Count Basie Theatre

Count Basie Theatre History

Tony Bennett has called it, “My favorite place.” Art Garfunkel said, “This hall is to a singer what Steinway is to a pianist.” Lyle Lovett said, “This is one of the nicest sounding rooms in the whole United States of America.” The venue is the award winning Count Basie Theatre, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, recognized by the New Jersey State Council on the Arts as a Major Presenting Organization for the State of New Jersey, by Pollstar Magazine as one of the Top 100 Worldwide Theatre Venues, and by Contribute Magazine as one of their Top 200 Investor-Worthy Charities.

Red Bank - Circa 1926; A Town Full Of Theatres Adds One More

Even though there were already several other theatres in the Borough of Red Bank, New Jersey by 1925 (including the Strand, Palace, Empire and Lyric Theatres), on July 29, 1925 the Red Bank Register reported that Joseph Oschwald of Little Silver had announced plans to build a theatre on Monmouth Street for a partnership of Joseph Stern of Newark, the Burns and Schaffer Amusement Co., and Walter Reade. Joseph Stern was already operating the Tivoli, Central, Plaza, Savoy and Regent Theaters in Newark, the Castle Theater in Irvington, the Lincoln Theater in Bloomfield, the Capitol Theater in Belleville and the Grand and Casino Theaters in Kearney. Walter Reade, for whom the Walter Reade Theatre at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City is now named, was already New Jersey's largest theatre owner, with ownership or an interest in thirty-one other venues in the state. 

Projected to open eight months later on April 1, 1926, the new theatre would have seating for about 2,000 persons and be equipped for moving pictures, vaudeville and dramatic shows. The ninety foot by one hundred and ten foot theatre would include a wide lobby on Monmouth Street flanked by two storefronts, and a stage entrance for scenery via a ten-foot wide strip of land around the corner on Pearl Street. The noted theatre architect Thomas W. Lamb was reported to be drawing the plans for the new building, with an exterior of white terra cotta, and an interior finished in Old Gold and Red. The property and the rights of way for the land were purchased for $21,000, and the projected construction cost was $300,000 to $500,000. 

Construction Begins On The State ...(or is it The Red Bank?)... Theatre

Construction plans by Thomas Lamb were issued to various contractors, but by October the plans had changed significantly enough that they were recalled, and a new architect, William E. Lehman of Newark, ultimately assumed responsibility for the project. In 1925 his son, William Lehman, Jr. was working in Thomas Lamb’s office, and William Jr. seems to have been the one to shepherd the project from one firm to the other. (William Jr. would join his father’s firm in 1926.) By December the construction contract was "awarded" to the Oschwald Construction Company of Newark, owned and operated by Joseph Oschwald's son Gustave. Stryker & Stryker of Red Bank were awarded the contract for excavating and for hauling brick, lumber, sand and other building material, and ground was broken on December 9, 1925.

Construction proceeded through the winter, but in late April of 1926, almost one month after the originally scheduled opening, Joseph Stern sold his interest in the thirty-one year lease for the new theatre to Burns & Schaffer and Walter Reade. Each of the remaining partners would now have a fifty percent interest in the lease, and were represented in the lease transaction by M.H. Jacks, then the manager of the Strand Theatre in Lakewood, another Walter Reade theatre. Jacks, who would ultimately be named the new Red Bank theatre's manager, told the Red Bank Register that the yearly rental would be equal to eight to ten percent of the cost of the building, and that the new partnership was changing the name of the theatre from the State Theater to the Red Bank Theater. The Register later reported that, "At present the name State Theatre is engraved on the front of the building, but this will be effaced. The change is one that will probably meet with general approval at Red Bank for the new building may well appropriately bear the name of the town where it is located." With a stage being built "...large enough to play any traveling attraction now on the road," the theatre's programming was announced as including Shubert & Erlanger attractions during the summer, and vaudeville and motion pictures during the winter.

A Grand Interior Design

By August 18, 1926 the opening was already four months late, but the Register was reporting that the new building would be well worth waiting for. "There are bigger buildings in town, but none so substantially built nor so attractive..." Construction materials alone, including brick, steel, concrete and marble were reported at $48,000.

"The work of building a large sunburst dome inside the building is nearly completed. This dome will be studded with hundreds of electric lights concealed in such a way as to hide them without obscuring the light. Marble stairways have been made." "On a wall in the lobby will be a huge painting, thirty feet long and ten feet high...The arched dome which covers the main part of the theatre is a striking feature. It is painted in many colors. The ceiling is studded with vari-colored lights, numbering about 1,000. The lights are so arranged that the bulbs cannot be seen."

