages of New York City, just across the water? Roncace says there’s no competition: “The benefits are clear—bergenPAC is convenient, intimate, reasonably priced, and features lots of local talent central to our community.”
It’s also an all-access theater, offering mobility access, hearing assist systems, sign interpretation, audio description, and large print and Braille programs. Their goal is to offer as many autism-friendly performances as possible, and to be as accommodating as they can to the lesser-abled. Free tickets are even provided to qualified organizations that serve people who normally won’t have access to the arts for financial reasons. This includes many organizations that serve individuals with special needs.
In addition to one-off performances of top talent, bergenPAC also boasts some top-notch, ongoing educational and entertainment programs. The Kidz Cabaret series, for example, offers programming on Saturday from February to May specifically geared toward children with special needs. The upcoming year’s Cabaret series will feature Turtle Dance Music, based on research from the Autism Intervention and Early Childhood Development Program at Montclair State University, New York and Columbia Universities, and Hip Hop Connections. Each part of the series is tailored to a particular age level, as well as the special needs of the audience. Kids can expect a world of fun—rooted in a lot of interactive music and dancing. Select shows will be for autism-only crowds, as well.
Additionally, the bergenPAC recently hosted a program sponsored by Kennedy Center for the Arts and Arts Horizons, in which Hip Hop Connections provided workshops for students with special needs on the bergenPAC main stage. They also provided this programming to the Felician School for Exceptional Children. They intend to continue offering this program.
But that’s not all. Two years ago, The Performing Arts School at bergenPAC opened at 1 Depot Square, alongside the 100-year-old Victorian railroad station.
The non-profit school provides arts education to children and teens with special needs and features a series of classes, workshops, school residencies, live performances, student productions, and ensemble groups in the performing arts for students aged three months to 21 years old. Students receive hands-on training in the arts, taught by professionals in the industry. The curriculum combines structure and play, allowing time for children to process information in a safe, non-judgmental environment.
The school was formerly the Bennett Studios, owned by Grammy and Emmy winning audio engineer/producer, Dae Bennett, son of the former Englewood resident and musical legend, Tony Bennett.
Bennett Studios was in operation from the late 1990s to 2010. “It had been dormant for over a year and a half. And a lot had to be fixed,” says Director of Education Alexander Diaz.
After all renovations were completed, the school opened in 2013. “It’s been such a whirlwind the last three years,” Diaz says. “There’s excitement all around—and parents really love bringing their kids here for dance and theater. It’s quite a unique program—all teachers are professional teaching artists working in theater, with experience on Broadway and television. Students love that. They see the real connection.”
The Performing Arts School boasts a diverse collection of programs, including Music Speaks, which teaches children about a mix of traditional and contemporary musical styles. At the end of the program, everyone produces a professional CD.
There’s also a popular summer camp program and “beyondDANCE,” directed by Roberta Mathes. The program features classes like “Movement, Mommy & Me,” ballet, jazz, Pilates, “Korean Cultural Dance,” and hip-hop.
With all of this programming well underway—and implemented in only six short years—bergenPAC is truly a wonder. The mission, however, remains ever the same: to be a creative focus, educational resource and engine of economic vitality.
“We’re in everybody’s backyard,” raves program guide Rosalie Berlin. “You don’t have to pay for parking, and you can find world-class music and theater right in Bergen.”
Put simply, bergenPAC is a great venue to see world-class performers without the headaches of high parking fees, tolls, and city traffic. And thanks to its emphasis on education, it can also be the strong foundation for a successful career in the arts.
For more information about bergenPAC visit <b>bergenpac.org<b>.
Keep an eye out for a new seris in DiningOut called “Dinner and a Show,” featuring interviews with artists performing at bergenPAC and profiles of some of the best restaurants Bergen County.
SB: Upcoming Performances at bergenPAC
Upcoming Shows at bergenPAC
March 16 – Ronnie Spector Sings The Fabulous Ronettes
March 17 – Celtic Fire
March 22 – David Cross: Making America Great Again
March 23 – Rob McClure
March 25 – Moscow Festival Ballet
March 26 – The Machine Performs Pink Floyd
April 2 – Tracy Morgan
April 3 – Robert Klein & Freddie Roman
April 8 – The Peking Acrobats
April 9 – Anthony Salazar (Kidz Cabaret Series)
April 9 – Don McLean & Judy Collins
April 10 – Clifford The Big Red Dog Live!
April 12 – Puscifer
April 13 – Gordon Lightfoot in Concert
April 15 – Bill Engvall
April 17 – Verismo Opera presents Amilcare Ponchielli’s La Gioconda
April 19 – In The Mood
April 21 – Tower of Power
April 23 – New Jersey Ballet’s “Don Quixote”
April 24 – New Jersey Ballet’s “Cinderella”
April 28 – The Charlie Daniels Band
April 29 – Cinderella’s Tom Keifer
April 30 – Steve Petra’s Super Silly Show
April 30 – Kansas
May 1 – Goodnight Moon and The Runaway Bunny
May 5 – Boney James
May 6 – Dennis Miller
May 7 – Victor Manuelle
May 8 – Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood Live!
May 14 – Turtle Dance Music
May 15 – Kool & The Gang
May 21 – Frankie Avalon
May 22 – Curious George
June 2 – America
June 3 – Colin Mochrie & Brad Sherwood
June 5 – The Lightning Thief Live!
June 9 – NJSO Presents Lacombe Conducts Rachmaninoff & Ravel
July 11 to 12 – Yanni
Aug. 16 – Happy Together Tour 2016
By Maryanne Mistretta