Boonton New Jersey
Dedicated performers are still focused on their art form.
I would describe the Darress Theatre as being an authentic blast from the past, categorized as a “reverse theatre”; something that I have never heard of. While uniquely quirky and a fixer upper opportunity waiting to be fully restored to its former glory perhaps by the next owner, it offers a lot of variety of entertainment in the arts to the community, who dearly love this established Boonton theatre.
We were lucky in that one of the town tour guides happened to be there when we came to take pictures of the outside of this interesting place. He gave us a glimpse inside and told us a little bit of the theatre’s history.
I have never seen a theatre layout like this! When entering the theatre, we walked through the owner’s camera shop that once was the lobby. Entering the theatre’s auditorium, one can see that the original stage and movie screen is located on top of the owner’s camera store and entryway. I wondered for a minute why a stage would be in this spot. Then, I remembered what our volunteer guide had just shown us before we entered.
While still standing on the sidewalk outside the theatre, our guide had showed us a rather large door on the front outside wall of the theatre; about 12-15 feet off the sidewalk, where the animals used in Vaudeville acts were brought into the theatre. The animal trucks would let down their back opening, and the animals were led across the plank into the back of the stage that is located on top of the entryway to the theatre. The animals didn’t have very far to go.
While the structure needs some restoration, the theatre comes with a boatload of infrastructure, needed to be an effective “Full Performing Arts Center”; including a working organ for silent films. The Darress has a long history of being owned by people willing to invest in technical tools, lighting, stages, film projectors, film screens; making it possible to offer opportunities for a wide range of the arts and entertainment that draw not only local residents but those from other towns. Boontown is on the New York City bus route, a short walk to the NYC train, making the Darress Theatre an option for those who can use these methods of transportation.
The Darress Theatre’s original huge auditorium space has been renovated in a practical way, though it could easily be restored to the original huge theatre that held 1000 seats. The auditorium was made smaller by building a wall to make room for a lounge area and workspace for a variety of activities, while still leaving a large theatre auditorium/concert hall. The first floor holds 200 seats while the mezzanine and balcony have seats for 400 more.
A variety of concerts and live theatre, including comedy acts are scheduled. Films, including silent ones with organ accompaniment are still shown.
There is a video production stage, a stage for children’s theatre, a magicians stage, rehearsal space, and studio recording is done as well. There is also a sight line on the roof to New York City for transmission of broadcast signals. There are plans to add solar panels to supplement power.
Of course, there are off stage dressing rooms and restrooms, and other necessities needed for a theatrical and film theatre, including lights and sound and other technical gadgets. The theatre’s mezzanine and balcony are entered via a staircase.
Space is also rented out for private parties, lectures, a performing arts school performances, and community events.
As in many theatre buildings, there is an apartment on the top floor, that could be used in a variety of ways. Performing guests and owners, have all spent time here.
The Darress Theatre opened in 1919, the creation of architect Charles Darress, who was inspired to build a theatre that would be a perfect place for Vaudeville and any other form of entertainment in the arts that people enjoyed; perhaps hoping to draw people into their little town from the areas around Boonton, especially from New York City.
The economic benefits would be a plus, as well as promoting the arts. The people in this blue-collar town of Boonton enthusiastically embraced their new theatre! The acts that were booked were family-oriented and very popular.
A few years later, its name was changed to State Theatre. It was an 1000 seat Vaudeville theatre where comedic team Allen and Gracie and other well-known comedians such as Laurel and Hardy entertained packed audiences with their comedy routines. Because of the quality of what they offered on stage and later on screen as well, the Darress Theatre became a cherished institution of not only the people of Boonton and surrounding areas, but New York City as well.
The Darress/State Theatre has always had owners eager to remain competitive and were willing to diversify to include other popular performing arts. From its beginning, it served as a multi-purpose arts theatre, showing films, hosting various events of groups in the community, like the Masonic organizations, and concerts, as well as Vaudeville.
The State Theatre began its long relationship with movies by showing silent films, with an organist playing appropriate music on the theatre’s organ. Such classics as “Birth of a Nation,” and the German vampire film, “Nosferatu” thrilled audiences.
Of course, when “talkies” arrived on the scene in 1929, a sound projector was added and movies with sound made their debut. In 1933, Cary Grant and Mae West’s black and white musical comedy, “I’m No Angel”, was one of the many films shown. First run films throughout the 1930’s became a financial plus for the owners of State Theatre.
By WW2, State Theatre was making most of its money showing films, getting away from its roots as a stage theatre with live performances. As late as the 1940’s and 1950’s, the State Theatre was enjoying large community support, being mostly a film theatre with a few stage acts and hosting events and concerts from groups in the community. They also rented out theatre space for social events as well.
The outside Marquee had an up-scale black glass facade and had an elaborate, multi-lighted sign; a glittering jewel of Boonton’s Main Street. This lovely Marquee eventually fell apart due to other more pressing needs in changing times.