The Carlton Theatre Opens With Vaudeville & Moving Pictures

By October, with the opening already six months overdue, M.H. Jacks was formally named as the new theatre's manager, and construction was now reported to be finished by November 1. The opening performance of vaudeville and moving pictures was scheduled for between November 1 and 5. Like all the previously announced openings, this date would be missed as well, but this time by just six days, and on November 2 the Asbury Park Evening Press announced that the theatre would open on Armistice Day, November 11. However, it would open under yet another new name, the Carlton Theater. This time however the name would stick, and the Red Bank Register reported that Walter Reade had formally asked the Borough in a letter for, "...permission to put up a large electric sign in front of his new Carlton Theatre on Monmouth Street. The request was referred to the sign committee of the council with the power to act."

Just one day before the opening, the Register reported that little remained to be done "except the odds and ends of things," and that "workers are working at top speed." The Asbury Park Evening Press reported that, "The Carlton Theater... interior architecture will be of Spanish effect," and the Register reported that one of the last operations was to set up a new electrical organ, "...a job which is now underway. The organ cost $25,000." At the same time, apparently to consolidate his operations and ensure the success of his new theatre, Walter Reade announced plans to close his other theaters in town, including the Palace, which Reade had just purchased one year previously, and the Red Bank Strand, which he had leased from the J. Clark Company. The Register reported that most of the employees from these theaters would work at the new venue, and that in total, thirty Red Bank residents would work at the new theater.

4,000 Attend Opening Festivities Featuring the Keith-Albee Vaudeville & Feature Film "The Quarterback"

Opening night on Thursday, November 11, 1926 was a grand affair, with many prominent persons invited, including E.F. Albee, Nicholas Schenck, Adolph Zukor, Hiram Abrams, B.S. Moss, A.O. Erlanger, A.H. Woods, Joseph Denahy, Mayor William White of Red Bank, Mayor W.C. Wilson of Perth Amboy, Mayor Runyon of Freehold, Mayor Frank Howland of Long Branch, Mayor James T. McMurray of Plainfield, Mayor F.W. Donnelly of Trenton, Mayor C.E.F. Hetrick of Asbury Park, former Mayor C.W. Housman of Long Branch, the theatre's original architect Thomas W. Lamb, Judge Ward Kremer, Lewis Latham Clark, Arthur Hammerstein, S. Jay Kaufman, Prosecutor John E. Toolan, and various stage and screen stars.

The opening night attraction was headlined by the Keith-Albee Vaudeville, with the feature film "The Quarterback," starring Richard Dix, Carlton's News Events, and a ten piece orchestra. Almost four thousand people attended the two shows, and the crowds began forming at five o'clock, an hour and forty-five minutes before the first performance. Even on opening night there were delays, but the Register reported that, "...folks waited patiently and good-naturedly." "The interval before the opening of the performance gave the audience a good opportunity to walk around and inspect the playhouse. They found much to admire in the beautiful decorations and the richness of the furnishings there." During a brief intermission in the performance Walter Reader made an address in which he described the theatre's policies. During the summer and fall it was planned to use the theater to try out musical comedies and other shows to be produced in New York. Admission would never be more than 75 cents for picture and vaudeville shows, although the price might be higher when musical comedies and other special attractions were played.

Brilliant with Lights & Rich in Colors

Two name changes and sixteen months after the first announcement of its construction, when it finally opened the Register reported that the new Carlton Theater was, "...a marvel of beauty, convenience and comfort. Outside and inside it is a veritable and architectural triumph." "Color and light are two of the outstanding features of the new building. Thousands of electric lights stud the ceilings and sidewalls. In the center of the main part of the building is an enormous dome-like sunburst illuminated with myriad concealed lights. A very large glass chandelier is suspended from the center of the dome. This contrivance is brilliant with lights." "The interior of the theatre is rich with colors harmoniously blended. The colors will stand out more prominently six months from now than they do at present. This is especially true of the side walls. The material used in the walls is of such character that time brings out color." "...many folks entered the theater to satisfy their curiosity as to its appearance...They were particularly impressed with the furnishings, which are rich in velours and velvets in contrasting shades." A grandly painted vaudeville curtain, still in use today, filled the proscenium arch.

