History of the Center
The opening night for Bratter and Pollack’s million-dollar Rahway Theatre was Tuesday, October 16th, 1928 at 7:30 PM – a gala benefit film and stage show that was the city’s social event of the year. The opening performer was Chet Kingsbury, the house organist. His name didn't appear in the program - as the real attraction was the magnificent $20,000 Wurlitzer pipe organ on which that virtually forgotten artist played. The first set of the night was a double feature of “Tenderloin” with Dolores Costello and Conrad Nagel, and “Ham and Eggs at the Front” with Myrna Loy, Tom Wilson, and Chester “Heinie” Conklin.
The theater was built for both vaudeville performances and movie screenings. It included a magnificent, tiered chandelier, an orchestra pit, a grand Wurlitzer organ, dressing rooms, an elegant lobby, a sitting room and a nursery for the children of theater patrons. Outside, the front façade displayed a huge vertical sign indicating “RAHWAY” topped with a flashing diamond and boasted a marquee with over 2,500 lights. According to local newspaper reviews of the grand opening, “The theatre contain[ed] the latest innovations in lighting and staging equipment, capable of producing any conceivable type of show to the highest degree of professionalism…the splendid décor and lighting of the auditorium were crowned by a pendant dome with a 9 foot wide by 13 foot tall crystal chandelier with over 500 lights.” The theater was the last word in opulence.
Designed by noted architect David M. Oltarsch and built by Rahway merchant Barney Engelman, the theater was constructed in the style of a movie palace. It's a classic example of a picture palace; a type of structure representing a unique and short-lived social and architectural phenomenon of the early 20th century. The Rahway Theatre was a link in the Bratter and Pollack east coast chain of silent movie and vaudeville houses. Its location on the Pennsylvania Railroad corridor between New York City and Philadelphia made it a hub for shows that were traveling between the two major cities. However, the theater opened late in the life of vaudeville – "talkies" arrived only a few months after the opening. The Rahway Theatre struggled during the Depression. RKO endeared itself to the community at that time by providing jobs to the unemployed as door-to-door ticket sellers. In 1936, the theater was sold to the Columbia Amusement Corp. World War II helped propel the country into a new period of prosperity. The movies provided an escape from hard times, and the newsreels kept the public informed about the progress of the war.
There was no immediate sign of change in movie attendance when the war ended. In fact, the Rahway Theatre would continue to draw sizable audiences well into the 1960s as a movie theater, but the writing was on the wall. The grand era of the picture palace was facing a premature death. By the early 1970s, the building had fallen into disrepair.
Rahway Landmarks, a nonprofit corporation formed specifically to purchase the theater and preserve it as a performing arts center, could not have asked for a better impetus for its drive to raise the necessary funds.
On September 11, 1984, the title to the theater was transferred from the Wood Theater Group of Morristown to Rahway Landmarks, Inc. Within weeks, restoration was underway. In October 1985, the Rahway Theatre was officially renamed The Union County Arts Center by The Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders. Its primary interior restoration was from 1986 to 1990. The facade restoration began in 1996, and the backstage and orchestra pit restoration were completed in 2008. The theater has become a beacon of the Rahway Arts District's efforts and has contributed to the economic revitalization of the city and county. Efforts to address ongoing maintenance needs continue, and additional restoration work and the modernization of certain utilities and fixtures of the facility in order to retain its status is constant.
One of the most astounding pieces of the theater is its original Wurlitzer organ. This grand instrument was the foundation of the preservation effort in which the arts center emerged from. Since the 1960s (when it was first restored), the organ was played regularly – and frequently recorded on by notable organists and practicing volunteers at the center.
The piece’s enormous sound compared against its small size has coined the moniker “Biggest Little Wurlitzer” amongst its peers. The Wurlitzer organ’s historic value has been recognized by the American Theatre Organ Society as a Level 1 Quality Instrument. Designated on the National Registry of Significant Instruments as an organ of exceptional historic and musical merit worthy of preservation, the Biggest Little Wurlitzer is one of the few theatre pipe organs in New Jersey still playing in the original venue for which it was acoustically designed.
This Biggest Little Wurlitzer is a detachable console Wurlitzer Theatre Organ with two manuals, two chambers and seven ranks. It features 500 individual pipes and several percussive elements that were designed to simulate the enveloping and diverse sounds of a live orchestra.
The unique acoustical design of the chambers, auditorium, and instrument work together to make remarkable sounding theatre pipe organ music.
The Mainstage is listed in both state and national registers of historic sites, and is now operating as a multipurpose venue for the performing arts.
It is the largest center for the performing arts in Union County and currently showcases children's programming, musicals and plays, classic and independent film presentations, multicultural programs and events, and live music concerts.
The facility is run by a non-profit organization staffed by professional, hard-working employees and is supported by an outstanding volunteer corps and its local community of residents.