Does FOL Do Everything With Just Two People?
A recent comment suggested that FOL is really only two people – an Executive Director and Program Director who currently are the organization’s only two paid full time employees.
Considering the volume of events that the FOL has accomplished in the last year alone, this theory could not be further from the truth. Over 80 events have been at the Loew’s in the last year, including…
- Two pop concerts that included Neutral Milk Hotel
- Loew’s Jersey Theatre Film Series from September to June
- Local arts programs that include our annual three day StageFest Showcase
- Programming with community partners that have included the JC Board of Education, Art House Productions and NJCU
- Various service programs including our Annual Volunteer Expo and a wellness open house
- Private events, including but not limited to weddings and special events
Along with this roster of events, the FOL has continued renovation and maintenance work to a large physical Theatre space.
To do all this, FOL has an executive staff that includes:
- Director of Operations
- Technical Director
- Business Administrator
- Building Infrastructure Manager
All executive staff members are professionals in their fields and work at the Loew’s without a salary.
We also have a production support staff that includes an audio technician, production manager, two projectionists and a head usher who work without compensation, except for larger rental shows.
Other support staff includes an IT technician, web designer, email manager and photographer who also donate their services.
And of course, FOL has a corps of volunteers who support all aspects of our operation, from shows to maintenance to ongoing renovations.
All these people give their time and talents because they believe in FOL’s mission and vision for the Loew’s. They also understand that without the critical repairs that Jersey City has failed to fund, the Loew’s can’t operate in such a way that it can sustain a larger paid staff.
In 2013 alone, a total of 5,107 hours of volunteer labor were donated to FOL.
In early June, FOL hosted our Annual Volunteer Expo during which hundreds of people got info from 50 Hudson County non-profit organizations that use volunteers. FOL signed up more than 30 new volunteers, and we look forward to their help with projects this summer and in running programs in the fall.
To suggest that FOL is only two people is not only inaccurate, but dismissive of the hard work, dedication and professionalism that our supporters have contributed to ensure the Loew’s Jersey Theatre’s continued success.
“Professional” vs. “Paid”
But what about the suggestion that FOL isn’t “professional” because it uses so many volunteers?
To begin with, “volunteer” doesn’t equate to “amateur”. “Experienced” doesn’t necessarily mean “commercial”. And “professional” isn’t just a synonym for “highly paid”. If some of the people whom FOL welcomes as volunteers do not bring a specific background in theatre or in renovations and maintenance, that’s no different than some new employees in a typical company. All of FOL volunteers are directed by our executive and support staff of professionals in their fields, with a breadth of experience that would be hard-put to duplicate even at top salary.
The best proof of FOL’s professionalism and ability comes from the experience of our audiences and of the organizations and individuals that have put on programs at the Loew’s. Ask Art House Productions, promoter Todd Abramson, the JC Public Schools Art High School, the Golden Door Film Festival, the Media Arts Department of NJCU, the Garden State Theatre Organ Society, more than a few brides and grooms, and most audience members, to just name some. No business satisfies 100% of its clients and customers, but FOL comes as close as any.
And finally, TimeOut NY – one of the leading entertainment publication in our region – recently called going to the Loew’s one of the best things to do in New Jersey. That makes it kind of hard to make a case that FOL doesn’t know what we are doing.
FOL, GSTOS and The Loew’s Organ
A recent post implying that Friends of the Loew’s claims credit for the restoration of the magnificent Wonder Morton Pipe Organ in the Loew’s is wrong¸ and frankly dishonors the close working relationship FOL has with our sister non-profit organization the Garden State Theatre Organ Society.
When Jersey City purchased the Loew’s at FOL’s urging, the Theatre’s original organ had been completely removed years before. A twin to the original was located by an early member of FOL who was also a founder of GSTOS, the late Bob Balfour. Bob donated the funds to GSTOS to purchase the organ and bring it to the Loew’s. For eleven long years, while FOL volunteers worked to make the Loew’s minimally functional and then open and operate it despite many remaining limitations, GSTOS volunteers labored to restore and re-install the 1,800 pipes, miles of cable and tens of thousands of other parts of the organ. GSTOS continues to maintain the Organ, which the Village Voice called “The Best Theatre Organ in New York” just a year or two after calling the Loew’s “The Best Movie Theatre in New York”.