Spanning Six Decades

For the next forty-seven years, spanning six decades of the 20th Century, the theatre was one of the highlights of nightlife in downtown Red Bank, and it outlasted all of its contemporaries, including the Strand, Palace, Empire and Lyric Theatres. Walter Reade himself would operate the theatre for decades using several corporate entities, including Walter Reade's Theatre, Inc., Perthbank Realty, Inc., which acquired the building in 1951, and Carlton Operating Co., which acquired Perthbank Realty in 1970.

The theatre would operate through the golden age of radio and television, and through the rise and fall of drive-ins, until finally the dawn of shopping mall culture and multiplex cinemas would draw enough people out of downtown and make operating a large single screen movie theatre no longer profitable.

Had it been constructed just a few years later than it was, with vaudeville passing into history in favor of “talking pictures,” it is probable that the Carlton would have had a much smaller stage, just large enough to accommodate a movie screen and speakers. However, because the venue was conceived and constructed in an era when both movies and live vaudeville performances were featured, it was constructed with a full-sized stage and a theatrical fly house, and these features would become the building’s salvation.

Into the 1960’s and the early 1970’s, both the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra and the Monmouth Arts Foundation were regular renters of the theatre. The Monmouth Arts Foundation in particular was an extremely active user of the theatre each year, renting the theatre several times a year to bring notable ensembles like American Ballet Theatre, Alvin Ailey Dance Theater and the Rotterdam Philharmonic to Monmouth County. Thus, when the Walter Reade Organization, Inc., placed the theatre on the real estate market for sale in the early 1970’s, it was the theatre’s importance as a live performance venue that attracted the attention of the Monmouth County Arts Council.

Enter the MCAC

In 1971, a survey by the Junior League of Monmouth County indicated the need for a central agency to coordinate and assist the County’s arts organizations. With initial funding from the Junior League and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, then just 5 years old itself, the Monmouth County Arts Council, or MCAC for short, was born. Originally housed in offices at Brookdale Community College in Lincroft, MCAC began active operations in October 1971, and almost immediately became involved in an effort to preserve the Carlton Theater for cultural uses.

In a report commissioned by the Council titled, “The Possibility of the Carlton Theatre As A County Wide Arts Center,” John B. Warters noted that, “While the theatre has been available for county arts productions on a rental basis since its construction in 1926, its principal use has been as a movie house. The trend toward low-maintenance movie houses has made the Carlton outdated for this use. The Carlton is now for sale and the future of this unique theatre is in question. The Monmouth County Arts Council is concerned because of the effect that the Carlton’s loss might have on future arts programming. Primarily, MCAC is interested in preventing the Carlton from being torn down and in persuading future owners to continue the policy of making the theatre available to those who need it. The safest way to assure these goals if for MCAC to buy the Carlton and turn it into a county arts center.”

The idea of the Council purchasing the theatre was controversial almost from the start. Some MCAC members lined up in support of the effort, and some MCAC members believed that direct involvement with the theatre would require such a concentrated focus on a single issue that the Council would end up abrogating its obligations to the larger cultural community. In fact, this controversy would persist for 26 years, until the Council divested itself of the theatre in 1999.

Nonetheless, a year-long process to study the feasibility of saving and operating the building as a nonprofit arts organization resulted in an anonymous donation significant enough to fund the purchase of the building, and enough support from the MCAC members that on December 28, 1973 the Monmouth County Arts Council purchased the Carlton Theater for $96,665, several hundred thousand dollars less than it cost to construct 47 years earlier. William D. Warters, then President of the Monmouth County Arts Council, signed the deed. Included in the purchase were the storefront leases of the Greater Red Bank Area Jaycees, the Outreach Center and the Monmouth County Unit of the New Jersey Association for Retarded Children; an automatic ticket machine; a steel rod ticket box; a set of plastic marquee letters; two projectors with Motio-Grapher bases and Simplex-Sound Heads; assorted lenses; a Strong Trouper follow spot; assorted lighting and sound gear; a baby grand piano; and drapes and drops including the original Act Curtain.

Although popular legend has it that the theatre closed for an extended period of time, the Carlton operated on a regular basis right up to the date of its sale. In fact, the final screenings as a privately owned movie theatre were on Sunday, December 25, 1973, when a matinee of “Snoopy Come Home” was attended by 245 people, and an evening double feature of “Paper Moon” and “Play It Again Sam” was attended by 412. 

