By Sharon Hazard
EIGHTY FIVE YEARS AGO, on November 11th which was also Armistice Day, another theater was added to Red Banks’ roster. Now known as the Count Basie, the Carlton Theater opened in 1926 and was the fifth to come to town, the others were the Strand, Palace, Empire and Lyric.
In April, 1925, Joseph Oschwald of Little Silver along with Joseph Stern of Newark and New Jersey’s largest theater owner, Walter Reade, announced plans to construct a theater on Monmouth Street in Red Bank.
And the plans were grand! They included seating for 2,000 paying to be entertained by moving pictures, vaudeville acts and dramatic shows. Noted theater architect Thomas W. Lamb was engaged and the project was moving forward with a design that featured an exterior of white terra cotta and an interior of gold and red. Newark architect William E. Lehman ultimately took over responsibility for the job in December, 1925.
Throughout the winter construction crews worked tirelessly to have the theater ready for a rather ambitiously scheduled grand opening in April, 1926. Joseph Stern sold his interest and the new partnership of Reade and Oschwald was changing the theater’s name from the State Theater to the Red Bank Theater. The initials, ST (for State Theater) are still carved on the façade of the building.
With changes in ownership and the intricacy of the architecture taking longer than expected, the opening night was postponed, but promised to be well worth the wait. Those entering the theater would be dazzled by the large sunburst dome, a true work of art containing hundreds of concealed electric lights from which a huge glass chandelier hung. Marble stairways were constructed, huge murals on the lobby walls were painted and the hand-painted vaudeville curtain was still in the works. The Spanish flavor of the interior featured rich velvets and vibrant colors of red and old gold.
By November 1, 1926 it looked like the show would go on. With just a few last minute tweaks, on November 11th the new theater opened with yet another new name over the marquee. This time it was the Carlton, a name that would prevail until 1984, when the theater was renamed in honor of Red Bank native and musical genius, Count Basie.
Four thousand attended the anxiously awaited opening night that included Keith-Albee Vaudeville acts, a feature film, The Quarterback, starring Richard Dix and a newsreel all accompanied by a ten-piece orchestra. Noted the area politicians were in attendance as well as Hollywood producer Adolf Zukor, lyricist Arthur Hammerstein and stage and screen stars from New York City.
At the time Vaudeville was still popular and the stage was designed to accommodate all of the performers.It had a full size stage and a theatrical fly house that allowed for scenery, curtains, lights, special effects and sometimes people to be lifted out of sight onto a loft above the stage. In later years this system of pulleys and hoists would make the theater adaptable for hosting, dramatic and musical performances.
Walter Reade announced that during the summer and fall the theater would try out musical comedies and other shows produced in New York City and in the winter movies and vaudeville acts would be featured, all to be enjoyed for an admission that would exceed 75 cents.
Just after the grand opening Walter Reade decided to close his Red Bank theaters, the Strand and the Palace, but offered work at the Carlton to most of their employees. A total of thirty Red Bank residents were hired.
The theater operated for the next 47 years and was one of the shining stars of Red Bank’s entertainment community. Walter Reade himself managed the theater for many years.
The Carlton operated on a regular basis right up to date of its sale Sunday, December 25, 1973, when a matinee of Snoopy Come Home was featured and an evening double feature of Paper Moon and Play it Again Sam was shown to a large audience.
The Monmouth Arts Council purchased the theater and all of its contents that included a baby grand piano, velvet drapes and the original hand painted vaudeville curtain that is still used today.
And the rest is history.
Used today as a performing arts center serving the citizens of Monmouth County with a variety of cultural venues, this building is on the National Register of Historic Landmarks.