The magnitude of what GSTOS volunteers accomplished and the quality of their work could not have been exceeded by the highest paid organ installation company.
But it is certainly true to also note that FOL works closely with GSTOS, and vice versa, in regard to the organ and the Theatre as a whole. Most obviously, if FOL didn’t save and now maintain and operate the Loew’s, there would be no Theatre for the organ to have been installed in. FOLvolunteers worked alongside GSTOS volunteers to unload two tractor trailer loads of parts when the organ was brought to the Loew’s. FOL also supports the infrastructure necessary for the organ. For instance, FOL paid for installation of heating in the two organ chambers when it became evident that the lack of heat – a mistake dating to the Loew’s construction – was damaging the pipes and other parts of the restored organ. FOL has also repaired the organ lift when it was damaged, twice. We work with GSTOS to plan the organ’s use, and especially to support GSTOS’ two annual events at the Loew’s. And the crew chief for GSTOS at the Loew’s and another key GSTOS volunteer are members of FOL’s Board of Trustees.
The President of GSTOS and the President of the national American Theatre Organ Society have both praised FOL as being one of the best theatre managements their organizations work with in terms of appreciating and supporting their mission.
The fact is that what FOL and GSTOS have accomplished, separately and together, at the Loew’s is an extraordinary example of the dedication, professionalism and ability of non-profit, volunteer-powered organizations, and Jersey City can be proud of that.
FOL Over The Years
A few posts show confusion about what FOL has done at different times in the course of the Loew’s project, and why. Let’s talk about that.
FOL literally came into being, and has since been shaped by the need to deal with the extraordinary short-sightedness of successive Jersey City governments in regard to the Loew’s.
In the beginning, our work was almost all advocacy: we worked to remind the people of the City of the value of the Loew’s and led a campaign to convince the City government to reverse its foolish policy that the Loew’s should be torn down in the name of redeveloping Journal Square. What we did in those days included researching the examples of other cities and theatres;creating posters, flyers and informational brochures; mounting displays at fairs and festivals all around town; speaking to neighborhood groups; collecting thousands of petition signatures and bringing supporters to countless meetings. In the process, we built the case and consensus for the Loew’s.
It is, however, also true that even in those early days we did very basic maintenance at the closed theatre, including improving security against vandalism and patching the roof and clearing drains to prevent leaks and further decay.
FOL presented a variety of small performances and functions in the lobby to give people a chance to rediscover the Loew’s and see what was at risk of being lost. Because the water had been disconnected, we had to truck water in for cleaning and set up portable toilets in the alley alongside the Theatre to support those events.
But even after the City bought the Loew’s purportedly with the goal of reopening it as an arts center, the City was not willing to commit the necessary resources. It never even followed up on plans to form blue ribbon panels and steering committees to try to make plans and raise money for the Loew’s. FOL had helped win a state grant for work to stabilize the Loew’s – i.e., keep it from falling apart; and we convinced the City to grudgingly match it.
NO MONEY was available to reopen the auditorium – and perversely, the City said it wouldn’t even consider providing more funding until the auditorium was open, thereby creating an impossible Catch-22.
FOL took the unusual step of turning our advocacy into action by creating a volunteer construction team. We didn’t expect to be able to do everything to fully restore the Loew’s; rather, our goal was to do what was necessary to make it possible to hold at least some events in the auditorium – and we hoped this would convince the City to step up and help some more. But even our limited goal was a Herculean task, so in those years FOL’s focus was almost exclusively construction: FOL’s volunteer management had to plan, sequence and supervise a myriad of repairs, big and small; raise money to pay for the tools and supplies needed; and procure those supplies. Volunteers worked on Saturdays, Sundays, and even some weeknights. One advantage, if you can call it that, was that because it was still impossible to use the Theatre during this time so show operations and major renovation work did not coincide.