The official December 28, 1973 press release from the Council stated in part, “The Monmouth County Arts Council has received an anonymous gift from a foundation enabling it to purchase the Carlton Theatre in Red Bank, with the stipulation that the theatre be renovated into an attractive and functional arts center for the entire County. According to Council President William D. Warters, a contract for the purchase has been signed with the Walter Reade Organizations, Inc. The Council will retain ownership of the theatre for one year, by the end of which, if it has been successful in raising adequate funds for renovation and endowment, it will continue ownership. However, he stated that if sufficient support is not generated from individuals, corporations and foundations, in and beyond Monmouth County, the theatre will be sold to a third party, by a pre-arranged agreement. The total cost of renovation and endowment is estimated at approximately one million dollars…In making the announcement, Warters emphasized that the decision to buy the theatre was made after a careful three-month-long study to determine the desirability and feasibility of the undertaking. Over one hundred people in governmental agencies, education, the arts, business and civic groups, and other individual leaders in the community were interviewed. ‘We hope to help the many arts activities in this area flourish, and, through the new arts center, to create a focal point of great inspiration, enjoyment, and pride for the people of Monmouth County. Unless we are certain we can reach our objective, we will not keep the theatre, since we are not interested in hanging on indefinitely to a deteriorating property. In other words, unless we can do the job right, we will not do it at all.’ Red Bank Mayor Daniel O’Hearn said, ‘I’m pleased that this borough’s only legitimate theatre will be preserved and improved for the benefit of all our citizens…’”

Public reaction was immediate, and positive. In a January 3, 1974 editorial, the Daily Register wrote, “It is heartening to learn that Red Bank’s Carlton Theater has been purchased by the Monmouth County Arts Council…It would have been sad to see this fine and centrally located facility, site in the past of so many notable and enriching presentations, sold for conversion to some other use. Under council ownership it becomes an opportunity for vastly expanded local activity in the arts… The (funding) project is an ambitious one and will not be easy. Monmouth residents have demonstrated before, however, that they will support such worthwhile programs, and we are optimistic about the future of the Carlton.”

On Sunday, January 6, 1974 the Asbury Park Press noted that, “…the council nonetheless was cautions and slow in making its decision. Some 100 citizens, officials, and professionals in the fields of art, education, government, business and civic-service organizations were consulted to determine the feasibility and the need for the project. The Council’s functions in the past have been narrow... but it is expanding its horizons with the acquisition of the Carlton.”

Yet Another New Name

Under new ownership, the theatre acquired yet another new name, the Monmouth Arts Center, and began a rich and storied life as a nonprofit performing arts venue, playing host over the years to a stellar and diverse roster of the nation and the world’s greatest performers, including, to name but a few, Marcel Marceau, Martha Graham, Tony Bennett, James Brown, George Carlin, Rosemary Clooney, Grover Washington Jr., David Byrne, Megadeth, the Violent Femmes, Buddy Guy, Shari Lewis, the Ramones, Sir George Martin, and even Count Basie himself.
On May 11, 1979 the “Kid from Red Bank” finally played the theatre, and the Asbury Park Press reported that, “The kid from Red Bank, William ‘Count’ Basie, and his 17-member band were in town to pay their respects to lots of long-time friends and admirers, and to help raise money for the Shrewsbury A.M.E. Zion Church’s building drive. A nearly full house listened to and roundly appreciated two hours of Basie’s inimitable touch to the standards ‘April in Paris,’ ‘Sweet Georgia Brown,’ ‘Easy Living,’ and ‘JaDa.’ ‘Well, we’re back home again,’ said Basie.”

The Wild, The Innocent and the Monmouth Street Shuffle

The notion of the theatre as “home,” or “a home,” for a number of artists has persisted through the years. From the early 1900’s, when Count Basie and Sonny Greer, drummer for the Duke Ellington Orchestra for more than 40 years, were among the first Jersey Shore musicians to gain national prominence, through the 1950’s, 60’s, 70’s and on into the 1980’s, the Jersey Shore has been home to a rich community of musicians and performers, and the Count Basie Theatre has been pleased to provide a performing home to many of them.

On August 14, 1974 a young, up and coming local singer/songwriter with two albums under his belt named Bruce Springsteen played the theatre for the first time, beginning an association that would last for more than thirty years. His second appearance at the theatre, on October 10, 1975, would become a small part of a major turning point in his career. On October 27, 1975, Mr. Springsteen appeared on the covers of both Time and Newsweek magazines on the same publication date. The Newsweek story, titled “Making of a Rock Star,” written by Maureen Orth, began this way: “The movie marquee in Red Bank, N.J., simply said “HOMECOMING” because everyone knew who was home…after four foot-stomping encores they were ready to crown Bruce Springsteen the great white hope of rock ‘n’ roll.”