Troubling competition reared its head in the 1960’s and 1970’s, with the building of new multi-plex movie theaters with all the bells and whistles of modern cinemas in nearby Morristown and Rockaway Township. Uh oh. State Theatre wasn’t able to renovate to keep up with this competition and wound up being a second-run, double feature, dollar theatre, which didn’t bring the sustaining economic success it long had enjoyed.
Not surprising, it was closed in 1979 and was listed on the real estate market; a huge fixer-upper opportunity. Luckily, it was bought by Tom Timbrook and his then partners in 1980, changing the theatre’s name back to the Darress Theatre. They had big plans to pull the Darress Theatre’s business status back into the category of being a first-run movie house. While they screened big blockbusters like “BATMAN” and “ET”, people still wanted to see the first-run films in the newer mall theaters. So, it was back to the drawing board.
They decided to go back to the theatre’s roots and build toward becoming a local performing arts center; adding more opportunities for community members to both grow their own abilities and once again provide live performances that people would enjoy; hopefully pulling those entertainment dollars back into the Boonton community.
In a Daily Record article, Tom explained their Plan B: “My original goal; I saw this as a Channel 13,” he said. “My original plan was to call it ‘Windows on Morris County’, based on a live radio show coming out of the theater, because we could give them space, and we could have live acts.”
Tom went to work and throughout the years of his ownership, “has staged original musicals, children’s theater, concerts, professional boxing and wrestling matches, lectures and more. Music icons Peter Yarrow and Noel ‘Paul’ Stookey of Peter, Paul and Mary fame did a show there late last year. He also has rented it out as a recording studio for musicians and even rappers.” Tom also has had live radio shows on the schedule, along with magicians, comedians; everything but dance shows because the wings on the stages are limited.
For over thirty years, Tom Timbrook has kept this goal for the Darris Theatre alive and thriving. Tim and his wife want to retire, and pass the baton onto other like-minded people to keep up the good work and provide opportunities for the live performing arts and unique film experiences. “We’ve been getting a pretty heavy stream of inquiries,” Mayor McWilliams said. “I think it would be ideal for a community-based theater. I’d love to see it become the Boonton Performing Arts Center.”
A possibility to raise funds to restore this old gem, is to create a non-profit organization, such as “Friends of Darress Theatre” to find way to fundraise money for various restoration/renovation projects. A similar theatre in Port Townsend, Washington, The Rose Theatre, had a successful fundraiser to equip their theatre with a digital film system. Donors could choose between a variety of prizes; such as being able to introduce a film to the audience. My sister, who is a retired high school teacher, introduced a film there; and checked it off her bucket list!
HISTORY OF MANIFESTATIONS
As is the case with many theaters all over America, a male entity and probably others apparently are residents or frequent visitors of the Darress Theatre. Listed below are possible reasons why this thespian and others in spirit form are staying at this theatre.
Actors and performers who have died suddenly before they were able to complete a performance or audition for a coveted role, and/or not quite ready to give up the thrills of performing, sometimes choose to stay at their favorite theatre, trying to participate or just watch all the fun of others who can act in this world. Thespians who would love to have another performance on stage, sometimes stay in their favorite theater to remember their performances, participating however they can.
Sometimes dedicated staff people involved in production of a play or running a film theatre, can’t quite stop when they die suddenly and continue on trying to do their duties as best they can while in spirit form. People who enjoyed a special place as a group, sometimes come back to continue to enjoy their memories and do what they used to do there.
It is unknown who and how many spirits are residents of the Darress Theatre. They are most active when they have the theatre to themselves.
Singing is heard coming from the empty theatre late at night.
Some are still performing on stage for perhaps other thespians or past staff now all in spirit form.
At least one male voice has been heard, which means at least one of the spirits was a male performer.
Staff have seen the empty chairs on the first floor auditorium go down like unseen presences are sitting there.
Staff have heard unexplained footsteps and disembodied voices in conversations.
Interestingly, nothing has been reported by patrons. The spirits are too professional in their outlook to tease the public as this may cause the public to not stick around as patrons of the Darress Theatre.
Most probably so, but by very respectful, earnest thespians/performers of yesteryear and perhaps some former staff, owners of the theatre or stage managers; still preparing for a show or a film debut. They have no interest in interacting with or bothering the living; as they all are serious about their eternal performance standards, doing their assigned jobs or focusing on preparing for a performance or showing of a film.
Personal experiences listed above have been reported by various staff members. While no specific hard evidence has been published on line, The National Paranormal Society has the Darress Theatre listed on their site as a haunted location; meaning that some paranormal investigators must have caught something on EVPs, camera pictures or digital film of paranormal activity providing some hard evidence of the spirits’ existence.
615 Main St.,
The Darress Theatre is located in historical downtown Boonton on Main Street, at the top of the hill, next to the Boonton Library. It is the left anchor building in a row of stores. It’s size looms over the neighboring row of storefronts. Boonton is located 35 miles west of New York City.
Our Haunted Paranormal Stories are Written by Julie Carr