2001: When FOL’s work succeeded in making it possible to reopen the Theatre for special events, the City pressed us to do as much programming as possible despite the fact that important additional repairs still needed to be made. FOL reshaped itself from being primarily a volunteer-based construction company to also being a theatre management company, but with a twist: Some of the repairs that were not yet made meant it was not possible to operate the Loew’s like most other theatres, and among other things this made it impossible to be able to afford the kind of staff most theatres have. FOL then created a unique operating model custom-tailored to the condition of the Loew’s and out of necessity, a volunteer infrastructure was created.
FOL was able to organize 30 events a year at the Loew’s, and the City seemed to finally be willing to join us in a partnership that would allow us to do much more. The City praised what we had already done and admitted that before FOL (or anybody else) could do more, additional repairs that couldn’t be performed by volunteers would have to be made to bring the Loew’s into compliance with the City’s own safety and fire codes. So the City leased the Loew’s to FOL, and as part of that lease committed to finding the necessary funds for those repairs – plus money to allow FOL to work with independent Theatre management consultants to help plan expanded operations.
But the City never kept its commitments, and even spent almost four years trying the break the lease.
So instead of preparing for expanded operations, fundraising, negotiating with promoters and working to bring even more local programming into the Loew’s, FOL was left holding the bag in having to try to maintain, if not expand, operations in a theatre that wasn’t able to function normally.
Even though we’ve been forced into what is essentially a holding operation, FOL has managed to increase programming and other functions to over 80 a year. Keep in mind, this is over just nine months since due to the lack of air conditioning, the Loew’s cannot be open for shows in the Summer. To do this, FOL has had to focus much of our attention on operations. Volunteer renovations have continued, but have been limited by time constraints and the need to focus our forces and resources on operational concerns during much of the year. For example, the Loew’s is busy many weekends from September to June, so it’s not practical to undertake a lot of repair projects in the public areas.
The focus of much of our renovation work has changed: Aside from the work to re-install seating in the balcony, we’ve decided to concentrate on stage-related technical upgrades to make it easier to present a wide range of live programming. This is more specialized work than many of the projects we tackled earlier, often needing smaller crews and sometimes particular skills. And it required FOL to use a lot of our funds to purchase lighting and sound equipment instead of supplies for other kinds of work. A few examples of the programming this emphasis has made possible are StageFest, “Guys and Dolls”, the City’s Christmas Show, PonyCon, “The Music Man”, and more.
We also had to begin maintaining the massive physical Theatre, not just renovate it. That’s an enormous job, and frankly the manpower and resources to do just that are sometimes stretched thin.
Beginning in 2002, FOL found that the daily requirements of operating the Theatre and also managing volunteer maintenanceand renovations required some full time management. After providing this on a volunteer basis for quite a few years, economic gravity eventually required paying a salary, starting in 2007. And expanding operations needed an additional salaried position by the end of 2012.
Over the years, the volunteer corps has seen inevitable changes. Volunteers have sometimes had to move on because of paid work or other commitments. Some did not understand the changes required by the need to focus on operations or did not agree with the emphasis on technical upgrades; a few were uncomfortable with the transition to have a paid staff position. On the other hand, many people have joined our volunteer team over the years. In 2013, FOL benefitted from over 5,100 hundred volunteer staff hours.
Throughout its history, FOL has mobilized to overcome the various effects of City neglect, inaction or sometimes even hostility to the Loew’s and FOL.
But what will happen if the City FINALLY keeps it commitment? We’ll be able to increase the size and number of shows. From a practical standpoint, that will require more paid staff. But the additional income from the shows will make that possible. The critical code-related work the City will fund will have to be done by contractors. In fact, a lot of the additional work the Theatre eventually needs will have to be done by contractors either because of its complexity or scale – such as scaffolding the entire auditorium to repair and repaint the high ceilings. FOL will have to fundraise and seek grant for this – but that will be possible if the city has finally kept its commitments, since we will finally be in a position to credibly explain to other funders why they should consider supporting the Loew’s. But in such a major undertaking and big building, there will always be the need for volunteer construction projects. And since the Loew’s has such a successful volunteer usher and show staff program, FOL would be foolish not to continue it for some programs, at least, as the Loew’s grows. FOL’s volunteer program may have begun as the only available means to try to accomplish our goal for the Loew’s, but it’s become an important way for FOL to keep the Loew’s connected to its community.