These two shows were just the first of many over the years, including a memorable run of shows on August 1-2-3 and 5-6-7 in 1976, with the Asbury Jukes’ horns appearing as the Miami Horns. On May 12 and 13, 1977, he helped fill in for an ailing Southside Johnny, playing 3 of 4 scheduled shows with a last minute aggregation billed as The Asbury Allstars, including members of the Jukes and the E Street Band backing Bruce, Ronnie Spector and Steve Van Zant.

Other appearances over the years have included an appearance at La Bamba’s Holiday Hurrah on December 28, 1983; a warm up show for a European tour on March 23, 1993; the start of the Ghost of Tom Joad tour on November 22, 1995; and a very special evening on May 7, 2008, when Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, then in the midst of the world tour supporting the release of Magic, played a benefit for the theatre itself. The concert was significant for venue, raising over $3 million for its restoration fund, and for the artist, in that for the first time ever, the set list featured performances of two albums in their entirety: Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town. Darkness was performed first, “So we don’t send you home suicidal.” Similar performances of entire albums would later become a feature of the tour supporting their next release, Working on a Dream.

Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes

Another important musical association over the years has been the theatre’s relationship with Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, dating to the aforementioned 1977 shows, and including La Bamba’s Second Annual Christmas Show in December 1984, which aired live from the Count Basie Theatre and also featured Little Steven, Gary US Bonds, Brian Setzer, Darlene Love, Kevin Kavanaugh, Paul Schaeffer, Steve Jordan and Gary Tallent.

Almost since the band’s inception, New Years Eve has been an important fixture on the Jukes’ schedule, and they’ve performed more New Years Eve shows at the Count Basie Theatre than any other venue, in 1993, 1994, 1995, 2000, 2001, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009. The 1994 show included a surprise appearance by Jon Bon Jovi, and the 2007, 2008 and 2009 shows were broadcast live worldwide by Sirius Satellite Radio.

Bon Jovi

Starting in the early 1990’s, the theatre played host to a set of charity shows by the band Bon Jovi, including two shows on December 23, 1990 to benefit the Monmouth County Arts Council, Holmdel's Sisters of the Good Shepherd, and a family suffering from Lymes disease; two shows on December 20, 1992 to benefit Monmouth County storm relief following the nor’easter of ’92; a December 20, 1993 charity concert; and finally, on January 31, 1998, the first of what would turn out to be several “All Star Benefit Concerts” over the next several years that would bring the Jersey Shore musical community together for a cause.

Coming Together and Providing Hope

Organized by Jon Bon Jovi, the “Come Together” concert on January 31, 1998 was organized to benefit the Sgt. Patrick King Memorial Fund, established to provide for the family of Long Branch Police Officer Sgt. Patrick King, a 45-year-old father of two young boys who was slain in the line of duty by a fugitive on November 20, 1997. The event included all the members of Bon Jovi, including Jon, Richie Sambora, David Bryan, Tico Torres and Hugh McDonald, plus Southside Johnny and several members of the Asbury Jukes including Bobby Bandiera, LaBamba, Ed Manion, Marc Pender and Joey Stann, plus Little Steven, plus Bruce Springsteen and several members of the then-disbanded E Street Band, including Patti Scialfa, Max Weinberg, Clarence Clemons and Danni Federici. Actor Danny De Vito, an Asbury Park native, was Master of Ceremonies, and over $100,000 was raised for King's widow and his two sons.

With the framework of the Patrick King concerts to work from, on October 18 and 19, 2001 another cast of musicians came together to benefit the Alliance of Neighbors of Monmouth County, a charity established to benefit the Monmouth County victims of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and their families. Spearheaded by E Street Band bass player Gary Tallent, the event was already in the works as a tribute to Sun Records and a benefit for World Hunger Year, the New York-based charity founded by Harry Chapin and Bill Ayres to raise funds to combat hunger and poverty. Following 9/11, the purpose of the concert was redirected with the concert proceeds, plus funds solicited online and through a live broadcast of the October 19 concert by Comcast’s CN8 News Channel benefitting the Alliance of Neighbors. This time with filmmaker and Red Bank native Kevin Smith as MC, Bruce Springsteen, Jon Bon Jovi, Phoebe Snow, Joan Jett, Patti Scialfa, Garry Tallent, Max Weinberg, Bobby Bandiera, Joe Ely, Aztec Two-Step, Randy Moore, Highway 9, the Smithereens, Felix Cavaliere, former members of Elvis Presley’s backing band including Sonny Burgess, D. J. Fontana and Jerry Sheff, and the Pilgrim Baptist Church Celestial Choir of Red Bank, plus others, performed, raising over $400,000.

