1927 saw Charles Lindbergh fly solo to Paris, the numbering of New Jersey highways (making possible a legion of "What exit?" jokes), and the building of the Holland Tunnel. Locally, 1927 marked another achievement, the opening of Columbia High School, and the first use of its auditorium.
Architect James O. Betelle told the Newark Evening News that CHS was "the finest high school building in the country." For its time, the auditorium was a state-of-the-art facility. "It's like a mini Broadway theater," said Charlie Hooven, who works for Synergy, the company that cares for the district's technology, as he adjusted light levels for the coming weekend's Special Dance performance. "This theater has a full fly space, which is a huge plus." In the past, that vast space above the stage has held flying equipment used in "Peter Pan." "We probably still have the rigging up there somewhere," joked Hooven. "It's pretty amazing."
But like an old home that has been lived in for generations, the auditorium is due for some renovation. The South Orange-Maplewood Education Foundation's fundraiser "A Night on the Towns," scheduled for Sunday, May 23, has designated the auditorium as the recipient of the event proceeds. The evening is part of "Take a Seat," SOMEF's campaign to raise extra funds to complete the district's planned renovation of the auditorium.
District business administrator Karla Milanette explained what's first on the to-do list. The panel of fluorescent lights above the center of the auditorium is due to be replaced with LED fixtures. According to Hooven, newer technology means the replacements will be "brighter, warmer and dimmable." In addition, the new fixtures will use a small fraction of the energy consumed by the fluorescents. "There's no downside," explains Hooven.
When it was built, the theater also boasted chandeliers above where the audience sits. Milanette notes that hand-powered cranks that raised and lowered the chandeliers appeared recently, after being stored for decades under the stage. "I wish we knew what happened to the chandeliers," she adds.
Seating is another concern, explained Milanette. The wood-backed seats are original, but in need of repair. Likewise, the sound equipment is a priority, with modern technology making possible stagecraft that was once limited to professional theaters.
Even now, CHS performers dream big. As Patch visited the auditorium, students were collaborating with Hooven to rehearse the technical aspects of the Special Dance performance. Screens bank the stage and appear behind the dancers, for a combined live, video and sound experience.
Such works bring a decidedly modern sensibility to an auditorium with very classic features, including carved wooden owls in the front of the room, wall sconces with ironwork in the shape of ivy, and carved gold-trimmed panels above the stage. The auditorium offers surprises, as well; while Patch visited, Hooven turned on a spotlight to study a decorative area above the stage that may have been designed for a row of lights.
The past several years have seen repair work done to the stage, new exterior doors and interior windows, and the maintenance that an older facility demands. This year, however, with proceeds from "A Night on the Towns," SOMEF President Patty Coleman dreams big and hopes to see exciting changes in the coming year. Indeed, SOMEF has already received an anonymous donation towards funding the lighting upgrade. She invites individuals and groups to dedicate a seat in the restored auditorium. Underwriting opportunities abound, with naming rights for major donations. Names of all "Take a Seat" contributors will be displayed at the auditorium entrance while renovations are underway.
"I love this auditorium," notes Milanette. "It represents the community, it can be the pride of the community, and we have a great opportunity ahead of us." Taking a last look around the auditorium, she shakes her head. "When I think of what we can do, I'm thrilled."