On April 29, 2003 many of these same musicians came together again for The Hope Concert, a benefit for the medical care of one of their own, Bob Bandiera, Jr., the son of singer, songwriter and guitar player Bobby Bandiera of the Asbury Jukes. Organized by Tim McLoone and Emer Conroy, with Tim and Big Joe Henry of NJ 101.5 FM Radio as Masters of Ceremonies, the Bob Bandiera Band, Gary US Bonds, Jon Bon Jovi, Norman Nardini, Southside Johnny, Bruce Springsteen and the Max Weinberg 7 all performed. Over $200,000 was raised.

On December 12, 2006 many of these same musicians performed again for the second Hope Concert, officially titled the Bobby Bandiera All Star Holiday Concert to benefit the Joan Dancy and People with ALS Support Group at Riverview Hospital. Organized by Terry Magovern long-time fixture of the Shore music community and fiancé of Joan Dancy, the concert featured performances by Bob Bandiera and the Jersey Shore Rock-N-Soul Revue, Mark Pender and La Bamba, Tim McLoone & the Shirleys, Gary US Bonds, Jon Bon Jovi, Southside Johnny and Bruce Springsteen.

Hope Concert III on December 21, 2007 benefited the Valerie Fund Center at Children's Hospital at Monmouth Medical Center, where musician Tim McLoone’s son Jack was then receiving care, and featured performances by Tim McLoone and The Shirleys, Bob Bandiera and the Jersey Shore Rock-N-Soul Revue, Mark Pender and LaBamba, Gary US Bonds, Southside Johnny and Jon Bon Jovi. Over $500,000 was raised.

Hope Concert IV on December 22, 2008 benefited the Parker Family Health Center in Red Bank, and featured Bob Bandiera and the Jersey Shore Rock-N-Soul Revue, Brian Fallon of The Gaslight Anthem, Bruce Springsteen, Gary U.S. Bonds, Jon Bon Jovi, Nicole Atkins, and Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes. Over $300,000 was raised for the free health clinic.

The Fifth and Final Name

In 1984, the theatre was rechristened the Count Basie Theatre in honor of jazz pianist, composer and band leader William "Count" Basie (1904-1984), who passed away on April 26 of that year. Although jazz enthusiasts most commonly associate Count Basie with Kansas City, where he formed his first band and first made a name for himself, he was in fact a Red Bank native, born in his parent's house on Mechanic Street on August 21, 1904, and living there through his teen years. It is fitting that a venue with numerous names to its history should finally settle on a name in honor of one of this country’s greatest performing artists.

How Do You Get To Carnegie Hall? In This Case, Not By Practicing!

Sometime in the theatre’s later history, the fixed seats in the balcony were removed in favor of couches. Even today, the couches are fondly remembered by a certain age group of the Count Basie Theatre’s audience, including a then-teenager named Hugh Anthony Cregg, III. A West Coast resident, he attended the theatre in the 1960’s when he would go home with his NJ boarding school roommate on weekends. Later in life, as Huey Lewis, he would become a bona fide rock star and among other famous venues, would play the Count Basie Theatre as a performer.

One of the more interesting phases of the Count Basie Theatre’s history began in 1986, when the theatre, then in desperate need of new seating, acquired “pre-owned” theatre seating from Carnegie Hall during its own renovation. For a grand total of $6,000 and on the condition that the seats be removed from the Carnegie Hall property immediately after a Sunday performance, Mark Townsend, a retired Bell Labs Director, whose wife Jean Townsend founded the Art Alliance of Monmouth County, lead a team that negotiated with the New York City theatrical unions, arranged for the seats to be taken out of Carnegie Hall and stacked on the sidewalks, then loaded into moving vans and taken to an empty house in Red Bank where they were stored until installation. Although millions of people had already sat in those seats during their Carnegie Hall years, they remained in use at the Count Basie Theatre for another 18 years, until August, 2004.

In 1994 Walter Rauffer, a local resident and an engineer at Children’s Television Workshop and Sesame Street, lead a team of volunteers that restored the theatre’s projection equipment and brought film presentations back to the theatre for a summer series, all on a shoe string budget of $3,525.58. After a period in which no films were shown, he would perform the same task again in 2003, except this time with a more significant budget of about $75,000, much of it funded by the Marrus Family Foundation, enabling the theatre to regularly screen sneak previews of films and the Red Bank International Film Festival, the Undiscovered Gems Film Festival, and other cinema events.

101 Monmouth Street

By the late 1990’s two things had become apparent. One, the long-term viability of the theatre as a performing arts center would require more space to work with, and two, the future of the Monmouth County Arts Council did not include the Count Basie Theatre.
In 1997 the arts council made its second significant real estate purchase, acquiring the building immediately adjacent to the theatre at 101 Monmouth Street from its owners, John A. Bates and Harry C. Novotny, Jr. 101 Monmouth Street was constructed in 1927, just one year after the Count Basie Theatre originally opened, and the architecture of the building’s façade is so close to that of the theatre that from the street, it is almost impossible to distinguish that the two buildings were separate and discreet properties. The purpose of the purchase was to make it possible to expand the theatre’s public and backstage spaces by joining the two buildings. The sale closed on December 30, 1997.

More significant however was that in 1999, twenty-six years after purchasing the theatre, the long-running internal debate at the Monmouth County Arts Council about whether the MCAC’s mission was to serve the county's cultural community, or to manage the theatre, finally came to a head. The result was a decision to refocus the Council’s attentions toward servicing the wider Monmouth County cultural community, and to divest the Council of the theatre. With some board and staff members remaining with the arts council and some board and staff members remaining with the theatre, on June 30, 1999 the Count Basie Theatre, Inc. was established as its own independent nonprofit corporation to own, manage, program and preserve the theatre.

The Third Great Era

If the theatre’s first great era began with its grand opening in 1926, and its second great era began with its acquisition by a nonprofit arts organization in 1973, the divestiture marked the start of the theatre’s third great era, in which the board and staff that remained with the theatre were able to concentrate solely on the theatre, its restoration and renovation, and, for the first time, its role as a presenter and producer of its own programming.

Up until 2002, the theatre operated primarily as a rental house, with few presentations of its own each year, and decidedly mixed financial results from year to year. However, the divestiture and subsequent changes of board and staff leadership in the period 1999-2002 resulted in a new direction, and since 2002 the Count Basie Theatre has enjoyed a period of great success. In 2002 the organization presented just 12 performances, attended by 9,200 people, and had an annual budget of just $1.4 million with an annual operating deficit. The annual operating budget is now $6 million a year with a solid history of profitability. The Basie now presents about 90-100 of its own performances a year, with attendance averaging over 70% of capacity, and continues to host another 100 or so rentals each year by nonprofit arts organizations and concert promoters. Total attendance for all events is 200,000 a year, and increasing every year.

In addition to these program and management achievements, $10 million has been raised and expended since 2004 on capital projects to renovate and restore the building, including a six-week $1 million project in 2004 to replace the theatre’s seats and restore the balcony to its original pre-couch configuration; a 12-week $750,000 project in 2007 to replace the theatre’s roof right down to the structural steel; and a 4-month $8 million project in 2008 to replace the heating system; upgrade the electrical system; construct The Carlton Lounge (the theatre’s VIP Donor Lounge); expand the lobby; upgrade the fire suppression systems; replace the house lighting fixtures; create a new grand chandelier; restore the interior decorative plaster; and paint the interior of the theatre.

The first major renovations and restorations in the theatre’s 80+ year history, the goal has been to return the theatre to its former grandeur, or better. Another $10 million of work remains to be done to fully realize the theatre’s Facility Master Plan, but for the moment the goal of creating a performance space as great as the performances on its stage has been achieved. The NY Times said that the, “Renovations turn back the clock 82 years,” the Newark Star Ledger said, “The Basie is back and looking better than ever,” and the Asbury Park Press said that the “Revamped theatre is the show.”

In addition to hosting literally thousands of memorable performances over the years, the Count Basie Theatre has played a part in several remarkable projects that are preserved forever in recorded mediums. Footage filmed at Bruce Springsteen’s 1975 show later appeared in “Wings for Wheels,” the Grammy Award winning documentary video accompanying the 30th anniversary release of Born to Run. David Byrne filmed his 1992 concert, and released it as the concert film “Between the Teeth.” In 2005, the Count Basie Theatre participated in the creation of the dance piece “Anytown” as a Lead Commissioning Presenter. The evening length work by the Shapiro and Smith Dance Company with music by Bruce Springsteen, Patti Scialfa and Soozie Tyrell went on to play theatres across the country. Shows created by the Jersey Shore Rock-N-Soul Revue have played other venues across New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Filmmaker Kevin Smith filmed his 2007 appearance and released it as “Sold Out: A Threevening with Kevin Smith.” David Bromberg filmed his 2008 concert and released it as “David Bromberg and His Big Band in Concert at the Count Basie Theatre.” The Rippingtons included a photo of the theatre’s famous marquee in the liner notes to their 2006 release, “20th Anniversary,” and portions of Brian Setzer’s 2007 appearance were taped and broadcast as part of a CBS Sunday Morning profile of the artist.

The Count Basie Theatre Today

Today, much remains the same about the building. Despite the Red Bank Register's 1926 report that the theatre's original name would be effaced from the façade, the word "State" and the initials "ST" for "State Theatre" are still visible on the peak of the building's façade. The old storefronts still flank the lobby entrance, and the magnificent dome still dominates the theatre's expansive ceiling. The original Act Curtain is still in use. Stage scenery is still loaded in via a ten foot wide strip of land off of Pearl Street, a tribute to the ingenuity and perseverance of the theatre's current stage crew when one considers that vaudeville performances generally relied upon backdrops, and modern scenery, staging and sound gear are now delivered in a tractor trailer or two.

Yet much is different. No longer a commercial concern for the benefit of a private partnership, the Count Basie Theatre is now owned and operated by the Count Basie Theatre, Inc., a nonprofit corporation formed solely to operate the theatre for the benefit of the community. The Theatre presents primarily "live" music, dance and theatrical performances, with occasional film presentations, and a vibrant arts educational program offering workshops and classes for all ages.

In an age of faceless wireless communication, when you can watch movies or hundreds of channels of television on your laptop or your cell phone, people still want and need to get out of the house, go downtown, and be entertained by live performers in the company of other people. Through war and peace, economic upturns and downturns, good times and bad, the Count Basie Theatre has continued to fulfill that needs and thrive.

This history of the Count Basie Theatre was written by Numa Saisselin with significant research assistance by Ann Marie Keenan and additional research by Amanda Leddin.

Recent Honors and Awards for the Count Basie Theatre

2012: Preservation Award: Monmouth County Historical Commission
2012: Best of NJ Jersey Choice: Best Music Venue
2011: Pollstar Magazine Top 100 Worldwide Theatres
2011: Asbury Park Press Readers’ Choice Award: Best Place to Listen to Jazz, Blues and Country Music in 
          Monmouth County
2011: Red Bank RiverCenter’s Visual Improvement Committee Award
2011: The Monmouth County Planning Board Award Commending Renovation and Restoration

2010: NJ State Council on the Arts Major Presenting Organization Designation
2010: Discover Jersey Arts People’s Choice Award: Best Place to Take a Class in the Arts (Kids)
2010: Preservation NJ Vision Award
2010: Asbury Park Press Readers’ Choice Award: Best Place to Listen to Live Music

2009: Pollstar Magazine Top 100 Worldwide Theatres
2009: Listed on the NJ State Register of Historic Places
2009: Listed on the National Register of Historic Places
2009: NJ State Council on the Arts Major Presenting Organization Designation
2009: Monmouth County Historical Preservation Commission Award
2009: New Jersey Historic Preservation Award

2008: Pollstar Magazine Top 100 Worldwide Theatres
2008: NJ State Council on the Arts Major Presenting Organization Designation
2008: Asbury Park Press Readers’ Choice Award: Best Comedy Venue
2008: Asbury Park Press Readers’ Choice Award: Best Community Theatre
2008: Monmouth County Arts Council Community Champion of the Arts Award
2008: Red Bank RiverCenter Special Improvement District Community Partner Award

2007: Contribute Magazine Top 200 Investor-Worthy Charities
2007: Pollstar Magazine Top 100 Worldwide Theatres
2007: Asbury Park Press Readers’ Choice Award: Best Community Theatre
2007: Eastern Monmouth Area Chamber of Commerce Spinnaker Award

2006: Asbury Park Press Readers’ Choice Award: Best Community Theatre
2006: Asbury Park Press Readers’ Choice Award: Best Place to Listen to Jazz/Blues
2006: Asbury Park Press Shore Area Venue of the Year Award

2005: Asbury Park Press Readers’ Choice Award: Best Community Theatre

2001: Asbury Park Press Readers’ Choice Award: Best Community Theatre

2000: Asbury Park Press Readers’ Choice Award: Best Community Theatre

1998: Asbury Park Press Readers’ Choice Award: Best Community Theatre

To learn more about the Theatre's ongoing restoration project, visit the Restoration Updates & Photos page on our website. 

© 2016 Count Basie Theatre. All Rights Reserved. Count Basie Theatre is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization.